Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:
- What barriers stand in the way of holding governments accountable for protecting LGBTQI rights?
- How do defining LGBTQI rights as human rights help advocacy efforts?
- What are some of the ways in which governments are obligated to protect LGBTQI rights?
- How can international NGOs respond to government violations? What about local human rights defenders?
- What can LGBTQI rights advocates do in response to political or societal pressure to halt their activities?
- Share stories of success
When it comes to the anti-LGBTQI laws in Iran, one of the biggest challenges we have is that after the Islamic Revolution 38 years ago, the laws of the country were re-written in a way to be in compliance with the Islamic laws. Prior to the revolution, Iran was a signatory to many of the international human rights treaties. In fact, Iran was one of the 18 countries that participated in drafting the International Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Back then, Saudi Arabia was among the countries that refused to accept this declaration because it considered it against the religion of Islam.
Currently, although the Islamic regime in Iran is obligated to stay with those commitments, however, if an article of those treaties is in contradictions with an Islamic law (as interpreted by certain Shiaa clerics), the Islamic law would take precedence. Which is the case regarding women’s rights and LGBTQI rights.
The major flaw and weakness of such legal system, is that all the Islamic laws are basically based on the interpretations of clerics. Often, there has not been total agreement among the clerics themselves on certain interpretations. Moreover, there have been cases in which the interpretations have changed in light of new “understandings” or “scientific findings”. For example, there was a time that playing chess or eating the caviar fish was forbidden. But later it was announced that because people don’t use chess to gamble it is no longer forbidden. They also declared that using advanced microscopes, they have found out that unlike sharks for example, there are cycloid scales on the skin of caviar fish, so it is edible!
Furthermore, only the high-ranking clerics can make these interpretations. For example, the low-ranking clerics are not allowed to have any opinion of their own. If you ask a low-ranking cleric a question, he can only answer you by providing you with the verses from Muslims holy book of Quran, the quotes from the prophet, or the interpretations offered by the high-ranking clerics. He cannot answer you by saying “I think ….”.
Our strategies have been offering scientific research and arguments against those anti-LGBTQI interpretations, and constantly referring to the instances of disagreements among clerics on the interpretations, and cases in which an interpretation was changed over time, based on new findings.
However, one main barrier to our work in this area is that some of the interpretations the Islamic regime is holding so dear, are rather political. For example, it seems that the regime feels the suppression of women is tied to their political power, justifying the existence of an Islamic regime, serving as an important distinction between the Islamic system of government and the one before the revolution, when women had so much more freedom. Therefore, it seems that such laws are viewed as red lines the regime feels should never cross, or it would risk its existence. Our strategy in regards to this, has been raising awareness among the public, to ultimately put pressure on the regime.
When it comes to framing LGBTQI rights as human rights, a seminal piece of work are the YOGYARKARTA PRINCIPLES:
"In 2006, in response to well-documented patterns of abuse, a distinguished group of international human rights experts met in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to outline a set of international principles relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. The result was the Yogyakarta Principles: a universal guide to human rights which affirm binding international legal standards with which all States must comply."
The principles detail how the international human rights standards must include sexual orientation and gender identity within their remit.
Since their publication, more and more UN special procedures and other bodies have indeed included S.O/G.I. explicitey in their expressions. The Universal Periodic Reviews also often include recommendations on SO/GI, which puts useful pressure on governments to adapt their legislation, or at least gives them the signal that they are under scrutiny. Other experts here will be better placed to comment on how much concrete impact the UPRs have had in the field.
Thank you Joel for mentioning the UPRs. We submitted a report to the second cycle of UPR on the violation of transexuals' rights in Iran, and made our recommendations. We chose to discuss the transexuals' issues, because the Iranian government claims to have created a "heaven" for transexuals, as a religious decree was issued by the former supreme leader, allowing the transexuals undergo sex-reassigment surgery. Therefore were hoping that we might have a chance there. Some of our recommendations were brought up by some of the nations on the day Iran was under review. However, they rejected all those recommendations, as always arguing that they were in contradictions with the Islamic laws and values!
In December 2015, a one week of LGBTQI rights advocacy week was organized by OUtrights International in New York. We had the opportunity to meet with the missions from different countries and ask them to discuss our concerns with the Iranian mission. We were faced with the same problem. The missions we talked to, all had bad experiences in dealing with Iran on issues related to human rights.
That's why on one hand we have been trying to challenge the religious interpretations, on the other hand, we have been trying to educate the public on human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and how LGBTQI and human rights are inter-related.
It is well understood that not every strategies effective in a liberal democratic society is appropriate and brings a positive outcome in societies governed by authoritarian regimes. A good example could be the use of Pride Parades as a way to raise awareness, discuss issues relevant to the LGBTQI community, and directly exercise the rights of LGBTQI people to freedom of assembly and expression, among other things. If in Western societies such as North America and Europe, LGBTQI communities were able to achieve recognition and obtain their rights in no small part due to their active and systematic exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, then in societies which have neither internalised nor accustomed to this right (such as in the countries of CIS), attempts to apply the same tactics by local LGBTQI advocators triggered a severe deterioration of conditions and attitudes in response, from both the state and public, towards the community and its demands: for example the introduction of the Anti Gay Propaganda Law in Russia in 2013 and the laws that prohibit public activities that disregard family values, established morals, or could be harmful for children, recently introduced in Kazakhstan and Belarus.
It is worth noticing that in many cases the use of tactics that could potentially trigger retaliation and further hamper established conditions results from a lack of internal concurrence of strategies, actions, and conceptions regarding LGBTQI rights (good examples here could be (bio)logic vs. performative conception of sex and gender, the queer theory and its role in advancing LGBTI rights) among local advocators, or existing conflicts and unwillingness for collaborative and solidarity actions.
Therefore, I believe a contribution to the building of secure and inclusive fora for local LGBTQI advocators to reflect, discuss and elaborate better strategies and coherent tactics could a way to enhance their capacity to respond effectively to new hazards and threats (on both national and international levels) or their ability to restrain from taking actions that could only hamper their conditions in the long term rather than to improve them. The role of INGOs in contributing to the creation of such fora could be essential.
Very good points Katsiaryana. Now that you mentioned it, I should say that this has always been a greate concern of ours. The major splits among the activits, while losing sight of what their main goals are, while engaging in destructive patterns of unncessary arguments amongst themselves. In fact, we know that the Islamic regime in Iran has defined this as one of its missions to systematically create divergence amongst human rights activists and its oppositions.
Indeed, coherence is key. There are many people out there who are much more knowledgeable than me on this, but the western movement of LGBT liberation clearly was one moment in a longer history of social protest, paved by feminist, anti-war and anti-racism movements. It was part of a larger vawe. The tactics of street fights (initially) and pride parades (later) also refered to tactics that were already "understandable" to the political power and public opinion (prides largely refered to the well-accepted traditions of carnavals which traditionally featured a disruption of the social order, as a lot of "queer" traditional carnivals around the world witness). It is essential for all movements to find their own very unique place in their own historic and social "change flow". This is where "importing" tactics that have no coherence with local change patterns, protest history, etc, can be really distruptive
Data collection - from the number and population density of LGBTQI people to the number of bias-motivated crimes against LGBTQI people - is an invaluable tool for advocates to hold governments accountable. In the U.S., we benefitted from data collection run by many government agencies, but we are currently experiencing a roll back in government-sponsored data collection due to an unfriendly administration. Fortunately, there are other sources of data available in our country (including Gallup, the Williams Institute, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and state-level LGBTQI equality organizations) and I imagine that, as a movement, we will increasingly rely on these sources to progress data collection efforts.
I'm aware that, in many countries, particularly those that criminalize LGBTQI identities, it is unsafe to be identified as such by the government. This likely means that LGBTQI advocates have had to develop other tactics and avenues to collect data.
I am curious to hear from advocates in other countries:
Dear Alex, allow me to answer your question, in brief.
Most of the governments of former Soviet states neither recognise hate-motivated crimes (here I am taking an example of the worst form of discrimination) perpetrated against LGBTQI people as a special category of crime, nor have a definition of hate crimes in their Criminal Codes. Although some legislation in those states contain a provision that considers hatred towards a certain social group (providing a close list of groups), such as in Belarus and Russia, as an aggravating factor of a crime, in practice the provision is hardly ever applied. It is deemed that hatred motivating a crime is very difficult to justify; therefore, the fact that the crime was driven by hatred towards a victim who is a member of a certain social group is disregarded as an aggravating factor in most cases. It was only in 2015 when Belarusian LGBTQI rights defenders were able to successfully achieve, for the first time ever, court recognition of the presence of hatred towards a gay man who was attacked as an aggravating factor and tighten a sentence against a perpetrator.
It is no wonder that cases of violence and discrimination towards LGBTQI people are not collected by the governments who present the above mentioned attitudes towards the matter. Most commonly, law enforcement agencies are reluctant to accept complaints from LGBTQI people or to register a case of violence and discrimination towards them as a hate crime, if at all. If in countries like Ukraine and Moldova, local LGBTQI advocates achieved the possibility to systematically conduct specialised training for law enforcement agents, investigative officers, judges, and prosecutors on topics such as hate crimes, data collection, and combating discrimination, among others, in a majority of the former Soviet states that is not yet the case. It is usually local LGBTQI initiatives who, to the extent of their capacities, document and monitor cases of discrimination including violence against community members.
Thank you, Katsiaryna! That is interesting. What about data collection about general population numbers?
Well sure, the government (at least in Belarus) collects data on criminal and administrative offences committed against individuals (if that’s what you are asking about), annually revealing some general analyses and observations about the collected data. However, there are only a few cases registered as hate crimes since over the last 25 years, meaning that hatred towards certain social group in those cases was proved and recognised. An interesting point is that when it comes to sexual violence against minors, the government collects how many of those crimes are committed by homosexual men comparing to heterosexual ones, provided that the perpetrators themselves admit their sexual orientation of their own free will during investigation processes. They use this data usually in order to justify the opression and disrespect their commit towards gay men.
Besides, I would also like to note the importance of avoiding the continuous representation of the LGBTQI people as victims which in turn, and I believe, vastly contributes to a growing impression of the public about the alleged vulnerability inherent in LGBTQI people. Hate crimes, in my view, should be exposed from the perspective of consistent discrimination, the irregularity of the legal system, and its failure to comply with international human rights standards, rather than through the victimised representation of the community members. The latter will only complement the disregarding of LGBTQI people as being equal to others from the perspective of rights and responsibilities.