Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hate Crime Victim Turned LGBT Activist Speaks to Washington NGOs

In March, 22-year-old Pedro Robledo and his then-partner were violently attacked at a party in Buenos Aires by a group of homophobic religious conservatives who spotted the gay couple kissing.

Despite the incident, Argentina—in many respects—is at the vanguard globally of LGBT rights. In May 2012, for example, the country became the first to pass a gender identity law, according to which Argentinian citizens can officially change their gender identity based on self-identification. The country also legalized same-sex marriage in July 2010, and since that time, there have been more than 7,000 same-sex marriages.

The progressive legislation, however, does not reflect Argentinian society as a whole. Robledo, who spoke last Friday to LGBT advocacy organizations in Washington at the Inter-American Dialogue, said that much of Argentinian society still maintains religiously conservative views that are intolerant of the gay community. He said that Buenos Aires is unique to the rest of the country in that LGBT people in the capital city are generally free to express their sexuality in public without fear of being targets for hate crimes. He added that outside of Buenos Aires, many LGBT members face discrimination. To expose this situation, Robledo, who has become a political activist for the LGBT community, went with a television crew to a hospital in northern Argentina, where he was denied condoms because of his sexual orientation and then kicked out by a police officer.

Carlos Quesada, Global Rights’ Advisor on the Rights of LGBT people and a speaker at last Friday’s discussion, said that the LGBT movement in Latin America needs more support from mainstream human rights organizations, which typically choose not to adopt the LGBT movement because they consider it too controversial or because they simply do not view LGBT rights as human rights. Human rights organizations are well-established in various countries and have positive and enduring relationships with governmental and international organizations. Therefore, the efficacy of the LGBT campaign would improve drastically if the two groups were to work cooperatively.

At the national and regional level of governments, LGBT organizations also need to improve their advocacy skills, Carlos said. Fruits of a successful advocacy campaign were borne in June this year at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), which adopted the Inter-American Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance, an agreement containing specific language that protects, among others, victims of discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  The Convention needs to be signed and then ratified, at which point it will become legally binding for countries that ratified the new instrument.  After the Convention is ratified, any decision made at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the judicial body of the OAS, will set a precedent for all nations that ratified the Convention.

Global Rights is highly active in promoting the rights of the LGBT community in Latin America. Our organization will soon draft a policy paper that we expect to present at a hearing in October to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the precarious situation of Afro-Brazilian transgender women in Brazil. In Colombia, we are working to strengthen the capacity of Afro-Colombian transgender women to combat impunity and to document human rights abuses. Last Monday, Global Rights joined our fellow members in the International Coalition of Organizations for Human Rights in the Americas to censure Venezuela's denunciation of the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty the OAS first adopted in 1969 that provides the foundation for human rights norms in Latin America. Venezuela last week also withdrew officially from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Carlos Quesada, Global Rights' Advisor on the Rights of LGBTI people, discusses the challenges and opportunities for LGBTI rights in Latin America and the Caribbean at a conference organized by the Inter-American Dialogue.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Addressing Discrimination Against the Sierra Leonean LGBT Community

The National Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and the local police chief of Freetown said in 2010 that there were very few complaints about discrimination and violence against the country’s LGBT community. These statements, however, are very misleading because LGBT people are afraid to report rights abuses. After spending more than a year collecting information in the field, Global Rights—in collaboration with Sierra Leonean LGBT organizations Pride Equality and Dignity Association—confirmed that the country’s LGBT people suffer from pervasive discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation.

In May, Global Rights published a report about its findings, and Friday morning Carlos Quesada, Global Rights’ Advisor on the Rights of the LGBTI people, shared the findings of that report with a group of more than 30 people from the U.S. State Department and various human rights organizations. A main issue the report highlights is that members of the LGBT community in Sierra Leone receive less medical care than their heterosexual counterparts, in part because doctors and nurses simply refuse to treat people who have medical issues linked to homosexuality, and in part because LGBT people are too embarrassed or fearful to see doctors for such issues because of the resulting humiliation and violence they will face if their sexual orientation is discovered. Among 80 participants of a survey, 33 percent did not go to doctors for fear of being discovered as gay; 39 percent simply “self-medicated” to avoid seeing doctors; and 28 percent were denied treatment because their ailments were linked to homosexuality. Moreover, for the same reasons that they will not see a doctor, LGBT people seldom report incidents of discrimination to the police or other authoritative bodies.

Meeting Friday about the Sierra Leonean LGBT community, which took place at Global Rights' office and included representatives of the U.S. State Department and various human rights organizations.
One way to address the discrimination is through the state’s court system. Matthew Swinehart, an associate with Covington & Burling LLP, talked Friday about possible legal avenues to pursue when addressing this issue. Although Sierra Leone won independence from England in 1965, the country retained the same British laws that were used during its colonial history. The legal code has not been updated since the end of the 19th century and includes an anti-sodomy law, which is enumerated in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The law is not often enforced, but it does contribute significantly to the pervasive stigma against homosexuality in the country.

Challenging the law would be difficult—but not impossible. There are four individual rights protected under charters to which Sierra Leone is a signatory. They are: non-discrimination, privacy, life and liberty, and equality. The two agreements to which Sierra Leone is a signatory are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Although sexual orientation is not a type of identity group explicitly protected by any of these two charters, Mr. Swinehart said that with enough political and legal pressure, the Sierra Leonean judiciary could take the view that discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes a violation of these treaties. Mr. Swinehart also mentioned that there is a legal precedent where former British colonies abrogated British law and, in doing so, decriminalized sodomy. One such country is South Africa.

Strengthening the grassroots level has been the focus of our work in Sierra Leone. Speaking to this, Scott Busby, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, noted that even if Sierra Leonean law is changed, the situation for the LGBT community will not likely change until public opinion changes. In furthering this cause, Global Rights continues to work with local civil society organizations (CSOs)—both LGBT groups and other human rights organizations—to improve their advocacy skills at the local, regional and international levels. As a result of our work, a coalition was formed by committed individuals called the Coalition of Equality and Gender, which comprises four LGBT groups and four non-LGBT human rights groups that advocate on behalf of all marginalized populations, including the LGBT community.

Going forward, Global Rights and the local CSOs now know—thanks in large part to their research and data presented in the report—of the challenges the Sierra Leonean LGBT community faces. However, the evidence-gathering and report-writing phase was only the first of a two-phase initiative, both of which are being funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The second phase will involve Global Rights’ continued collaboration with the Coalition and other interested CSOs to empower the local LGBT community to advocate on behalf of their members, who routinely are victims of discrimination and violence. In a few weeks, for example, the coalition plans to meet with two, local lawyers to discuss ways to prepare a legal challenge to the anti-sodomy law.

We are optimistic that with the dedicated work of the local CSOs, combined with our oversight and training, the LGBT and human rights community of Sierra Leone will continue moving closer to their mission of creating a just society for all the country’s citizens. As Carlos said in his closing remarks, 
Unlike other African countries, Sierra Leone represents a unique opportunity. Sierra Leone is actually a place where things can be done.”