In 2011, the world witnessed the heinous murder of David Kato, a Ugandan gay activist who was bludgeoned to death in January, setting a sober tone for the year, the Obama Administration launched a new foreign policy LGBT human rights initiative, delivered by Hillary Clinton in a soaring speech in Geneva in December, and the UN finally emerged with formal support of LGBT rights, but the threat of violence remains a daily reality for our gay fellow citizens around the globe
1. The Murder of David Kato, Ugandan Gay Activist and Growing Demonization of LGBT Persons on the African Continent
Ugandan gay activist David Kato was murdered on January 26th, in a hideous manner that can only be described as rage filled, carried out by someone who repeatedly pummeled his body by using a steel hammer, which in its completion, speaks more troubling of America’s extremist Christian right-wing religious groups toward gays who have exported an anti-gay agenda to the country in 2009, than of the attitudes of the Ugandan people themselves. Val Kalende, a lesbian activist and board chair of Freedom and Roam Uganda, an organization that fights violence against LGBT people in Uganda, issued a statement about Kato’s murder, asserting that “David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. Evangelicals in 2009.”
Uganda has captured global attention in recent years for the government’s ongoing efforts to legalize state sponsored executions of LGBT people, albeit unsuccessful to date. David Bahati, a leading Ugandan member of parliament, noteworthy for his homophobic filled brand of extremism as evidenced in his continuous efforts to advance the “gay” capital punishment legislation since 2009 (Bahati has been advised by the US-based “C Street” ministries), no doubt created an even more hostile environment toward homosexuals in Uganda.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement on January 27th, calling for Ugandan authorities “to quickly and thoroughly investigate and prosecute those responsible for this heinous act.” President Obama released a statement stating, “David showed tremendous courage in speaking out against hate. He was a powerful advocate for fairness and freedom. The United States mourns his murder, and we recommit ourselves to David’s work.”
State Generated Violence Against LGBT Persons on African Continent
The increasingly xenophobic, anti-gay, demonization of LGBT people on the African continent has been accompanied by deadly and violent consequences that is present in a majority of countries on the continent, of which Uganda, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan and Zimbabwe(not an exhaustive list) are among the worst.
Officials in these countries have spoken out against LGBT people; legislatures have taken steps to criminalize gay behavior; and churches, many influenced by American missionaries, have preached intolerance, resulting in hate crimes exacted upon gays, that includes horrific “corrective rape“ of lesbians in South Africa, now a matter discussed in the UN Human Rights Council. Even South Sudan, the newest country in the world, recently established in July, is led by a president who has said that “South Sudan was no place for gays and they would never be accepted…“It is not in our character […] it is not there and if anybody wants to import it to Sudan […] it will always be condemned by everybody.” The State Department has its work cut out for itself.
2. The Obama Administration’s LGBT Human Rights Foreign Policy Initiative
“Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, as she delivered an historic foreign policy speech outlining the Obama Administration’s formal policy on LGBT human rights from the Palais des Nations Hall in Geneva on December 6, marking a memorable International Human Rights Day, to rousing applause.
Clinton was repeating her “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights,” theme, which she initially delivered at the State Department’s LGBT Pride event in 2010. The White House released a National Security Council Memorandum concurrently, outlining a presidential directive on authority and a mandate for federal government agencies who will be responsible for extending protections to LGBT persons abroad via a number of agencies, including Immigration and Homeland Security. For LGBT Americans it had been a week of joy and gratification for the memorial text delivered by Clinton, but mixed with regret that a similar strategic policy approach has not been engaged at home.
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council on Global Equality told The New Civil Rights Movement that Secretary Clinton wanted to give this speech for LGBT human rights and had been looking for the right venue and the right timing. Bromley said that “we [the Council] were happy to see the White House strongly back her decision.” Bromley was present in Geneva when Clinton gave the historic speech, which he said was delivered “pitch perfect” and defined it as a “legacy speech.” The Council flew in 14 international LGBT activists, who also attended the speech. The video of Secretary Clinton’s speech was produced by the State Department.
3. UN Human Rights Council Adopts Pro-Gay Rights Resolution Affirming LGBT Human Rights
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted an historic resolution on June 17th, the first exclusively LGBT affirmative resolution in UN history that seeks to apply human rights principles and protections based upon on sexual orientation and gender identity. The formal resolution also commissions the first UN official report on the state of LGBT human rights, which is to be directed by Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The resolution was carried with 23 states supporting, disproportionately represented by the Americas, European states and a few Asian countries, led by South Africa and Brazil. A majority of countries opposing represented African and Arab countries, including Uganda and Iran. The Human Rights Council historic vote explicitly embraces concerns about violence and terror carried out against LGBT persons and reflects a decidedly different attunement to these crimes and concerns, in contrast to the vote carried out by the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in November 2010 that initially stripped out “sexual orientation” from a resolution addressing extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in a vote that was overwhelming represented by a majority of African, Middle East and Caribbean nations – although reversed after a globalized uproar of condemnation led by activists and governments alike, when the vote was held in December 2010 on final passage.
4. UN Human Rights Council Issues First Report on LGBTQ Human Rights
The first formal United Nations report on the state of LGBT human rights was presented to the UN General Assembly on December 16 by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human rights, who has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT human rights. In issuing the report, Pillay called on UN member states to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and prosecute all serious violations, repeal discriminatory laws, and end legal discrimination for all LGBT persons. “On the basis of the information presented (in this report), a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response,” Pillay said, according to a report by the AP.
“Governments and inter-governmental bodies have often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said. The findings of the report indicate that LGBT people face widespread discrimination everywhere in the world and are subjected to extreme violence, including rape, beatings and torture, evidenced by confirmed reports of mutilation and castration that were characterized by a “high degree of cruelty,” including forcible rape of lesbians, a notorious activity by anti-gay men in South Africa. LGBT persons face criminal punishment in 76 countries and risk capital punishment in five countries, including Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. The report lays out evidence of widespread discrimination and arbitrary arrests and criminal punishment based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
5. Obama Issues Proclamation Prohibiting Entry of Persons to the United States Who Target LGBT Persons
President Obama issued an executive proclamation (and fact sheet) on August 4 that prohibits persons who have engaged in egregious human rights abuses and who also target LGBT persons from entering the United States. Sexual orientation and gender identity were added to the directive, thus preventing politicians like Ugandan parliamentarian David Bahati from entering the United States. The White House statement calls for entry to be barred to anyone who “planned, ordered, assisted, aided and abetted, committed or otherwise participated in . . . widespread or systematic violence against any civilian population based in whole or in part on . . . sexual orientation or gender identity, or who attempted or conspired to do so.” Another first by the Obama Administration.
6. Gay Pride Parades Disrupted in Russia, The Balkans, Speech Suppressed
Gay Pride in Moscow, disrupted again in May by police, has never successfully staged a gay pride march since attempts began in 2006. This year’s parade, cut short, was attended by American gay activist Dan Choi and by Nikola Alekeyev, a now former Russian gay activist, who were both arrested, among three dozen others. Since then, legislative efforts banning pro-gay speech have advanced in the St. Petersburg City Council through two readings and have been endorsed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party.
Many Kremlin watchers agree that Vladimir Putin’s efforts to return to power as president, has all the hallmarks of desperation, perhaps attributable to a substantial drop in support from his traditional base of voters as his approval rating sank 13 points since 2010 from a high 80 percent to 67 percent reported in a recent opinion survey. It remains unclear if the Duma, the upper house of the national parliament, will take up this measure for consideration. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but homophobia remains highly virulent and authorities have ignored rulings by the EU Court for Human Rights, who ruled against the Russian government last year for failure to respect freedom of speech.
Balkan Gay Prides Fraught With Violence and Suppression of Free Speech
In the Balkans, Gay Pride in Belgrade was canceled again in 2011 by officials of the Serbian government, who said they were taking this action to “prevent major chaos” and “to protect LGBT marchers.” Gay Pride in Belgrade has only been held twice since 2001, and violence or the threat of violence have disrupted other attempts to stage Pride.
Members of the EU parliament have condemned the decisions of the Serbian government and EU officials said the failure to respect rule of law and facilitate freedom of expression will be noted with respect to Serbia’s EU member candidacy which has been pushed into 2012. Several Serbian journalists estimated that politics and the upcoming elections were the calculations behind canceling gay pride, according to a report by B-92 News in Serbia:
“This year the authorities decided it was more profitable to let the U.S. embassy and Brussels get angry, but to avoid irritating that majority,” said Ljiljana Smajlović, head of the Association of Journalists of Serbia.
Split, Croatia gay pride in June was marred by homophobic spectators, estimated at 8,000 to 10,000, in opposition to about 200 marchers. The virulently anti-gay protestors, who came prepared to disrupt the first gay event in the notorious nationalist right-wing stronghold of the 1,700-year old city, threw fists, firecrackers, bottles and rocks, some wielded cigarette lighters, while others threw tomatoes and tear gas. Nonetheless, Gay Pride in Zagreb was successfully staged and organizers met with President Josip Osipovic, who offered his support and officially met with organizers. Afterwards, the government released photographs of the meeting.
7. OSCE Engaged on the Issue of LGBT Human Rights, U.S. Envoy hosts Eastern European LGBT Human Rights Defenders
Ambassador David Johnson, head of the U.S. delegation that attended the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s annual ‘Human Dimension’ Implementation meeting in Warsaw in early October, hosted a reception for LGBT human rights defenders who continue to face fierce and frequent violent opposition to gay pride events around Europe, most recently in Belgrade on October 2 when Serbian government officials canceled a planned pride march due to ultra-nationalistic opposition that threatened violence.
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, who also attended the meeting, said in a statement to the New Civil Rights Movement that the U.S. government’s role has proven to be a constructive one, although the 56-member state organization has yet to formalize a systematic review of LGBT human rights in the OSCE region: “The U.S. government is now working closely with many EU colleagues to raise LGBT concerns in the discussion, even if it is not formally on the agenda. Ambassador Johnson raised LGBT human rights issues several times during the meeting.”
Apparently, this advocacy has begun to reap benefits as the OSCE Mission to Serbia has funded a case study on violence against LGBT persons in the country–a first for the Mission, which supports civil society stakeholders in advancing democratization, rule of law and human rights.
9. Human Rights Honors Bestowed on Ugandan LGBTQ Activists
Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), was awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on November 11th in a ceremony held in Washington, D.C. It marks the first time that the RFK Foundation awarded its prestigious human rights prize to a gay activist. On November 6th Mugisha also accepted the Rafto Prize on behalf of SMUG in a ceremony held in Bergen, Norway. The Rafto Prize noted that it was awarded to “SMUG for its work to make fundamental human rights apply to everyone, and to eliminate discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, an Ugandan lesbian activist and the leader of the Freedom to Roam, a lesbian advocacy group, was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Human Rights Defenders award on October 13 in Geneva, Switzerland. Nabagesera is the first gay rights activist and the 20th Laureate to receive the Ennals award, considered to be only second in prestige to that of the Nobel Peace Prize.
David Kato and Nabagesera’s names had been included in a list of known Ugandan homosexuals, published in October 2010, that also called for the killing of homosexuals in Uganda by the Rolling Stone newspaper. She and Kato sued the newspaper in Uganda’s highest court and publicly confronted the escalating homophobia, by bravely appearing on television and radio on numerous occasions. Because of the frightening anti-gay environment in Uganda, she has been forced to move from one location to another, from house to house, to dodge potential violence directed toward her, even death.
10. Cameron Announces Support for Gay Marriage, Tory Led Government Announces New Foreign Aid Policy Based on LGBT Human Rights Records
David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, declared his support for legalized gay marriage at a Tory Party conference in early October to less than an enthusiastic audience that was marked by protest, prompting some party delegates walk out. The Conservative Party leader forcefully expressed his support for gay marriage: “Conserrvatives believe in ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” Cameron’s endorsement was immediately repudiated by a spokesperson of the Church of England, joined by various leaders of the British Roman Catholic Church.
Cameron also announced that his government would leverage its foreign assistance to bilateral allies based upon their LGBT human rights records. This foreign policy move is seen by some as much a domestic move to cut back on foreign assistance spending, but to bridge its spending aims to a growing popular issue at home that Cameron continues to pursue. Many LGBT activists in the “Global South” have reservations, and feel it smacks of Britain’s former colonialist past and could be counterproductive. But this move by Britain was enthusiastically supported by Nepali lawmakers, as well as gay activists there, as reported by the New Civil Rights Movement.
Image of David Kato courtesy of the African Activist blog. The UN Human Rights Council photo courtesy of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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