Out in the World: US leads historic call for the UN Security Council to protect LGBTQ people

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday March 31, 2023
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U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, left, looks on as Jessica Stern, U.S. special envoy to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, speaks at a press briefing just before entering the March 20 Arria formula meeting at the U.N. Security Council on March 20. Photo: USUN/Evan Schneider
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, left, looks on as Jessica Stern, U.S. special envoy to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, speaks at a press briefing just before entering the March 20 Arria formula meeting at the U.N. Security Council on March 20. Photo: USUN/Evan Schneider

The United States led a coalition of countries, along with the United Nations LGBTI Core Group, and called upon the U.N. Security Council to better integrate LGBTQ human rights under its international peace and security mandate.

The March 20 gathering, known as an Arria formula meeting, was the second time the council addressed human rights violations against LGBTQ people. The Bay Area Reporter previously reported on the first Arria formula meeting in 2015 when the council heard testimony from Subhi Nahas, a gay Syrian refugee, and an anonymous gay Iraqi man about threats, violence, and executions of LGBTQ people in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State. (An Arria formula is an informal meeting convened by one or more Security Council members that allow members to hold open dialogues with non-council members, including diplomats, organizations, and individuals.)

This time, the council heard from Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the U.N. independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with LGBTQ representatives Artemis Akbary from Afghanistan and Maria Susana Peralta Ramón from Colombia; the U.N. LGBTI Core Group; and 15 member and non-member countries, 12 of which supported the resolution.

The Arria formula meeting was the first time ever that Madrigal-Borloz addressed the council.

China, Ghana, and Russia objected to the proposed resolution, arguing there are other U.N. agencies and mechanisms that address LGBTQ rights and that the issue did not fall under the council's mandate.

The United Kingdom's representative and other country representatives disagreed.

Many council members and non-members, including the United Arab Emirates, did not get the opportunity to speak during the meeting, but U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who chaired the two-hour meeting in New York, said she would collect their written statements.

Thomas-Greenfield introduced the resolution to the council and committed the U.S. to four actions to meet the resolution's goals. She also proposed expanding the definition of gender for the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and mandate.

The informal meeting was open to all 193 representatives of U.N. member states, the 15-member Security Council, observers, and non-governmental organizations accredited to the U.N.

The meeting followed a July 2022 report by Madrigal-Borloz's office, "Armed Conflict and Peacebuilding."

Madrigal-Borloz spoke about the atrocities LGBTQ people face in conflict zones around the world. Akbary highlighted the horrors LGBTQ Afghans are currently facing under the Taliban, such as limited escape routes. Peralta Ramón spoke about how the armed forces' killing of a transgender woman protecting villagers became a symbol of how militia exerted control of a village in her country. She also briefed the council about Colombia's potential model for inclusive and intersectional peace building with LGBTQ, women, and other marginalized people based on the 2016 peace agreement with the former rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo.

During a March 16 briefing ahead of the meeting, a senior administration official said they hoped the council would build on Madrigal-Borloz's report and that it will "lead to really specific steps that the Security Council can take in response."

"To put it bluntly, this is horrific," Thomas-Greenfield responded to the presentations. "These actions foment hate, they support violence, and are an affront to the principles of freedom and human rights. They also destabilize whole societies. [This] is why we need to do our part, as individual member states and collectively as the United Nations Security Council."

Responding to a reporter's question just before entering the meeting March 20, Thomas-Greenfield said, "Yes, our hope is that this becomes formal."

The meeting was co-sponsored by seven member countries (Albania, Brazil, France, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the U.K., and Northern Ireland), four non-member countries (Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and Greece), and the U.N.'s LGBTI Core Group. The core group has more than 42 member countries, as well as the European Union, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Outright International.

Setting the stage

Jessica Stern, the U.S. special envoy to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, played a key role in supporting Thomas-Greenfield's process of bringing LGBTQ rights to the council, according to senior administration officials during the briefing. Stern is the former executive director of Outright International.

At a March 20 press briefing before the meeting, Stern noted that since the first Arria formula, the council has only once "formally recognized" the peace and security of LGBTQ people. She pointed to the council's news release responding to the 2016 massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

The shooting was the deadliest single incident of anti-queer violence in U.S. history. The shooter, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and injured 53 others at the popular LGBTQ nightclub on June 12, 2016.

Unlike 2015's meeting that raised awareness of atrocities against LGBTQ people in armed conflicts, this time the U.S. pushed for formal recognition of, and remedies to, the monstrosities that happen to LGBTQ people in wars.

President Joe Biden placed LGBTQ rights at the forefront of his foreign policy agenda shortly after he took office in 2021, as the B.A.R. previously reported. Biden reiterated his commitment to protecting LGBTQ people around the world at the U.N. General Assembly in New York last September, reported the Washington Blade.

Stern noted that nearly every U.N. agency, treaty body, special mechanism, and senior official, including the secretary-general, "repeatedly acknowledged human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity along with the need for inclusive development that leaves no one behind."

"Now we turn to the Security Council, which has been one of the last bastions of silence on LGBTI issues," Stern told reporters. "We must not look away."

She expressed hope the meeting "will serve as a catalyst for future dialogue" as it has for the U.S., which made "multiple pledges" to increase attention to human rights violations against LGBTQ people at the Security Council.

The U.S. has used the Arria formula as an effective "tool" in the past to raise issues that have not appeared on the council's formal agenda, a U.S. senior administration official said during the March 16 press briefing. Some of those issues include protecting women, children, disabled people, and youth in armed conflicts. The active workstream on Women, Peace, and Security is an example of that work, he noted.

LGBTQ people in war zones

Madrigal-Borloz described daily discrimination and "heinous forms of violence," such as rape, public lashings, beheadings, being burned alive, blackmail, being pushed back into the closet, and forced marriages, among some of the attacks against LGBTQ people in conflict zones around the world. He noted that these atrocities happen on "the back of deeply entrenched stigma" against LGBTQ people.

He argued that existing evidence "strongly suggests" that stigma against LGBTQ people creates opportunities for violence against queer and gender-diverse people to be used as pawns "to inflict damage on enemy forces or to subjugate communities or populations" in domestic and international armed conflicts.

"The way in which these forms of violence are perpetrated revealed the perversity with which the stigma and prejudice are put in play in warring strategies through weaponization of prejudice." Madrigal-Borloz said.

Peralta-Ramón, a Colombian lesbian activist and scholar, noted that such bias does not instill equality.

"A society that discriminates [against] people because of their gender or sexual orientation is not a peaceful society," she said.

Akbary, the gay Afghan refugee, said his home country does not have freedom.

"Unfortunately, LGBT people in Afghanistan and neighboring countries have neither freedom nor security," said Akbary, who fled Taliban persecution to Iran with his family in 1996. He grew up in Iran as a gay kid being "humiliated, beaten, tortured" and even threats on his life until he fled to Turkey, he said. He later resettled in the Czech Republic.

"I lost everything in my life, just for being gay," said Akbary, who is the founder and director of Afghan LGBT Organization.

A self-described survivor by luck, Akbary described a 21-year-old lesbian Afghan's much harsher experience seeking safety for her son and herself. Forced into marriage to an older man, she was beaten and abused by him when she was found out to be a lesbian, Akbary recalled. She fled on foot with her son. She endured being raped multiple times by human traffickers on her journey to Turkey, which wasn't a better place for her. She then plotted a dangerous journey to escape to Greece. That is where Akbary's team lost contact with her. Their search for her was unsuccessful. Her fate is unknown, he told the council.

Her last words to Akbary as he pleaded with her not to take the journey were, "I've been in danger all of my life. All that I want from this life is freedom."

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the Afghan LGBT Organization has documented reports that "the Taliban appears to be increasing this persecution of LGBTI people," such as public floggings and increased attempts to identify LGBTQ Afghans. In 2022, the organization received 835 requests for help from the LGBTQ Afghans, Akbary told the council.

Many LGBTQ Afghans attempt to flee but find limited passages to safety, Akbary said.

"Almost all legal and safe pathways and passages were blocked by the Western countries," Akbary said. "They do not issue visas for Afghan citizens. That's why so many Afghan citizens, and especially LGBTI people, have to choose dangerous routes to escape from Afghanistan.

"Just a few weeks ago, at least 64 Afghan asylum seekers have been killed in the Mediterranean Sea because of the lack of safe and legal pathways because of the policy of the European Union," he continued. "The whole world is watching as LGBTQ people's human rights are systematically violated in Afghanistan, and yet the international community remains silent."

The B.A.R. reached out to the E.U. press office for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

Madrigal-Borloz called the council's absence from these incidents in its work a "proverbial blind spot."

He noted that there was no "explicit reference" to LGBTQ people "in the global peace and security frameworks, including resolutions of the Security Council. As a result, crucial monitoring and reporting data gathering points are missing."

Madrigal-Borloz also proposed a review of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and mandate for intersectional approaches to monitoring and reporting throughout its work to include violence against LGBTQ people. He also suggested that U.N. peace operations adopt measures to acknowledge LGBTQ people as an asset to enhance a culture of inclusive sustainable peace, wherever they are deployed, and "participation of LGBT-led and LGBT-serving communities and organizations in peace-building measures."

LGBTQ model for peace

Addressing the council, Peralta Ramón, who leads the peace and transitional justice team at Colombia Diversa, the country's LGBTQ organization, said, "Resolving war is incomplete if issues of gender and sexuality are omitted."

She described Colombia's peace building success, stating it has been the result of soliciting feminist, LGBTQ, and other organizations representing marginalized groups to include and implement their ideas for harm reduction in the peace building process. She said they found ways not to revictimize people in the investigation of crimes and perpetrators and reparation.

Peralta Ramón said it has not been perfect. Colombia did not design a transitional justice system to address revictimization of victims and silence perpetrators of crimes against LGBTQ people and women. Colombia's women and LGBTQ victims during the conflict are still waiting for justice as the formal opening of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace's macro-case on sexual violence, reproductive violence and other crimes motivated by prejudice, hate, and discrimination on gender, sex, and SOGIE grounds, has not happened yet, she said.

"Specific investigation and reparation of violence against women and LGBT people in the context of armed conflict must be a reality, not just a promise," Peralta Ramón said.

LGBTQ commitment

With the exception of China, Ghana, and Russia, council members and non-members who spoke agreed with Madrigal-Borloz's proposal and the U.S.'s commitments to action to increase LGBTQ awareness and participation in the council's work and the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. was committed to integrating LGBTQ people into the council's work, regularly reviewing conflicts on the council's agenda with an eye for LGBTQ people, encouraging the U.N. Secretariat and other U.N. officials to integrate LGBTQ concerns and perspectives in their regular reports to the council, raising abuses and violations against LGBTQ people to the council, and including LGBTQ language to the council's work on the Women, Peace and Security and people with disabilities.

"The simple fact is, the threats LGBTQI+ people face around the world are threats to international peace and security," said Thomas-Greenfield. "That's especially true for those at the intersection of multiple, underrepresented identities."

The meeting included a number of comments from various country representatives. To watch it on UNTV, click here.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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