Out in the World: Blinken issues State Dept. report on countries' human rights practices

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday April 25, 2024
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United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to reporters during a news conference announcing the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C. on April 22. Photo: Courtesy the State Department
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to reporters during a news conference announcing the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C. on April 22. Photo: Courtesy the State Department

In its latest examination of human rights records across nearly 200 countries and territories around the world, the U.S. State Department found an increasing number are trampling on the rights of their citizens.

Speaking with reporters in the Harry S. Truman Building Monday, April 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the findings in the State Department's 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The document "illustrates that there is much work to be done to uphold the rights set out in the Universal Declaration," stated Blinken, adding, "We once again see human rights and the rule of law under stress in more ways and in more places across the globe."

(The declaration is a milestone document that in 1948 was proclaimed by the United Nations as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations, according to the U.N.'s website.)

Introducing Blinken was State Department spokesperson Matt Miller, who was joined by Robert Gilchrist, the department's senior official from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. It produced the 48th annual report.

Blinken acknowledged the United States' own challenges living up to its human rights standards.

"While the report focuses on human rights challenges abroad, we recognize that the United States faces its own shortcomings," Blinken said. "The strength of democracies like ours is that we address those shortcomings, those imperfections openly, without sweeping them under the rug."

It is the youth of the world, noted Blinken, who "challenge those in power and call for a better future."

"Of the roughly 1,000 political prisoners in Cuba, the average age is just 32," Blinken pointed out.

Turning to LGBTQ rights, Blinken singled out Uganda's passage of its draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 as one of the human rights abuses against vulnerable communities. The law calls for imprisonment and even death for loving someone of the same sex.

The Washington Blade reported that on the day the State Department's human rights report was released, Clare Byarugaba of Chapter Four Uganda, a LGBTQ rights group in the country, met with U.S. National Security Council Chief of Staff Curtis Ried. Additionally, Jay Gilliam, the senior LGBTQI+ coordinator for USAID, had traveled to Uganda in February and met with LGBTQ activists who discussed the Anti-Homosexuality Act's impact.

A coalition of LGBTQ Ugandan activists recently appealed the Constitutional Court's ruling on the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 to the East African country's Supreme Court, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

The Constitutional Court upheld on April 3 most of the country's draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill into law last May, reported the B.A.R.

In other African countries currently seeking to criminalize homosexuality the B.A.R. previously covered, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the State Department report found LGBTQ people were discriminated against and experienced violence and harassment.

The report found that in the Congo, LGBTQ people were targeted for so-called corrective rape by both government officials and community members, and experienced "societal barriers to accessing emergency care." Furthermore, queer women reported they were often denied services at government-sponsored sexual and reproductive health facilities.

Congolese queer women also reported sometimes experiencing discrimination when seeking employment, housing, or access to public services, along with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and persons of marginalized racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Reported discrimination went against the Congo's laws that guarantee a right to employment, health care, and education for all persons, according to the report.

Despite the Congo not legally prohibiting same-sex relationships or cross-dressing, authorities enforce public indecency provisions against LGBTQ people, "which were rarely applied to opposite-sex couples," according to the report.

There are no legal processes for transgender people to actualize living in their gender. Furthermore, the report found that government officials "incited, perpetrated, condoned, or tolerated violence or harassment against LGBTQI+ individuals or those reporting such abuse." Justice was hard to come by for LGBTQ people who brought abuse claims against authorities due to lack of investigations, prosecution, and punishment, according to the report.

In some LGBTQ discrimination cases, queer Congolese reported the threats of violence forced them to withdraw from school and "other public and community institutions," according to the report. Discrimination against LGBTQ people was fueled by some religious leaders and political organizations in the media. The report cited news reports from August 2023 covering "a speech to a gathering of members of the Christian Family Community, Roman Catholic Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo called on attendees to reject homosexuality and reaffirm that 'marriage is between men and women.'"

The report also noted cases of so-called conversion therapy practices and even violent attacks calling on people to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Conversion therapy, which has been widely debunked by major medical associations and the U.N., attempts to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.)

A viral video on social media in March 2023, where two men beat another man "with a machete in Bukavu (South Kivu Province)" and threatened to decapitate him if he did not change his sexual orientation, was mentioned as an example in the report.

Violence was common at Pride parades and celebrations, and LGBTQ organizations were denied requests for registration in the Congo, according to the report.

Some other countries around the world

The report also documented that corrective rape and other sexual abuses were used to oppress LGBTQ people in Qatar. LGBTQ Qataris also reported arbitrary arrests and detentions without legal representation and experienced discrimination "under the law and practice" with "no government efforts to address potential discrimination. The report found there were anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQI+ individuals targeted on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression," in the Middle Eastern country.

In Afghanistan, the report highlighted ongoing violence and harassment against LGBTQ people, who "faced increased threats, attacks, sexual assaults, and discrimination from Taliban members, strangers, neighbors, and family members." It noted an interview of a 20-year-old gay man who was gang-raped by four Taliban security personnel while he was held in custody.

Violence against LGBTQ people was prevalent even in countries that made progress in recent years but were now appearing to backslide on protecting LGBTQ rights, such as in Argentina. The report noted, "the National Observatory of Hate Crimes registered 128 hate crimes against LGBTQI+ individuals in 2022, including 18 killings. The numbers of hate crimes and killings of LGBTQI+ persons registered a 7% increase, compared with 2021."

Poland demonstrated a turn of events where, for the most part, crimes against LGBTQ people were investigated and prosecuted. However, many queer people did not report violence and harassment to police. The report noted an incident at Olsztyn's Equality, the city's Pride parade and celebration, where a participant was hit in the head by a pellet shot several hours after the event. Police did not report it as associated with the Pride event, despite the woman carrying a rolled-up Pride flag. Activists disagreed with the police.

The Central European country still has a long way to go for LGBTQ people to live openly without threat and have equal rights to straight Poles. Same-sex relationships are not legally recognized, family rights — including adoption — are not granted, and discrimination continues to be a problem. However, LGBTQ people were protected under Poland's anti-discrimination laws, and transgender people had legal gender recognition — albeit "the process was lengthy, cumbersome, and cost prohibitive for many persons," according to the report.

Tech as a weapon

Blinken also noted the increased use of technologies in countries and regions around the world "to intimidate, to censor, to surveil." He demonstrated some of the ways technology is being used against activists, journalists, and other dissenters by utilizing artificial intelligence for disinformation campaigns and DNA tracking, cutting off and throttling internet access, and abusing commercial spyware.

LGBTQ people around the world are familiar with anti-gay governments, like China, that have shut down online LGBTQ groups. Authorities and vigilantes in Egypt and Russia have used dating apps to entrap and track queer people.

In contrast, Blinken told reporters the U.S. is using emerging technologies to "bolster rights, not undermine them; to make sure that technology is used to advance equal opportunity, not to discriminate against people."

Bright spots

Blinken noted positive advancements in LGBTQ rights despite the spread of countries promoting and passing anti-LGBTQ laws, misuse of technologies, and escalating homophobic rhetoric around the world.

"Despite the proliferation of anti-LGBTI+ laws in some parts of the world, countries from Estonia to Japan to Mauritius made important strides in advancing the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals," he told reporters.

"Kenya affirmed that freedom of expression and of assembly extend to LGBTQI+ persons. Japan enacted a bill to promote understanding of LGBTQI+ issues. LGBTQI+ persons in Estonia and Slovenia now benefit from legislation recognizing marriage equality," Blinken wrote in the executive summary of the report.

Congress has required the State Department to publish a human rights report annually since 1977. Congress received the report April 22. Under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, the State Department has submitted reports on all countries that receive U.S. assistance and all U.N. member states, according to the report.

President Joe Biden placed LGBTQ rights at the forefront of the United States' foreign policy shortly after he was sworn into office in 2021, the B.A.R. previously reported.

"Standing up for freedom and human rights is simply the right thing to do. But defending and promoting this inalienable and universal rights is also profoundly in our national interest," he said at the time, noting the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last year. "Countries that respect human rights are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, stable."

The State Department's Gilchrist echoed Blinken's earlier statement, telling reporters, "U.S. global leadership in defense and support of human rights is as necessary as ever."

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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