Out in the World: LGBTQ protectors most targeted, human rights report says

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday May 24, 2024
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Tbilisi Pride organizers held up rainbow flags and broken signs on the steps of Georgia's Parliament July 9, 2023, as they stood above remnants of destroyed Pride festival stuff gathered after thousands of anti-gay protesters attacked the July 8 festival in Georgia's capital. Photo: Courtesy Tbilisi Pride/Facebook
Tbilisi Pride organizers held up rainbow flags and broken signs on the steps of Georgia's Parliament July 9, 2023, as they stood above remnants of destroyed Pride festival stuff gathered after thousands of anti-gay protesters attacked the July 8 festival in Georgia's capital. Photo: Courtesy Tbilisi Pride/Facebook

LGBTQ human rights protectors were the most targeted groups of those fighting for equality, according to a new report from Front Line Defenders.

Advocates for LGBTQ rights (10.2%) topped the list of most targeted human rights defenders reported to FLD in 2023. Rounding out the top five on the list were those working on behalf of women's rights (9.7%), human rights movements (8.5%), Indigenous people (7.1%), and human rights documentation (5.2%).

For the first time, FLD's report showed "evidence of an onslaught against human rights defenders working on LGBTIQ+ rights in many parts of the world, comprising over a tenth of all attacks reported globally," according to the May 21 news release from the organization announcing the report.

"LGBTIQ+ defenders were the most targeted group in Africa (23%), and Europe/Central Asia (17%), and among the five most-targeted in Asia and the Pacific," the release noted.

In 2023, LGBTIQ+ defenders accounted for 5% of the killings documented by the Human Rights Defenders Memorial, according to the release.

"This reflects a trend in which violence, surveillance, death threats, smear campaigns, and other intimidation are increasingly being used to silence and stigmatize LGBTIQ+ defenders," FLD stated in the release.

'Super election year'

The report, "Front Line Defenders Global Analysis 2023/24, comes just before the European Parliament elections June 6-9.

Elections in the E.U., other countries such as India, and this year's presidential election in the U.S. means 2024 is being referred to as a "super election year," with 3.7 billion people potentially going to the polls, Ulrika Modéer and Christophe Schiltz noted in an opinion piece for the United Nations Bureau of Inter Press Services. They called for LGBTQ people not to be excluded from elections.

Modéer is the director of the External Relations and Advocacy Bureau at the United Nations Development Programme. Schiltz is the vice chair at the Council of State in Luxembourg, which is the name of both the European country and its capital city. The lawyer also serves as the director general, directorate for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Defense, Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade for Luxembourg.

Modéer and Schiltz argue in their op-ed that the growing wave of anti-LGBTQ laws and policies "directly impact our political processes by silencing people," pointing to a report,"Inclusive Democracies: A guide> to strengthening the participation of LGBTI+ persons in political and electoral processes," published by the UNDP in October 2023.

Modéer and Schiltz wrote partnerships and coalitions working on building inclusive and equitable societies by "shining a light on the injustices LGBTIQ+ people face, is never underestimated."

"This is important because investments in human rights are investments in our societies," the two E.U. diplomats wrote.

FLD's report agreed, noting that "LGBTIQ+ defenders have been at the forefront of the push to secure equal rights" for 25 years since the declaration to protect human rights defenders.

The diplomats wrote about the work being done with the support of Luxembourg and its core donors working "in 72 countries and all regions of the world to integrate LGBTIQ+ people and issues in development efforts." One of the programs in Africa the diplomats highlighted was supporting media training to combat misinformation about LGBTQ people in digital and traditional media outlets.

"Luxembourg and our core donors, UNDP, have been able to help people, whoever and wherever they are, to have a voice in shaping their societies," they wrote.

"This year, the stakes have never been higher. The decisions made in the elections taking place will set the course for how societies develop, and to what extent human rights are respected," they concluded, calling for renewed commitment to supporting the LGBTQ community.

Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, Ph.D., founder and chairperson of the Sudan Social Development Organization, agreed.

"It is important to elect to their governments persons who have respect for human rights, which can translate in the global political sphere by making sure those who come to power are committed to advance human rights globally," wrote the Sudanese human rights activist in the preface of FLD's report. He went to jail for his role in exposing human rights violations in Darfur in the early 2000s.

"We have to push to protect the Responsibility to Protect — with the U.N., with governments who have neglected this responsibility, and with lawmakers, policymakers and international institutions," Adam wrote, critical of leading governments' response to the war in Gaza, which he used as an example of the weakening of governments standing up for human rights. He called it "a feeling that we are in a global moral crisis" and stated it is a demonstration of "how the moral standard of the free world has decayed."

Adam noted the "outcries of human rights defenders are being ignored," and pointed out the "dire consequences" human rights defenders are facing.

"Human rights violations are now not being stopped by governments, but rather in some spaces, such as China, they are approving them, and conducting them," he wrote. "There is therefore no doubt that what we are seeing once again is the rise of right-wing governments, and dictatorships, becoming stronger."

The report

FLD's report noted Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023 allows for the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality." And it pointed to Russia, where the Supreme Court listed the "international LGBT movement" as "extremist."

"This appalling wave of attacks on human rights defenders is a direct result of an international human rights framework left in tatters and governments' double standards when it comes to respecting human rights," FLD Executive Director Alan Glasgow stated.

It's not lost on Adam and Glasgow that the assaults on human rights defenders and the rise of authoritarian governments come around the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and the 75th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

"A quarter decade after the U.N. adopted a declaration on human rights defenders, not enough progress has been made to ensure defenders are valued and protected," Glasgow stated. "In this time, thousands of defenders have paid with their lives and many more face ongoing attacks and intimidation for their peaceful work. Urgent action is needed to change this."

In 2023, at least 300 human rights defenders from 28 countries were killed "in an attempt to silence them and stop their work," according to the report. The number of human rights defenders killed was about 100 fewer people than is listed in the Global Analysis 2022 report.

Among those 300 deaths last year, 49 of the defenders killed were identified as women, including transwomen, and 14 were members of the LGBTIQ+ community and defended its rights, the report found.

This reflects a trend in which violence, surveillance, death threats, smear campaigns, and other intimidation are increasingly being used to silence and stigmatize LGBTIQ+ defenders, the report noted.

LGBTQ people globally reported physical violence (16%) as the most common human rights violation against human rights defense work. Assaults were followed by surveillance (10.5%), death threats (9.8%), legal action (9.2%), and arbitrary arrest/detention (7.4%), according to the report.

The most reported violations against transgender and gender-nonconforming people globally were legal action (15.8%), physical attacks (13.2%), smear campaigns (10.5%), death threats (10.5%), and arbitrary arrest/detention (10.5%), the report found.

Public assembly (21%) topped the top five legal charges used against human rights defenders, based on 163 charges filed in 121 cases. Public assembly was followed by national/state security/sedition (18%), defamation/insulting state/damaging national unity (17%), other criminal charges (13%), and terrorism/membership or support of a terrorist organization (9%).

Despite InterPride, the international association of Pride organizations, being granted consultative status at the U.N. last year, various countries have targeted the LGBTQ celebrations and outlawed the gathering of their LGBTQ citizens. Leaders in Russia and Uganda, for instance, are banning Pride parades and celebrations.

In some other countries Pride marches and events are attacked by police or vigilante mobs either sanctioned or unofficially permitted by governments denying LGBTQ people and their supporters their right to peaceful public assembly. Last year, Outright International noted in its "2023 Pride Around the World Report" the ongoing attacks on Pride events around the world, even in the United States where such gatherings are well-established.

Human rights defenders in Africa reported violations, particularly from Uganda, which ranged from "intimidation, physical attack, mob raids on homes and offices, and criminalization," and other African countries moving to "severely restrict" LGBTQ rights. Front Line Defenders recorded a dramatic increase in reported violations against LGBTQ rights defenders from 2022 to 2023. In 2022, these violations accounted for 7% of all violations in Africa reported to the organization. That figure jumped to over 22% in 2023, "making LGBTQ defenders the group which reported by far the highest number of violations in the region," according to the report.

In Europe, LGBTQ activists were also at the top (17%) of the top five groups reporting human rights violations. The report noted that Europe did experience positive steps in advancing LGBTQ rights, such as same-sex marriage and civil partnerships, in some parts of the region, but that "laws and measures that discriminate against LGTBIQ+ defenders continued to expand."

Russia was a big part of the report's focus on the attack and expansion of LGBTQ rights, but the report also noted violent attacks against queer people in Armenia and Georgia. The report cited last year's Tbilisi Pride Festival in Georgia's capital being attacked by approximately 2,000 people as an example. A similar attack on the festival in 2021 remains uninvestigated.

In Armenia, attendees of a vigil for a transwoman who had been brutally murdered last August were assaulted by a group of people. The vigil was organized by Right Side, an LGBTQ organization, in Yerevan, the country's capital.

Police in both countries ignored the Tbilisi Pride Festival and Right Side's official complaints about the violence. The organizations reported to FLD "an inadequate response by the police who were present when attacks occurred," according to the report.

There is some hope. The FLD report recognized progress has been made for women's and LGBTQ rights since 1998 but noted that "much remains to be done."

Modéer and Schiltz also noted the recent HIV Policy Lab report shows a clear and ongoing trend toward decriminalization of consensual same-sex sex around the world, with more countries removing punitive laws in 2022 than in any single year in the past 25 years.

The HIV Policy Lab report was produced jointly by Georgetown University's O'Neill Institute, UNDP, and the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+).

FLD analyzed data from 1,538 reported violations in 105 countries derived from casework and approved grant applications between January 1 and December 31, 2023. The FLD report excluded data from the Global Chapter and excluded Afghanistan to avoid skewing the results due to special earmarked funding and work in the country.

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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