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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Will Obama's State Department Respond to LGBT Persecution Abroad?


By Mark Bromley

Late last month, the State Department released its annual report to Congress examining human rights trends around the world. The U.S. government doesn't critique our own country's human rights record, but we do assess the human rights landscape in every other country. Once again, the State Department's documentation portrays an ongoing international crisis of abuse against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities in every region of the world. After years of waiting, we hope the Obama Administration, under Secretary Hillary Clinton's leadership at the State Department, will respond to this pattern of human rights abuse as a serious global concern.

President Obama stated during the Presidential campaign that "treatment of gays, lesbians and transgender persons is part of this broader human-rights discussion," and that it needs to be "part and parcel of any conversations we have about human rights." My organization, the Council for Global Equality, earnestly hopes that Secretary Clinton will follow this lead and respond to the daunting challenges confronting LGBT human rights leaders by offering them very practical support from our U.S. embassies as they stand up to defend their rights, and in so doing defend the universality of all human rights. Fortunately, in Brussels last Friday, Secretary Clinton assured an audience at the European Parliament that "human rights is and always will be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. In particular, persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously." It's time to turn those words into actions.

The State Department's human rights report this year is the most comprehensive to date on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, referencing LGBT concerns in approximately 190 countries. LGBT-related incidents cited include arbitrary arrest and detention, police abuse, rape and murder. Many of the most egregious abuses have been committed in countries considered to be friends and allies of the United States, including those that receive sizeable U.S. development or security assistance. In many cases, there is evidence of police or other government involvement in the crimes, or in their cover-up. But this is nothing new. The State Department has been reporting on similar human rights abuses affecting LGBT communities for 19 years. An appropriate U.S. response to these abuses is long overdue.

In theory, the State Department's annual human rights report should guides our diplomatic interactions and official U.S. foreign assistance priorities by highlighting countries where a U.S.-driven human rights dialogue or U.S. support for local human rights organizations should receive priority attention. Unfortunately, the State Department has largely disregarded its own findings in recent years, and the reports too often fall on deaf ears. This year, in response to the State Department's findings, the Council for Global Equality has released a list focusing on the "Top Ten Opportunities for the U.S. to Respond" to LGBT-related human rights incidents that are highlighted in the report.

The Council's "top ten" list provides examples of how the U.S. could use its political, diplomatic and financial influence to make a critical contribution to human rights by reacting assertively to LGBT abuses cited by the State Department in ten focus countries. They are not necessarily the countries with the worst human rights records. Rather, they are countries where U.S. engagement could help turn the corner on an alarming pattern of human rights abuse. The list includes Egypt, Gambia, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Lithuania, Nigeria, and Uganda.

Drawing on our "top ten" list, Egypt provides a difficult but important case study on the opportunities - and the limitations - that exist for an effective U.S. response. In Egypt last year, individuals suspected of being HIV-positive were arrested, abused, chained to hospital beds, subjected to forced HIV testing and then to brutal "anal exams" to support criminal prosecutions for debauchery, a criminal charge that state prosecutors have regularly used to jail suspected homosexuals. Despite a very troubling human rights record involving these and a range of other issues, Egypt was our third largest recipient of foreign aid from USAID and the State Department last year. I would not suggest cutting off U.S. assistance in a country like Egypt, but I am convinced that our funding should give us more leverage to speak out forcefully against the HIV arrests documented in the report. And within such a large foreign aid pot, we must continue to search for creative ways to channel support to organizations that are promoting sexual and reproductive rights in Egypt. That does not mean offering immediate support to some underground gay rights group in Egypt, a move that would be both impossible and irresponsible under the current climate of repression, but it does mean that the U.S. Embassy should work harder to balance our substantial political and financial commitment to the Middle East peace process with an equally principled commitment to tolerance and support for those Egyptians whose rights have been violated because of their HIV status, or because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Jamaica, where anti-LGBT hate music has become disturbingly popular, the State Department report this year cites grave violations directed against the country's LGBT community, "including arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, harassment of homosexual patients by hospital and prison staff, and targeted shootings of homosexuals." The report notes that the "[p]olice often did not investigate such incidents," and that two members of a Jamaican LGBT rights group had their home fire bombed, with one of them suffering burns to over 60 percent of his body. The U.S. government's diplomatic response to these abuses must be strong and unconditional, and it should also be tied to our financial commitments in the country. Jamaica is a country where carefully-targeted U.S. support to gay rights or human rights groups could be effective in improving both the legal and community responses to LGBT violence. In addition, we should use the foreign assistance funding that we have allocated over the past several years to professionalize the Jamaican police force to help respond to these attacks. Indeed, the current foreign affairs budget for 2009 that is being debated in the U.S. Congress this week includes funding that is intended to support community policing in Jamaica. Given ongoing reports of the complicit involvement of the police in LGBT attacks, or at least their lack of prosecutorial interest in LGBT cases, the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica should do more to ensure that our police support is used to bring the perpetrators of the attacks cited in this year's report to justice, and that it includes a strong training component aimed at promoting tolerance within the force itself. Above all, we must ensure that support for community policing does not unwittingly encourage vigilante persecution, and that the police do not turn the other way when mobs attack those who transgress sexual or gender stereotypes.

A summary of all LGBT-related human rights abuses from this year's State Department report, together with ideas for appropriate U.S.-led responses in each of the ten focus countries, can be found at www.globalequality.org. We don't have all of the answers, but the list is intended to encourage some heightened level of response to the abuses cited in the ten countries, and to spark more creative thinking about the appropriate use of U.S. diplomatic and financial resources to address patterns of abuse and to protect LGBT individuals, particularly in countries where the U.S. government otherwise maintains a close bilateral relationship.

The official State Department release of the annual human rights report last week also frames a larger and ongoing debate over how the United States can best reclaim its credibility and leadership on human rights in this new Administration. Indeed, the release comes just as the human rights advocacy community in the United States is taking stock of Secretary Clinton's outspoken decision last month to downplay human rights during her first visit to China as Secretary of State. Her position on China made sense from a purely practical standpoint. Our human rights dialogue with China is overly scripted, agonizingly stilted and undeniably tedious. But in setting it aside to proclaim a new era of practical cooperation, Secretary Clinton's approach was alarming. It was certainly a departure from the Hillary Clinton who stood up so memorably for human rights at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Although some of Secretary Clinton's human rights talking points may have ended up on the cutting room floor in Beijing, many foreign policy commentators have defended her approach. They argue that as we define the contours of a new foreign policy agenda in a politically and economically distressed era, and at a time when the U.S. has lost much of its credibility on human rights and democracy promotion, our actions, not words, are all that truly matter. Our protests over grave human rights conditions in Tibet have done little. We need to look for new diplomatic steps that go beyond rhetoric to give our human rights concerns impact. In Tibet, we are still searching for those action-oriented responses. But the human rights pragmatists insist that the world has long ceased believing our human rights platitudes, and that few are even listening to them. To reclaim our human rights leadership in this jaded and economically troubled time, we need to think of new, action-oriented approaches. We also need newfound candor about our own human rights record.

I, for one, hope the Secretary of State is a human rights pragmatist, and that she will take bold steps to promote an action-oriented human rights agenda as an element of that pragmatism. If so, her actions need to live up to her introduction in this year's human rights report. "The promotion of human rights is an essential piece of our foreign policy," she wrote in the introduction. "Not only will we seek to live up to our ideals on American soil, we will pursue greater respect for human rights as we engage other nations and people around the world. Some of our work will be conducted in government meetings and official dialogues, which is important to advancing this cause. But we will not rely on a single approach to overcome tyranny and subjugation that weaken the human spirit, limit human possibility, and undermine human progress."

The Council for Global Equality interprets that "work" as part of a "protection agenda" that seeks to redress serious and ongoing human rights violations through diplomatic representations, partnerships with other countries, renewed engagements with human rights institutions and human rights funding commitments. Committing to a "protection agenda" will help move us beyond our previous "reporting agenda," where for many years we have simply focused on documenting abuses after they occur, and then perhaps denouncing them in certain contexts, although rarely in the case of LGBT human rights violations.

By actively supporting a protection agenda that responds to LGBT human rights concerns internationally, the U.S. government also has the opportunity to send an important-and to many other nations a startling-message about America's renewed commitment to human rights and global diversity in a more general sense. The United States was virtually the only country in the Western Group at the United Nations last December that refused to sign a very simple statement recognizing basic human rights in the context of sexual orientation and gender identity. Many European and Latin American allies were not at all surprised by such intolerance from the Bush Administration. Given such a stark leadership failure in the previous Administration, it is time to show the world that our official foreign policy outlook has indeed changed, that the Obama Administration understands LGBT rights as human rights concerns, and that it values diversity in all of its many forms, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There have already been some hopeful signs that such a shift is taking place, thanks to constructive positions on LGBT-related human rights debates that the new Obama Administration has taken at the United Nations in New York and Geneva over the past two months.

While calling on the Obama Administration to stand up for LGBT rights on the international stage, and to respond to the well documented pattern of LGBT human rights abuse in this year's annual human rights report from the State Department, the Council for Global Equality added an "honorable mention" to its "top ten" list, which is perhaps really a dishonorable mention. Recognizing that U.S. credibility on the international stage will depend largely on our own progress and commitment to LGBT rights here at home, our "top ten" list also calls on the United States to do more to honor the principles of equality, justice and human rights at home. The Council calls for Congress to pass legislation banning hate crimes and employment discrimination, to offer fair benefits to the families of gay and lesbian federal employees, to support same-sex immigration rights, repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, and include LGBT organizations among the civil society groups that America sustains abroad. It is a "call for consistency and fairness in our foreign policy, and for renewed American integrity and leadership in the fight for human rights."

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