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Sunday, 2 January 2011

Historic UN vote on 'gay killings' sparks international reaction

By Paul Canning

Updated, see end.

The reversal last month of a UN vote to exclude sexual orientation from a resolution against extrajudicial killings has sparked reaction around the world.

The vote followed a move by the United States to reverse action led by Islamic and some African countries to strip LGBT from a resolution urging States to protect the right to life of all people, including by calling on states to investigate killings based on discriminatory grounds. For the past ten years, the resolution has included sexual orientation in the list of discriminatory grounds on which killings are often based. These included persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, persons acting as human rights defenders (such as lawyers, journalists or demonstrators) as well as street children and members of indigenous communities.

It was the latest attempt by Islamic and some African countries to reverse gains made for LGBT at the United Nations.

Dan Littaeur, reporting for Gay Middle East, says these countries object to the idea of any legal definition to sexual orientation, call sexual orientation a “personal choice” and an “individual sexual interest” which has no legal foundations in International Human Rights Instruments. The no vote was lead by Tajikistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on behalf of the Arab Countries, and Benin on behalf of the African countries.

UAE and OIC signaled that member countries will now seek to fight the issue through the “defamation" of religious ideas resolution, also passed at the UN, as a human rights violation. OIC further cryptically added that adoption of sexual orientation will lead to less flexible voting on “other issues."

Says Littauer, GME Editor:
It seems that the OIC, Arab, and some of the African nations are not going to give up easily on this issue and are planning further action to battle against this nascent International Legal recognition.
Writing for Radio Netherlands, Martin Janssen says the universal value of human rights has come under open scrutiny in the past few decades.
Flag of the Organisation of the Islamic ConferenceImage via Wikipedia
Since 1980, the attack on human rights has come from two sides: from the so-called non aligned countries, and from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which represents 57 Islamic countries. Especially the latter has been trying for years to weaken the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights - UDHR], or to fundamentally change it.

This attack is based on challenging the universal validity of human rights, as specified in the declaration. This is interpreted as a western secular concept with Judeo-Christian origins, matching badly with Islamic tradition. The west thus supposedly takes advantage of its hegemony to force this concept upon other cultures. On this basis, a process has been ongoing to systematically revise the UDHR in the light of Islamic law, or the Sharia.

This process kicked off on September 19th, 1981, when the Islamic Council of Europe came out with a general declaration of human rights of Islam. This declaration started off by saying that “Islam codified human rights 14 centuries ago by law (sharia).” Thus, Islam in fact invented human rights. Then the 57 OIC countries further worked out this principle in 1990 in their “Declaration of Cairo on Human Rights in Islam.
The Cairo declaration made it clear that it was meant as a guide for the 57 Islamic member states to use the Sharia as their main, or only, source of legislation. The Cairo declaration states in its preamble that God created Moslem societies as the best among nations, led by God’s perfect law (Sharia), and that this perfection requires Islamic nations to lead the human race.

This perfection also means that no other culture can be included since these other cultures are, by definition, less than perfect. God’s perfection according to the Sharia cannot, of course, be compared to something like the UDHR, which is merely the work of mortals.

In the Cairo declaration, the UDHR is encapsulated within the Islamic concept of the subservience of man to the will of God, which is found in the Sharia. What this means, in practice, is made clear towards the end of the declaration which concludes that “all rights and freedom are subject to the Sharia’s regulations.”

It is impossible for the UDHR and the Islamic Sharia to be joined as they stand diametrically opposed to each other in their basic principles. The UDHR codifies the fundamental equality of all people, while the Sharia is based on the principle of inequality of man. The inequality between Moslems and non-Moslems, and the inequality between men and women, are markedly present throughout the Sharia’s legal sphere.

According to the Sharia, the testimony of a non-Moslem in an Islamic court is only worth half of that of a Moslem. This makes it virtually impossible for non-Moslems to defend their legal rights. Similarly, the testimony of a woman is only worth half that of her male counterpart. The Sharia is an all-encompasing legal system which decides all aspects of life for both Moslems and non-Moslems, with the basic point being the inequality of the two.

Article 22A of the Cairo declaration also underlines that people have the right to free speech as long as it does not run counter to the Sharia. In other words: critical reflections on the Sharia are not allowed as the Sharia is God’s perfect law, which makes criticism of the Sharia in fact criticism of God’s perfection. This equals blasphemy, which in the Sharia is punishable by death.

Applying the Sharia would mean death to critics, adulterous women and homosexuals, with ‘godlike’ legitimacy. It is worrisome that the OIC in recent years has been highly successful in muting discussions in UN human rights commissions about the violations of human rights in the name of the Sharia.

Discussion about this matter is often seen in the same light as insulting Islam, and any criticism of the Sharia is seen as a manifestation of Islam phobia. The West seems to be collectively suffering from this condition, and until now there is yet to be a counter campaign. By failing to defend the declaration, the protection of the rights of individuals is made subservient to the protection of a religion.
During the General Assembly debate 21 December the Benin delegate said that "this vote determines the very future of humanity!" and that it would "go down in the annals of history".

Despite the apocalyptic appeals, as we reported, fully one quarter of member states changed their votes in a positive direction. One third of African countries changed their vote positively, including Rwanda and Angola voting yes. Almost the whole of the Caribbean changed their vote positively - including Jamaica - as did most Pacific nations.

In a letter to Jamaica's leading newspaper The Gleaner (as well as other regional newspapers), a group of Caribbean LGBT activists, led by the veteran Jamaican LGBT leader Maurice Tomlinson, say they are proud that a majority of Caribbean nations voted together, in the words of the Rwanda delegation, to "recognise that ... people (of different sexual orientation) continue to be the target of murder in many of our societies, and they are more at risk than many ... other groups".

Yes votes included Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, the Dominican Republic and Grenada and St Kitts-Nevis.

They say that only Trinidad and Tobago failed to respond "to our reasoned appeals". Both Belize and Jamaica "communicated with gay and lesbian voters about their December vote, a welcome measure of accountability and transparency in our foreign policy." Only St Lucia amongst Caribbean nations still voted no.

They say that:
We, in the Caribbean, have lived largely free of the levels of violence experienced by postcolonial nations like Rwanda . But we continue to harbour a colonial mentality that some groups are more worthy than others; and homophobic killings are a reality in several places in the region. We hope that, without the need for atrocity to teach us this lesson, our governments will mature in their understanding that everyone has an essential right to equality and protection because they are human.

The vote is a hopeful sign that in 2011 Caribbean governments may get serious about their commitments to these rights at home.
Cuba's Foreign Ministry met with that island's LGBT activists prior to the vote. This followed an open letter of disagreement with Cuba's earlier anti-gay vote by gay blogger Francisco Rodriguez Cruz, other responses from civil society, reaction from other Cuban bloggers and its reflection in the press.

Cuba absented itself from the December 20 vote, but Rodriquez Cruz said:
Our concerns and proposals were taken into account. Cuba shifted his vote in the UN towards a neutral position. While not entirely satisfying me as an LGBT person, at least substantially correcting its previous performance.
In the Bahamas The Tribune newspaper said that that country's no vote, reversed 20 December, drew criticism "from those who say it flies in the face of the stated position of Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham on such matters."
When addressing a question about homosexual tourists visiting the Bahamas in March 1998, Ingraham said: "The future of the Bahamas is not threatened by foreign persons of homosexual orientation. Homosexuality is not a contagious disease; and it is not a crime in the Bahamas.
In Latin America, Nicaragua - where the Catholic Church has largely successfully fought against LGBT rights for the last three decades - voted yes.

As did Colombia, who had previously abstained. It's Ambassador Néstor Osorio Londoño offering a passionate speech apologising for their previous vote.

This followed strong criticism from Colombia's newspapers. In an editorial, El Espectador called the abstention "humiliating" and pointed out that in 2009, according to local LGBT group Colombia Diversa, 127 LGBT people were killed. Of these, 46 were known to have been killed because they were LGB or T. The figure for 2010 is 52. The Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions of the UN, Philip Alston, has said that "among those chosen as targets of killings by state forces and illegal armed groups in Colombia are prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. "

In the Pacific, Marshall Island, Nauru, Palau, Fiji, Papau New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tonga changed their votes to yes.

Australian International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) representative Simon Margan told the Star Observer before the 20 December vote that “the islands in the Pacific have always been a concern to ILGA."
“With all the governmental persecution in Africa and the Middle East region, it is easy to forget that the Pacific region also has a number of countries with anti-sodomy laws.

“While there have been notable advancements in LGBTI rights, like the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Fiji, there are still a number of Pacific Island countries that have significant sanctions against homosexuality.”
In Bangkok, the Thai abstention led the Thailand Queer Network to demonstrate 28 December outside Government House. This followed a campaign similar to other countries to change the Thai abstention to a yes.

“Thailand is in a good position to promote LGBT rights internationally. We have an environment conducive to LGBT rights. Our constitution also contains a non-discrimination clause for their protection,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. Thailand’s abstention doesn’t follow its constitution or international obligations, he said.

South Africa's  vote reversal - part of a worrying trend against international LGBT rights by the first nation to include LGBT rights in its constitution - has been credited to a large outcry by South African civil society.

Lesbian activist Melanie Judge said "enormous local and international pressure" was "definitely a factor" in the turnaround. She said the vote showed that the government was now part of "building a narrative and public discourse" against violence on the basis of sexual orientation.
"It is about changing the language of prejudice, which is deeply embedded in the South African psyche," she said.
Zackie Achmat of the Coalition to End Discrimination agreed that the mobilisation of civil society contributed to SA’s change of heart. He said a protest letter sent to President Jacob Zuma with more than 1000 signatures — which "went across race, class and religious lines" — was very significant.
"Individuals from all the major religious groups in SA signed on."
Achmat says that it bodes well for a a campaign, beginning next year, for a summit of the African Union "not to take a position that undermined equality for all."

Although the historic vote topped a year which has seen significant progress of LGBT at the international level, including positive developments at the UNHCR for LGBT refugees, at the end of last month seventy-nine developing countries from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific islands - acting as the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP) - rejected an attempt by the European Union to insert sexual orientation into the language of an economic development pact.

The ACP said it was “appealing to the European Union to refrain from any attempts to impose its values which are not freely shared in the framework of the ACP-EU Partnership.”

“The Partnership," it said, "can work and be fully functional with due respect for the social differences and cultural diversity of the two Parties.”

The European Parliament passed a resolution in December 'reminding' Africa that “the EU is responsible for more than half of development aid and remains Africa's most important trading partner” and that "in all actions conducted under the terms of various partnerships” that sexual orientation is a protected category of non-discrimination.

A report last week suggested that Malawi has suffered rejection of aid funding due to its active persecution of LGBT. Earlier this year Germany threatened to stop its aid to Uganda because of the 'kill the gays' bill. Aid is about half Uganda's government's budget.

The ACP includes Rwanda, whose UN Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe, made the following earnest speech December 20.
Thank you, sir, for giving me the floor. Rwanda would like to explain its vote on this amendment submitted by the United States.

Sexual orientation, sir, is a concept which sparks very animated debate in the international level, at the national level, even within our families. It relates to our respective cultures, our way of living, or our religions. This debate generally relates to the definition of this concept of sexual orientation, also the criminalization of such practices, and family rights that have to be granted to people who have a different sexual orientation. This is a complex issue, and no definitive decisions have been taken internationally, and within states or even continents there are very conflicting, seemingly irreconcilable positions. Rwanda feels that sexual orientations of our compatriots is a totally private matter where states cannot intervene, either to award new rights or to discriminate or criminalize those who have such an orientation. 
But the matter before us now is very different, sir. Here the General Assembly of the United Nations is called upon, not to grant family rights to people with a different sexual orientation, not to give an opinion on the criminalization of such practices, but to decide whether such men and women have the right to life. 
Sir, in listing specific groups such as national or racial or ethnic or religious or linguistic or even political or ideological or professional groups, the authors of this resolution on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution have clearly wished to draw attention to high-risk groups that are frequently the target of murder, assassination or execution. We wish to alert states to the vulnerability of such groups and the reality of the crimes committed against them, and to call for prosecution of authors of such acts. 
Whether or not the concept is defined or not, whether or not we support the claims of people with a different sexual orientation, whether or not we approve of their sexual practices – but we must deal with the urgency of these matters and recognize that these people continue to be the target of murder in many of our societies, and they are more at risk than many of the other groups listed. This is unfortunately true, and recognizing this is not a call to give them special rights; it’s just recognition of a crime, that their fundamental rights, their right to life should not be refused. But to refuse to recognize this reality for legal or ideological or cultural reasons will have the consequence of continuing to hide our heads in the sand and to fail to alert states to these situations that break families. 
Believe me, sir, that a human group doesn’t need to be legally defined to be the victim of execution or massacre, since those who target their members have previously defined them. Rwanda has experienced this sixteen years ago indeed, and for this reason our delegation will vote for the amendment, and calls on other delegations to do likewise.

* If readers know of any further reaction to the UN vote please let us know so this can be documented.

Updated to add: Inner City Press reports that ten countries which did not vote at all of the LGBT amendment, were present and voting minutes later on the overall resolution on extrajudicial executions.

They report that, according to sources, their absence was reflexive of “arm twisting” or advocacy by the US. “They conveniently walked out of the room,” as one source put it, appearing satisfied.

The countries which were conveniently absent on the LGBT vote included Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan and the African nations of Gabon, Cameroon and Madagascar. 

Inner City Press says that when they asked one of the absent country's Ambassador about his country's sudden absence for the LGBT amendment, he acknowledged "without hesitation or equivocation" the pressure from the United States.

They add that Turkey "may have walked out and not voted for its own internal reasons" and that the acting Deputy Spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Farhan Haq, offered no guidance for member states on the LGBT amendment.
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