Monday, 18 April 2011

US State Department human rights reports: "more of a kabuki dance than a liberation march"

Hillary Clinton - CaricatureImage by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
By Council for Global Equality

The State Department last week released its annual human rights report.  Once again, the Council for Global Equality applauds the State Department’s effort to “provide an overview of the human rights situation around the world as a means to raise awareness of human rights conditions, in particular as these conditions affect the well-being of women, children, racial and religious minorities, trafficking victims, members of indigenous groups and ethnic communities, persons with disabilities, sexual minorities, refugees, and members of other vulnerable groups.” And once again this year, the report bears witness to a clear and growing crisis in human rights abuse directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.

For the second year in a row, every country chapter now includes a section on “societal abuses, discrimination, and acts of violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” highlighting LGBT-related incidents in almost every country in the world. Those abuses include arbitrary arrest and detention, police abuse, rape, murder, social exclusion, impediments to political participation, discriminatory health practices and extreme trends in employment discrimination that exclude far too many citizens from the economic life of their own country. In many cases, the report notes that transgender individuals, lesbians and refugee fare even worse.

While the State Department’s annual report to Congress examines a broad range of human rights concerns impacting various minority communities, the report sets out in stark terms how dangerous it is for LGBT individuals to go about their daily lives as ordinary citizens in many parts of the world. The report also makes clear that LGBT rights are not special rights, but that they are firmly rooted in basic human rights protections that are shared by all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that those protections are under severe attack in the world today.

The preparation of the annual report, which covers 194 countries, is a herculean task that requires careful attention to detail. As such, it’s more of a kabuki dance than a liberation march. Every word is carefully calibrated and then reviewed and debated within the State Department to ensure that it sends the proper diplomatic message. As such, the reports tend to be repetitive from one year to the next.  If the human rights landscape has not improved on a given issue, as is far too often the case with LGBT concerns, then there may be little reason to change the language. Indeed, doing so might send the wrong diplomatic message.  On the other hand, it is clear that some embassies have made far more effort than others to understand LGBT issues and their complexity as they unfold across a vast range of legal, social and religious terrains.

To the extent that the trend in LGBT reporting this year continues to be strong, much credit is owed to Secretary Clinton’s leadership, but also to the many committed human rights officers in the State Department and in U.S. embassies around the world who are now actually meeting and interacting with LGBT human rights activists on a regular basis. The countries where those contacts are most robust stand out in the report for their detail and insight. We certainly hope that trend continues. In some countries, however, there has clearly been less contact, and a more muddled understanding of the range of legal, social and economic impediments LGBT individuals face. Indeed, a number of reports say, quite simply, that the information is unknown, without explaining what steps the embassy has taken, if any, to seek out the requested information. If the reports are going to continue along this positive trajectory in LGBT reporting, more human rights officers need to meet with local LGBT activists on a more frequent basis, and at the same time more NGO activists need to nurture contacts at U.S. embassies to ensure that their reports and perspectives are understood and articulated in this annual record. In countries where there is no visible community due to the extreme danger of coming out, there are other forms of research and questions the embassies could begin to engage in to help elucidate the hidden facts.

Another positive trend is that over the past two years, the report has presented a clearer picture of the harmful impact of laws that criminalize consensual same-sex relations and relationships. In past years, the report often noted in understated terms that while a particular country retained a colonial-era sodomy law, the law itself was not enforced. That linguistic formulation, given the kabuki-like signals contained in this report, suggested that the criminal law was not having an impact on the ground and was not, therefore, a source of concern. In contrast, however, we know that even when such laws are not routinely enforced through regular prosecutions or criminal sentences, they are routinely used to justify a broad range of other abuses, including police harassment, extortion, pre-trial detention and the denial of health and social services. Additionally such laws affirm wide spread societal homophobia, that is internalized within families and with LGBT people themselves — crippling people’s actual lives, even if there are not legal prosecutions.

In her introduction to the annual human rights report, Secretary Clinton noted that “human rights is a priority 365 days a year.” The Council is pleased to see that under Secretary Clinton’s leadership, this is true for LGBT rights as well. But now the question remains, how do we leverage the diplomatic muscle of the United States, through our embassies, our UN missions and our State Department, to respond to the egregious LGBT abuses that we read about in the annual report? How do we navigate the troubled waters of international advocacy, where our adversaries attempt to deflect our human rights arguments by complaining of neo-imperialism, and where even many of our friends in the developing world fear that the U.S. message is tainted by our country’s own human rights shortcomings, both in respect to our LGBT citizens and to others? The answer is certainly not to let this commendable report fade into the background current of geopolitical doublespeak. The answer is to work harder to improve the lives for LGBT Americans, and to use those advances to prod other countries to follow. We look forward to a partnership with the State Department as we move from a reporting agenda to a protection agenda that makes a difference in the lives of LGBT individuals here in the United States and in the lives of those we read about in this report.
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