Saturday, 9 April 2011

US State Dept human rights report picks up LGBT asylum issues in UK

Seal of the United States Department of State.Image via Wikipedia
By Paul Canning

The 35th annual human rights report of the US State Department has picked up on "significant disadvantages" experienced by LGBT asylum seekers in the UK.

In launching the report April 8 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew particular attention to the report’s identification of abuses against LGBT people internationally:
“Because I believe, and our government believes, that gay rights are human rights, we remain extremely concerned about state-sanctioned homophobia,” Clinton said.
She hoped that the reports which cover every country bar the US itself would "give comfort to the activists, will shine a spotlight on the abuses, and convince those in government that there are other and better ways.” They may also be used to bar aid to certain countries if the US Congress passes recently introduced legislation.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, told the Washington Blade that Clinton has made LGBT rights one of the State Department's top priorities. Expanded coverage of LGBT rights was begun last year but the 2010 reports show patchy coverage across Africa and the Middle East.

State Department interest in LGBT asylum

The UK report cited last year's Stonewall report 'No Going Back' and pulled out for mention its identification of the "fast tracking" of LGBT asylum claims, repeating Stonewall's finding that LGBT have complex cases and in "denying them quickly, UKBA staff did not give applicants time to talk openly about their sexual orientation."

Home Office Minister Damien Green told the House of Commons in February that the government did not accept that sexual orientation asylum claims are complex and therefore would not exclude them from 'fast track', as it does other types of cases.

In a review of 50 cases UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) found that 98% had been initially rejected, a significantly higher rate than for other claims. This made them more likely to be placed in 'fast track' where applicants and their lawyers had much less time to prepare an appeal and where cases, which often can involve torture, are invariably put into detention.

This is not the first interest the State Department has shown in UK LGBT asylum cases. Earlier this year Wikileaks released a 2008 cable from the London Embassy about the Mehdi Kazemi case.

Kazemi was a nineteen year-old gay Iranian who then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith refused to give asylum to despite a massive international campaign which included mainstream American media interest and lobbying of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown by the Italian President and the Dutch government. The cable noting Smith's eventual cave-in suggested a reason for the resistance to Kazemi's claim:
The HMG [British government] decision was not a finding of systematic persecution of homosexuals in Iran, and left in place the UK requirement that every gay Iranian asylum petitioner in the UK must prove systematic persecution as an element of his/her case. An FCO [Foreign Office] contact intimated to London Iran Watcher (IW) that HMG  may revisit this heavy burden of proof it imposes on gay asylum seekers after an upcoming key phase of the nuclear confrontation with Tehran has been resolved.
The UK attaches great importance to Iran,s reaction to the P5 1 nuclear offer, delivery of which is now pending. HMG therefore may, in its handling of the Kazemi and similar cases, be acting to insure the safety of asylum applicants already in the UK, but delaying at least for now a hardening of its public position on this type of human rights violation by the regime. HMG can be expected to avoid new tensions with Tehran over potentially volatile issues, such as homosexual rights, while immediate, overriding nuclear issues are pending.
In the United States itself claims based on sexual orientation have been allowed since 1994 - five years before the UK. However, Swetha Sridharan from the Council on Foreign Relations noted in 2008 that:
Asylum claims based on persecution related to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) individual's sexual orientation are particularly difficult to file, argue, and win — even with substantial evidence of persecution and ill-treatment.
Clinton's department have taken a lead internationally to support LGBT asylum through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It has said it will "engage with both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organization partners to strengthen our collaboration on behalf of vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers."

As well as the reference to LGBT asylum in the UK report, the Spanish report notes that:
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs runs the Program for Assistance and Protection of Human Rights Defenders at Risk. Under this program, human rights defenders who face persecution and death threats can move to the country for a time period ranging from six months to two years, depending on the circumstances. During the year the country accepted 22 persons from a variety of countries into the program; for the first time, two individuals gained entry into the program on account of defending lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) rights."
Individual country reports include coverage of their 'Protection of Refugees' and can include these in their overall, headline 'human rights problems'. For example, it notes criticism of Italy for "violating the principal of refoulement" - whether a government refrained from expelling or returning a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In the Belgian report it cites "poor detention conditions prior to deportation of adults and children whose asylum applications were refused" as a headline "human rights problem."

Country reports cover LGBT rights

Each country's report includes a section 'Societal Abuses, Discrimination, and Acts of Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity'.

Alongside the LGBT asylum references, the report on the UK also notes homophobic crime levels, that numerous pride parades take place and a BBC report on "an increase in the number of cases of forced marriage among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered teenagers."

As well it noted that:
"20 Bermudians took part in the London Pride parade, protesting Bermuda's failure to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation."
The Italian report in its headline of "human rights problems" includes "reports of negative attitudes and harassment of gays, lesbians, Roma, and other minorities."

Targeting of "vulnerable minorities" is identified as one of three "trends" in the report's introduction and it says of LGBT:
"Persons around the world continue to experience discrimination and intimidation based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Honduras saw an upsurge in killings of members of the LGBT community by unknown perpetrators. Meanwhile, in many African, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean nations, same-sex relations remain a criminal offense, and through such laws and other measures the state reinforces and encourages societal discrimination and intolerance. In Uganda, for example, intimidation and harassment of LGBT individuals worsened during the year, and some government and religious leaders threatened LGBT individuals."
It notes the reports use in "providing data to Congress to inform their funding and policy decisions." Legislation has been introduced in Congress which would cut aid to countries deemed to be persecuting people "on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or religious belief." Introducing the legislation Congressman Barney Frank highlighted Uganda.

The State Department human rights report on Uganda cites arrests for homosexuality in an extensive section covering LGBT human rights problems and describes LGBT as "subject to societal harassment, discrimination, intimidation, and threats to their wellbeing." The murder of activist David Kato earlier this year drew a statement from President Obama and Uganda was also singled out in Clinton's remarks introducing the annual human rights report.

Patchy Middle East coverage

In the Iranian report, LGBT issues like Uganda receive extensive coverage. It notes that gays in Iran are sometimes “pressured” to participate in reassignment surgery “to avoid legal and social persecutions in the country.” It says that conditions for transgender people in Iran are seen as more favorable than they are to gays but transgender people still face hostility.

According to the State Department, police in April found a 24-year-old transgender woman known as Mahsa strangled in her apartment. Her two brothers confessed to killing her on moral grounds.
“Although the brothers were sentenced to prison time of eight years and three years, respectively, the sentences included suspended jail time, which reduced their actual sentence in prison to three years and one year, respectively,” the report states.
The Israel "and the occupied territories" report does not cover LGBT issues in the West Bank and Gaza but does headline "abuse of foreign workers and societal discrimination and incitement against asylum seekers."

The Saudi Arabia report states that: "there were few reports of societal discrimination, physical violence, or harassment based on sexual orientation, and there was no official discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care." It also claims that: "Sexual orientation could constitute the basis for harassment, blackmail, or other actions." But, "no such cases were reported." 

The UAE report says that: "At times the government subjected persons to psychological treatment and counseling for homosexual activity."

In Morocco the report says: "Homosexual conduct was addressed in the media and in public with more openness than in previous years." And it claims that "there were no reports of societal discrimination, physical violence, or harassment based on sexual orientation."

Elsewhere, arrests of transgender people in Kuwait, the 2009 arrests and subsequent anal examination of 10 men in Cairo, the imprisonment of gays in Syria after being arrested on vague charges such as abusing social values, selling, buying or consuming illegal drugs, and organizing and promoting "obscene" parties, allegations that police officers sometimes brutalized openly gay persons and accused them of being the source of AIDS in Tunisia, and the emergence of a LGBT community in Lebanon make Middle Eastern country reports coverage of LGBT human rights which largely cite "no reports".

Iraq is the one Middle East country where LGBT rights makes the 'headline' introduction with "societal discrimination and violence against individuals based on sexual orientation" noted in a long list.

Despite the citing of discrimination as "societal", the Iraq report notes the June 2010 report of an attack by police in Karbala and arrests reported the same month in the newspaper Al-Bayyna Al-Jadidah.

It also says that "as of year's end, authorities had not announced any arrests or prosecutions of any persons for abusing, killing, torturing, or detaining any LGBT individuals."

The 'sexual orientation and gender identity' human rights section points to "related information" in other sections. One is Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which covers rapes in detention but doesn't specifically address LGBT cases, and, oddly, the other is 'Freedom of Religion'.

The Mongolian report says that ultranationalist groups targeted LGBT with "impunity, due to police complacence and unwillingness to apprehend the offenders."

The Jamaica report headlines "violence against persons based on their suspected or known sexual orientation" which it says police often do not investigate. In an extensive section it details a number of such cases as well as reporting that "male inmates deemed by prison wardens to be gay were held in a separate facility for their protection" including violence "perpetrated by the wardens."
"This violence created a climate of fear that prompted many gay persons to emigrate," it says.
Patchy Africa coverage too

Apart from Uganda, in Africa some reports headline discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity such as in Nigeria but the Nigerian LGBT human rights section is short and only cites two cases which are from 2008. The same is true in Cameroon, which fails to provide any detail of persecution claiming "no official cases were available for citation" and Ethiopia which says there were "some reports of violence" against LGBT but doesn't say anything more. The DRC report doesn't headline LGBT and barely mentions the proposed criminalisation of homosexuality. It also has this rather odd paragraph:
"While harassment by state security forces continued, there were no reports during the year of police harassing gays and lesbians or perpetrating or condoning violence against them."
The Senegal report also doesn't headline LGBT but the human rights section does claim that "increased international attention may have caused the government to curtail prosecutions and other official discrimination." Oddly, the Malawi report doesn't headline LGBT issues and does not cite reports that international pressure (including from the USA) led President Mutharika to unconditionally pardon Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steve Monjeza in the jailing case reported worldwide. It cites a survey of Malawian gays which found that eight percent said they had been beaten by police or other security forces. The Kenyan report notes that LGBT groups are "permitted to register and conduct activities" and that in last year's anti-gay riot near Mombassa police protected gays but "did not arrest members of the mob."

"Societal discrimination" crops up again in the South Africa report's headline, which claims that in 2010 "there were no reports of official mistreatment or discrimination" of LGBT. Although it covers so-called 'corrective' rape it does not mention the failure of police to investigate or the absence of government action, both the focus of substantial campaigns in 2010.

In addition to unveiling the report, Clinton also announced the launch of a new State Department website: This assembles reports, statements and other updates from around the world and is intended to become a depository of global human rights information.
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