Seeing signs of progress for LGBTI rights in Côte d’Ivoire

Philippe from Alternative Côte d’Ivoire standing in front of the flags at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, or IDAHOT. Today at The Advocates we take stock of our progress over the past year to advance LGBTI rights and what lies ahead.

One highlight of the past year was working with Alternative Côte d’Ivoire https://www.facebook.com/alternativeci.infosbranches, an Ivoirian non-governmental organization committed to the fight for the rights of sexual minorities and to combatting HIV/AIDS. We first connected with Alternative CI after they prepared a stakeholder report for the 3rd Universal Periodic Review of Cote d’Ivoire. They were eager to learn what they should do with the report.

Lobbying at the United Nations

Starting in November 2018, we collaborated with Alternative CI to condense their report into a “one-pager” to use for lobbing, identified dozens of countries to target for our lobbying efforts, and provided them with advice about approaching embassies in Abidjan to seek their support.

In March, Philippe from Alternative CI was able to join us and our team of volunteers in Geneva to continue that advocacy. He participated in our half-day training and then hit the ground running, reaching out to delegates to the UN Human Rights Council and participating in meetings to share what is happening on the ground in the country.

As Alternative CI highlighted in its stakeholder report, even though LGBT status or conduct is not criminalized, people face discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This violence and discrimination comes from private parties as well as officials, including police officers and health care workers.

Philippe joined our partners from United Oromo Voices and Human Rights in Democracy Center (Albania) to present in a parallel event during the Council session. Several government representatives attended the event to learn more about the types of recommendations Alternative Côte d’Ivoire would like them to make during the UPR’s interactive dialogue.

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Philippe from Alternative Côte d’Ivoire examines the team’s color-coded notecards to determine which countries he should reach out to on the floor of the Human Rights Council

Hard work pays off

Just last week, we had the chance to witness the fruits of Philippe’s hard work. The Council held its interactive dialogue with representatives of the government of Côte d’Ivoire on Tuesday, May 7. During the interactive dialogue, 101 countries offered a total of 251 recommendations to Côte d’Ivoire. Nine countries we lobbied—Argentina, Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States—made recommendations specifically addressing LGBTI rights. It was a huge victory. By way of comparison, during Côte d’Ivoire’s 2nd UPR in 2014, just 3 countries raised the issue of LGBTI rights.

Tripling the number of recommendations turned up the heat on the government. During the interactive dialogue, the Ivoirian government felt compelled to respond. The head of the delegation stated, “Our position is unchanged since our previous UPR, and therefore no measures have been taken or are intended to be taken regarding LGBT individuals. But our legislation does not make sexual orientation subject to punishment.” It was a big step, however, for the government even to speak those words at the Human Rights Council. In 2014, the government delegation was completely silent on the issue.

Ivoirian Government responds

As part of the UPR process, all of the recommendations from the interactive dialogue are transcribed and compiled into an official document called the Report of the Working Group https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/cote_divoire_upr_2019_report_of_working_group.pdf. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes those recommendations two days after the interactive dialogue, and then the government has approximately 4 months to respond to each recommendation. For each recommendation, governments have two options: accept or “note” (reject).

Many governments take the full four months to read the recommendations carefully and decide what to do. But some governments, including Côte d’Ivoire, act quickly and respond to most of the recommendations before OHCHR publishes the Report of the Working Group.

Côte d’Ivoire said it needed more time to consider just 24 of the 251 recommendations. It accepted 219 recommendations and summarily “noted” just 24. But all of the 9 recommendations on LGBTI rights were among the noted recommendations.

That the government should decide so quickly to reject all of those hard-fought recommendations stung. But then we looked more closely at the recommendations and saw the absurdity of the government’s position. The government rejected Iceland’s recommendation to “ensure that law enforcement officers comply with laws protecting the rights of LGBTI individuals.” Did the government of Côte d’Ivoire really not want to promise that police officers would follow existing law? And it rejected the United States’ recommendation to “investigate allegations of violence and serious levels of discrimination targeting LGBTI persons.” Did the government really think authorities should bury their heads in the sand if they receive a report alleging anti-LGBTI violence?

It became clear that the Ivoirian government didn’t even read the nine recommendations. It simply rejected any recommendation that referenced sexual orientation, gender identity, or the acronym LGBTI. Even Cameroon—a country that criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct and actively prosecutes people on suspicion they are LGBT– had accepted a recommendation from Belgium to “investigate police violence that took place on persons because of their actual or perceived gender identity.”

A silver lining?Pride-Day-Flag-Rainbow-Lesbian-Pride-Color-Lgbt-3822489.jpg

Looking over the recommendations more carefully, we discovered a few openings. Côte d’Ivoire accepted a recommendation from Jordan to “provide training to all actors in promoting and protecting human rights,” and a similar recommendation from Mexico to “implement human rights training programs for personnel of institutions involved in security and justice in the country.”

We had lobbied for training for police officers and health care workers on LGBTI rights. Perhaps Alternative CI can get involved in these trainings and ensure that they include some lessons on LGBTI rights.

Moving forward on IDAHOT

On this IDAHOT, we are looking forward to a future in Côte d’Ivoire and throughout the world where governments take seriously their obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of LGBTI persons. We’re looking forward to collaborating with Alternative Cote d’Ivoire on an alternative report on the rights of lesbians, bisexual women and trans women for the upcoming review of Côte d’Ivoire by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. And we will persist in pressing the Ivoirian government to uphold its obligations under international human rights treaties to protect people from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We’re in it for the long haul, and with hard-working partners like Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, we know that we will see results.

To learn more about The Advocates’ work on LGBTI rights, click here: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/lgbti_rights

To learn more about UN advocacy, click here: https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/chapter_9.pdf

If your organization would like to collaborate with The Advocates on UN advocacy or other projects, fill out this form: https://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/partner

The Advocates Welcomes Progress in Ethiopia, Remains Concerned that Threats to Minority Rights Remain

The Advocates for Human Rights has worked in partnership with the Oromo diaspora for many years to hold the government of Ethiopia accountable for human rights violations.  In March 2019, volunteer Nagessa Dube made the following oral statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.  

Dear Mr. President:

The Advocates for Human Rights, alongside partner organization United Oromo Voices, would like to thank the Special Rapporteur for his report on minority issues. The concerns that he raises in his report and in his 2018 country visits parallel the struggles minority indigenous groups face in Ethiopia.

Similar to Botswanan minorities, as discussed in the report, minority groups in Ethiopia face barriers to land use. Members of the minority Ogaden community have been subjected to the arbitrary confiscation of land and ethnic persecution since the beginning of Ethiopian rule over the Somali region in 1948. In April 2014 and again in November 2015, the Oromo people launched large-scale protests in opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which intended to forcibly displace the Oromos from their homes in favor of expansion of the territory of the capital city.

We call attention to the persecution and suppression of freedom of speech. Many Oromo people were injured and killed during the 2016 Irreechaa protests after security forces fired into crowds. Many survivors were taken into government custody.

We do commend the Ethiopian Government for accepting several recommendations in the last UPR in 2014 to take measures to alleviate tensions between and discrimination against ethnic groups through intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. And we welcome the current administration’s stated commitment to reforms, including the release of thousands of political prisoners—many belonging to minority and indigenous groups—and ending the state of emergency. Despite this progress, the threat to minority rights in Ethiopia continues via land displacement, persecution, and suppression of the freedom of expression.

We urge the government of Ethiopia and the Council to work together to confront the threats to minority rights in all their forms.

Thank you.

Briefing the UN Human Rights Council on Burundi

A growing number of victims fleeing politically-based violence in Burundi have requested legal assistance from The Advocates for Human Rights in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights recently brought the experience of our clients and concerns about violations of civil and political rights in Burundi to the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The Advocates for Human Rights’ volunteer attorney Carrie Brasser delivered the following oral statement in March 2019 during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Burundi.

The Advocates for Human Rights welcomes the oral briefing of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Since April 2015, the human rights crisis in Burundi has escalated in both its extent and brutality. The ruling party’s repression of suspected opponents, civil society, and the media has involved enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture and rape. State actors, including members of the police force and the Imbonerakure youth league, have acted with impunity against their victims. The indiscriminate shooting of demonstrators, targeting of journalists and activists, and aggressive reprisals against witnesses are among the many abuses suffered by citizens. These conditions have caused over 250,000 to flee this state-sponsored oppression and violence.

As a provider of legal services to asylum seekers, The Advocates for Human Rights has represented victims of violence from Burundi and documented first-hand accounts of:

  • Illegal invasions and searches of homes and businesses, including firing on civilians, looting of property, and the rape of a witness
  • The arbitrary arrest of an anti-corruption activist based on false charges, culminating in her assault and rape, and
  • The targeting of supporters of constitutional election law, as well as journalists, involving arbitrary arrests followed by brutal torture for extended periods

We commend the Commission of Inquiry for making concerted efforts to engage in monitoring and fact-finding among people who have been forced to flee the country.

These and other accounts of human rights abuses support our recommendations that the Human Rights Council:

  • Continue the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi and retain the situation in Burundi on its agenda under item 4
  • Request that the Security Council impose sanctions against individuals responsible for both gross systemic human rights violations as well as the obstruction of UN mechanisms to document violations and
  • Encourage effective justice mechanisms to ensure that individuals responsible for these abuses are held accountable.

Thank you.

In 2017, The Advocates also submitted a stakeholder submission for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review, which included direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full submission here.

Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum and trafficking cases and documenting their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes. 

In February 2019, Board member Peggy Grieve shared the experiences of our asylum clients with and made recommendations to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Peggy delivered the following oral intervention during the Committee’s Half-day General Discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration.

Dear Members of the Committee:

From The Advocates for Human Rights’ direct legal representation of Northern Triangle clients, we have determined:

(1) children, even when traveling in the company of migrating adults, are vulnerable to sex trafficking; and

(2) after arrival in the U.S., adults and children are at risk of labor trafficking.

Two examples. One client entered the U.S. as a 15-year-old girl with her father. A family friend coerced her into leaving home. They traveled to live several states away where this friend groomed her to be sex-trafficked.

A client entered the U.S. without inspection with her boyfriend. He brought her to live with his family.  Before long, he demanded that she repay him $10,000 he had paid smugglers for entry. He sexually assaulted her. She was forced into a low-paid, illegal job to cover her “debt.”

No one is going to believe you. You don’t have a voice. Here you are nobody,” she was told.

To help women and girls, victims of trafficking, survive, heal, and ultimately integrate into society and live a life free of further exploitation, a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that provides survivors with immigration and other legal protections and adequate support services is critical.  The criminal justice approach focused on punishing traffickers, by itself, is insufficient to address the human rights of sex and labor trafficked survivors.

On behalf of our clients, the Advocates for Human Rights thanks the Committee for this important initiative.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Committee to consider the experience of our women and girl clients, as well as the recommendation for a victim-centered approach to identify and respond to meet the needs of trafficked women and girls in the context of global migration.

Jenna goes to the United Nations

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Thanks to The Advocates for Human Rights, I just had the opportunity to take my interest in human rights work— and particularly my longstanding advocacy work on gender violence issues— to the United Nations in Geneva. Along with 11 others, including representatives from NGOs in Cameroon and Azerbaijan, I participated in The Advocates’ annual UN Study Advocacy trip, where we spent five days in Geneva at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council lobbying Human Rights Council members on gender violence, LGBTQ and death penalty issues. Even though I am just 17, during the week The Advocates ensured that I was not just a passive observer to their work – rather, they allowed me the opportunity to play an active role providing me with an opportunity to be an advocate at the international level.

On my first full day in Geneva, I got the opportunity to participate in a side event panel on Violence Against Women. I was honored to speak alongside experts in the field in women’s rights and gender violence, who addressed the issue of gender violence in Azerbaijan, Columbia and Russia. My presentation focused on gender violence at the high school level, an often overlooked issue. I spoke about, among other things, the need to change the dynamic and educate children at a young age about the meaning of consent. My hope is that by early education we might be able to dissipate the prevalence of gender violence in the community at large.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the next day I actually got to make an oral statement to the Human Rights Council — on the floor of the United Nations — on the implementation of the Vienna Declaration. The Vienna Declaration emphasizes the importance of eliminating “gender bias in the administration of justice.” In my statement, I spoke about the importance of criminal laws in combating violence against women and the need for UN member states to adopt laws in line with international standards to protect victim safety and promote offender accountability. I am glad I can speak quickly – as, during this particular session, each NGO had 90 seconds to speak. They actually cut you off if you go over your time. I think the man sitting next to me was a bit surprised to see someone so young sitting in the NGO speaker seat.

On days following, I got the opportunity to participate in small meetings with staff members of the Special Rapporteur on human trafficking in persons, especially in women and children and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women. We got to learn about their priorities for the coming year and some of the amazing work they have been doing. The representatives of the Special Rapporteurs truly seemed interested in the work of The Advocates and solicited examples of best practices as well as assistance in their ongoing work.

I also got to lobby. One of the primary reasons The Advocates attends the Human Rights Council sessions is to encourage delegates to comment during the Universal Periodic Review process – which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. It is done in cycles so every country is not up for review at once. During the UPR process there is an opportunity for any government to raise questions and make recommendations about any other government’s human rights compliance. Before the trip, The Advocates did extensive research regarding the human rights record of several countries up for their UPR — Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, and Russia – and prepared recommendations on ways those countries could make improvement on issues including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the death penalty. With those recommendations in hand, along with other members of our team, I got to approach delegates encouraging them to meet with us to discuss The Advocates’ recommendations – and, if they didn’t want to meet, giving them prepared fact sheets on the various issues. While at first I was afraid to approach some of the delegates (you literally go into the Human Rights Council chamber and tap people on the shoulder and ask them to speak with you), I was excited to see how receptive people were to speak with us. I understand that in the past, many delegates have not only adopted The Advocates suggested recommendations but also that the recommendations were ultimately accepted by the countries under review.

I also had the opportunity to watch the Human Rights Council debates. I got to hear a representative from Hungary declare that migration was not a fundamental human right and hear a delegate from Cuba call out US hypocrisy on issues of civil and human rights. More importantly, I got to watch in action a body of international players trying to hold countries accountable for human rights violations – asking questions and making proposals. It was amazing to see individual countries human rights records being held up to public scrutiny. I loved the fact that UNTV televises the debates, so that the discussions are readily accessible throughout the world.

Finally, I got to watch The Advocates staff in action – creating a team out of a group with disparate skill sets and expertise. Robin, Jennifer, Rose and Amy willingly shared their expertise, helping us all to become better advocates. I have a new found understanding of the importance of their work – and the influence they have at the international level. I will be forever grateful for this experience from which I learned so much not only from watching the UN in action but also from the members of the team who were incredibly kind and supportive. And, in case any of the team members are interested, I did get my AP American History paper on the Chinese Exclusion Act done in time (although the last night of our trip was a very long night).

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C.