Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Amane and Sinke 2

During the week of September 22, the International Oromo Youth Association’s (IOYA) president, vice president, and I were in Geneva—invited there to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. IOYA worked diligently to raise funds from the Oromo diaspora to support our trip. The week was a good illustration of many of the ways diaspora groups can use the United Nations to advocate for human rights in their countries of origin and ancestry–the focus of Chapter 9 of our diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.

The treaty-body review process is cyclical, like the Universal Periodic Review. It typically starts with the government’s report on its compliance with the treaty. You can read the Ethiopian Government’s report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child here. Next, civil society groups like The Advocates for Human Rights and IOYA can submit their own alternative reports (also called “parallel” or “shadow” reports), responding to the government’s report and identifying issues that need further attention. Read our report to the Committee here.

Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child
Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child

The next step in the process is for the Committee to publish a “list of issues” to guide the rest of the review. The Committee on the Rights of the Child invites some civil society organizations to meet with Committee members in person for a confidential briefing before it finalizes the list of issues. We met with the Committee on September 26 and had a productive dialogue about their issues of concern and ours. But because the closed-door session is confidential, I won’t go into details of what we discussed.

Two weeks later, the Committee published its list of issues for its upcoming review of Ethiopia. The Committee included many—but not all—of the issues we raised in our report. Based on the list of issues, we know the Committee is concerned about issues such as “discrimination and stigma faced by girls, children with disabilities, and children of ethnic minorities”; sexual abuse of children, including children with disabilities; FGM; support for children with disabilities, including children who live and/or work in the streets; “relocation of a significant number of indigenous families, belonging, inter alia, to the Anuak, Nuer or Oromo, under the ‘villagization’ programme, . . . to areas unsuitable for agricultural use, where they lack access to education and basic necessities”; child domestic workers; abuse and violence against children; and sexual violence perpetrated by teachers against students.

The next step in the process is for the Ethiopian Government to submit a written response to the list of issues. The Committee requested a response by March 15, 2015, but oftentimes the responses come much later.

Now that we know the issues the Committee is concerned about, we have the opportunity to submit a new report if we have any additional information that might be relevant. And after the Ethiopian Government submits its written response, we can submit our own alternative report to highlight any inaccuracies or omissions in the government’s report.

Next, the Ethiopian Government will send a delegation to Geneva for an “examination” by the Committee. The examination will take place during the Committee’s session running from May 18 to June 5, 2015. The examination isn’t limited to the topics covered in the list of issues, so it’s possible the Committee will voice its concern then about the government’s violent crackdown on student protests. Then, after the session, the Committee will publish its Concluding Observations and Recommendations for the Ethiopian Government. You can read the Concluding Observations from Ethiopia’s last review, in 2006, at this link.

To learn more about the UN treaty body review process, read pages 224-233 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA Meets with UN Special Procedures Staff

IOYA President Amane Badhasso meeting with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders
IOYA President Amane Badhasso meets with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders

We didn’t travel all that way just for one meeting. Rather, we decided to make the most of our time by following up on a letter we sent to some of the UN Special Procedures in June, encouraging them to visit Ethiopia to investigate the government crackdown on the Oromo protests. We met with staff of several special procedures, discussing the possibility of a country visit and also talking about what role the Oromo diaspora could play in assisting people who might want to submit individual communications to the special procedures. To learn more about how to engage with the UN Special Procedures, read pages 211-222 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA and The Advocates Host a Side Event
While the Human Rights Council is in session, NGOs with consultative status, like The Advocates for Human Rights, can apply for space at the United Nations to host a “side event.” To learn more about applying for consultative status with the United Nations, read pages 310-312 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA representatives present at the side event
IOYA Vice President, Sinke Wesho (right) presents at the side event

The Advocates and IOYA hosted a side event called “Diaspora Engagement on Human Rights: Ethiopia as a Case Study.” I introduced the audience to our Paving Pathways toolkit, and then I turned the floor over to my IOYA colleagues. IOYA’s President, Amane Badhasso, spoke about the ways in which the Oromo diaspora used social media to engage in advocacy surrounding the Oromo protests. To learn more about how you can conduct an effective human rights advocacy campaign, including a campaign using social media, read Chapter 7 , as well as Appendix C and D, of Paving Pathways.

IOYA’s Vice President, Sinke Wesho, talked about the issue of human trafficking from Ethiopia and the efforts of the diaspora to assist victims and document the problem. To learn how you can get involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, read Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA had invited members of the Oromo diaspora in the Geneva area to attend, but a mix-up by security at the entrance gate meant that most of them were not allowed into the building. Nonetheless, the event was well-attended. Even Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva attended, perhaps to monitor whether people were criticizing Ethiopia. He listened politely and when we opened the session up for questions and comments, he praised the IOYA representatives for their advocacy. But then he went on to suggest that the criticisms of the Ethiopian government were unfounded. After the event, people came up to congratulate the IOYA representatives and take photos. When the cameras began to flash, Mr. Hidug angrily lashed out at the people taking photos, insisting that he did not authorize anyone to take his photo: “This is Switzerland, so if someone says you cannot take their photograph, you must not do so!” From my perspective, though, nobody was interested in taking his photograph.

The Advocates Delivers Statements During Human Rights Council Debates, Prompts Ethiopia to Exercise Right of Reply
NGOs with consultative status can also take the floor and make statements during certain periods of the Human Rights Council’s debates. While we were in Geneva, I delivered two statements.

Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council
Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council

The first was during a general debate about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related forms of intolerance following an interactive dialogue on access to justice with the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. I spoke about the importance of access to justice for Africans living in the diaspora, particularly for human rights violations that occurred in their country of origin. You can read my statement here, and watch me deliver it here. (Scroll down to Chapter 21 of the video.)

The second statement was during a general debate on technical assistance and capacity-building. I spoke about the importance of providing technical assistance and capacity-building to diaspora communities that want to improve human rights and accountability in their countries of origin and ancestry. I pointed to Ethiopia as a particularly relevant example, noting that the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation had stifled civil society work on human rights within Ethiopia. In such circumstances, I observed, it is particularly important to build the capacity of diaspora organizations to promote human rights in their country of origin. You can watch me deliver the second statement here. (Scroll down to Chapter 52 of the video.)

Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Miniester Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia's right of reply in response to The Advocates' statement to the Human Rights Council
Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia’s right of reply in response to The Advocates’ statement to the Human Rights Council

During these debates, countries may exercise a “right of reply” to respond to a statement made by another country or by an NGO. Mr. Ephrem Hidug, who had attended our side event earlier that day, felt compelled to respond to our statement. This time, though, he couldn’t stop the cameras from rolling.

He denied that the Charities and Societies Proclamation has had a negative effect on civil society organizations in Ethiopia, asserting that Ethiopia has thousands of organizations active on “advocacy, development, humanitarian, and other things.” Notably, he did not state that they work on human rights issues. You can listen to his full statement here at Chapter 69.

All Work and No Play . . . .

Switzerland's Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne
Switzerland’s Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne

As it turned out, at the end of our busy week in Geneva, Switzerland’s Oromo community had organized a celebration of Irreechaa, a harvest festival sometimes referred to as the “Oromo Thanksgiving.” The IOYA representatives and I traveled to Lausanne, a lovely town on the shore of Lake Geneva, and enjoyed a wonderful day soaking in Oromo culture, music, and food. Oromos had come from all over Switzerland–some had driven from more than 2 hours away–to join in the celebration. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality and their eagerness to hear what we had accomplished during our brief visit.

Advice for Diaspora Advocates Around the World: It’s a Long-Term Commitment

Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of Palais Wilson in Geneva
Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of the Palais des Nations in Geneva

After our busy week in Geneva, I asked IOYA President Amane Badhasso to reflect on what she’d done and lessons learned. I encouraged her to share advice that she would give to other diaspora organizations–both Oromo groups and other diaspora communities–that want to promote human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. Here are her recommendations:

The promotion of human rights is a long-term commitment, and those who want to implement/promote human rights in their country of origin should understand the issues within their country of origin and tell stories from the perspective of those on the ground. In addition, it is important for those in the diaspora to utilize all tools available to lobby their country of residence and assure that the international community is aware of various abuses in the country of origin. It is also crucial to educate the public and use resources available to collaborate with groups that deal with human rights advocacy so that a practical outcome could come out of advocacy.

During our week in Geneva, we learned about many ways the Oromo diaspora can engage in advocacy at the United Nations. IOYA can’t take on all of these strategies on its own; there are many opportunities for other diaspora groups to get involved. But our advocacy with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was an important step in raising visibility about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Are you a member of a diaspora community? What ways can you engage with the United Nations to promote human rights in your country of origin or ancestry?

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts about human rights in Ethiopia:

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Ambo Protests: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy? (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Going Back (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

The Torture and Brutal Murder of Alsan Hassen by Ethiopian Police Will Shock Your Conscience (by Amane Badhasso at Opride)

#OromoProtests in Perspective (by Ayantu Tibeso at Twin Cities Daily Planet)

Too Young to Wed

too young to wed close

I’m traveling to Geneva next week along with representatives of the International Oromo Youth Association to meet with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to talk about children’s rights in Ethiopia. We submitted a report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in July, and the Committee invited us to meet with Committee members in a 2.5 hour, closed-door session next Friday.

hall overview 2As I get ready to head back to Geneva, my thoughts turn to my last visit to the United Nations, back in March. As I wandered through the Palais des Nations complex of buildings after a busy day, I came across an exhibit that left me speechless. This exhibit was in the majestic main hallway of the old League of Nations building—a space with towering ceilings and beautiful views of Lake Geneva. But in that grand setting was a photo exhibit about a pernicious contemporary global human rights violation: child marriage. Child marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, but as it turns out, several of the girls in the exhibit are from Ethiopia.

And the exhibit is particularly timely right now. On Monday, Bangladesh approved a law that will impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who marries a girl under age 18. And on Wednesday, a judge in India admonished the parents and in-laws of a 14-year-old bride, stating “Child marriage is an evil worst than rape and should be completely eradicated from the society.” The magistrate continued:

There are serious outcomes of child marriage. It is the worst form of domestic violence against the child, not only by the respondents (husband and his family) but also by her own parents. Child brides have a diminished chance of completing their education and are at a higher risk of being physically abused, contracting HIV and other diseases, and dying while pregnant or giving birth.

The traveling exhibit, called “Too Young to Wed” (more information at the bottom of this post), is a striking example of how art can inform our understanding of human rights issues:

Yemen: Young girls sit inside a home outside of Al Hudaydah. Yemeni women’s rights groups agree that child marriage is rampant in every part of Yemeni society.
Yemen: Young girls sit inside a home outside of Al Hudaydah. Yemeni women’s rights groups agree that child marriage is rampant in every part of Yemeni society.
Yemen: Galiyaah, age 13, Sidaba, age 11, Khawlah, age 12. In Yemen, where marriage can resemble a business transaction, sisters Galiyaah (left) and Sidaba (center), marry the brothers of their cousin, Khawlah (right), who wed the sisters’ uncle.
Yemen: Galiyaah, age 13, Sidaba, age 11, Khawlah, age 12. In Yemen, where marriage can resemble a business transaction, sisters Galiyaah (left) and Sidaba (center), marry the brothers of their cousin, Khawlah (right), who wed the sisters’ uncle.
Ethiopia: Debitu, age 14. Debitu escaped from her husband after months of abuse. Seven months pregnant, she is now homeless and uncertain of her future. “I didn’t want to get pregnant because I was very small. I wanted to wait until I am old enough. . . Sometimes I think I will die [during child birth].”
Ethiopia: Debitu, age 14. Debitu escaped from her husband after months of abuse. Seven months pregnant, she is now homeless and uncertain of her future. “I didn’t want to get pregnant because I was very small. I wanted to wait until I am old enough. . . Sometimes I think I will die [during child birth].”
Nepal: Surita, age 16, Bishal, age 15. Bishal accepts gifts from visitors as his new bride, Surita, sits bored at her new home. Here in Nepal, as in many countries, not only girls, but boys too are married young.
Nepal: Surita, age 16, Bishal, age 15. Bishal accepts gifts from visitors as his new bride, Surita, sits bored at her new home. Here in Nepal, as in many countries, not only girls, but boys too are married young.
Nepal: Sumeena, Age 15. Sumeena leaves her home to meet her groom, Prakash, 15. The harmful practice of child marriage is common in Nepal.
Nepal: Sumeena, age 15. Sumeena leaves her home to meet her groom, Prakash, 15. The harmful practice of child marriage is common in Nepal.
Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11, Addisu, age 23. Addisu and his new bride Destaye are married in a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox wedding in a rural area outside the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. Community members said that because of Addisu’s standing as a priest, his bride had to be a virgin. This was the reason Destaye was given to him at such a young age.
Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11, Addisu, age 23. Addisu and his new bride Destaye are married in a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox wedding in a rural area outside the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. Community members said that because of Addisu’s standing as a priest, his bride had to be a virgin. This was the reason Destaye was given to him at such a young age.
(right) Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11. Destaye, now 15, intended to continue her schooling, in spite of the teasing she endured from her community. “They used to laugh at me for going to school after marriage,” she said. “But I know the use of school so I don’t care. . . . But people laughing at you makes it more difficult.” But after the birth of her son six months ago, Destaye no longer had time for classes. “I feel sad because I quit learning,” she said.
(right) Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11. Destaye, now 15, intended to continue her schooling, in spite of the teasing she endured from her community. “They used to laugh at me for going to school after marriage,” she said. “But I know the use of school so I don’t care. . . . But people laughing at you makes it more difficult.” But after the birth of her son six months ago, Destaye no longer had time for classes. “I feel sad because I quit learning,” she said.
Ethiopia: Members of the Fistula Girls Club and the Community-based Reproductive Association get ready to perform a traditional dance during a performance against child marriage in Shende village in Ethiopia. This is one of many events hosted by the groups to discourage early marriage and other harmful practices in the Bure district.
Ethiopia: Members of the Fistula Girls Club and the Community-based Reproductive Association get ready to perform a traditional dance during a performance against child marriage in Shende village in Ethiopia. This is one of many events hosted by the groups to discourage early marriage and other harmful practices in the Bure district.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11. Ghulam plays in the village on the day of her engagement. Removed from school just months earlier, she said she is sad to be getting engaged because she wanted to be a teacher. Parents sometimes remove their daughters from school to protect them from the possibility of sexual activity outside of wedlock.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11. Ghulam plays in the village on the day of her engagement. Removed from school just months earlier, she said she is sad to be getting engaged because she wanted to be a teacher. Parents sometimes remove their daughters from school to protect them from the possibility of sexual activity outside of wedlock.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11; Faiz, age 40. Ghulam and Faiz, age 40, sit for a portrait in her home before their wedding in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of State report “Human Rights Practices for 2011,” approximately 60 percent of girls were married younger than the legal age of 16. Once a girl’s father has agreed to her engagement, she is pulled out of school immediately.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11; Faiz, age 40. Ghulam and Faiz, age 40, sit for a portrait in her home before their wedding in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of State report “Human Rights Practices for 2011,” approximately 60 percent of girls were married younger than the legal age of 16. Once a girl’s father has agreed to her engagement, she is pulled out of school immediately.
Yemen: Nujood, age 12. Nujood Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband, who was more than 20 years her senior. Nujood’s story sent shock waves around the country and caused parliament to consider a bill writing a minimum marriage age into law.
Yemen: Nujood, age 12. Nujood Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband, who was more than 20 years her senior. Nujood’s story sent shock waves around the country and caused parliament to consider a bill writing a minimum marriage age into law.
Ethiopia: Street girls attend classes at Godanaw Rehabilitation Integrated Project (GRIP) in Addis Ababa. This Ethiopian humanitarian shelter provides skills training and health care to thousands of street girls—three-quarters of whom have escaped early marriages in the countryside.
Ethiopia: Street girls attend classes at Godanaw Rehabilitation Integrated Project (GRIP) in Addis Ababa. This Ethiopian humanitarian shelter provides skills training and health care to thousands of street girls—three-quarters of whom have escaped early marriages in the countryside.
Yemen: Asia, age 14. Asia washes her newborn at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-oldl daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth, yet has no knowledge of how to care for herself or access to maternal health care.
Yemen: Asia, age 14. Asia washes her newborn at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth, yet has no knowledge of how to care for herself or access to maternal health care.
Ethiopia: China, age 18. A young sex worker named China sits stunned after being beaten up by a client. Many of the girls who run away from child marriages end up trafficked to brothels where they often face intense violence.
Ethiopia: China, age 18. A young sex worker named China sits stunned after being beaten up by a client. Many of the girls who run away from child marriages end up trafficked to brothels where they often face intense violence.
Afghanistan: Jamila, age 15. Kandahar policewoman Malalai Kakar arrests a man who repeatedly stabbed his wife, 15, and mother of two children, for disobeying him. When asked what would happen to the husband for this crime, Kakar replied, “Nothing. Men are kings here.” Kakar was later killed by the Taliban.
Afghanistan: Jamila, age 15. Kandahar policewoman Malalai Kakar arrests a man who repeatedly stabbed his wife, 15, and mother of two children, for disobeying him. When asked what would happen to the husband for this crime, Kakar replied, “Nothing. Men are kings here.” Kakar was later killed by the Taliban.
Afghanistan: Mejgon, Age 16. Mejgon weeps in the arms of the case worker near fellow residents at an NGO shelter run by Afghan women in Herat, Afghanistan. Mejgon’s father sold her at the age of 11 to a 60-year-old man for two boxes of heroin.
Afghanistan: Mejgon, Age 16. Mejgon weeps in the arms of the case worker near fellow residents at an NGO shelter run by Afghan women in Herat, Afghanistan. Mejgon’s father sold her at the age of 11 to a 60-year-old man for two boxes of heroin.
Yemen: Tehani, age 8. “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” Tehani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for a portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their home in Hajjah.
Yemen: Tehani, age 8. “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” Tehani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for a portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their home in Hajjah.
India: Sarita, age 15. Sarita is seen in tears before she is sent to her new home with her new groom. The previous day, she and her 8-year-old sister Maya were married to sibling brothers.
India: Sarita, age 15. Sarita is seen in tears before she is sent to her new home with her new groom. The previous day, she and her 8-year-old sister Maya were married to sibling brothers.
(left) India: Rajani, age 5. Long after midnight, Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of the morning. “It becomes a secret the whole village keeps,” explained one farmer.
(left) India: Rajani, age 5. Long after midnight, Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of the morning. “It becomes a secret the whole village keeps,” explained one farmer.
India: Rajani, age 5. Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.
India: Rajani, age 5. Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.
Ethiopia: Agere, age 32. Agere breastfeeds her twin newborns. Agere was married at age 12 to her husband, who later gave her AIDS. The twins have tested HIV positive. Now abandoned, she does not have enough money to buy them uninfected milk.
Ethiopia: Agere, age 32. Agere breastfeeds her twin newborns. Agere was married at age 12 to her husband, who later gave her AIDS. The twins have tested HIV positive. Now abandoned, she does not have enough money to buy them uninfected milk.
Nepal: Niruta, age 14. A nine-months pregnant Niruta carries grass for her family’s farm animals in Kagati Village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Niruta moved in with the family of Durga, 17, and became pregnant when they were only engaged.
Nepal: Niruta, age 14. A nine-months pregnant Niruta carries grass for her family’s farm animals in Kagati Village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Niruta moved in with the family of Durga, 17, and became pregnant when they were only engaged.
Afghanistan: Bibi Aisha, age 19. In a practice known as baad, Bibi Aisha’s father promised her to a Taliban fighter when she was 6 years old as compensation for a killing that a member of her family had committed. She was married at 16 and subjected to constant abuse. At 18, she fled the abuse but was caught by police, jailed and then returned to her family. Her father-in-law, husband and three other family members took her into the mountains, cut off her nose and her ears, and left her to die. “I was a woman exchanged for someone else’s wrongdoing. [My new husband] was looking for an excuse to beat me.”
Afghanistan: Bibi Aisha, age 19. In a practice known as baad, Bibi Aisha’s father promised her to a Taliban fighter when she was 6 years old as compensation for a killing that a member of her family had committed. She was married at 16 and subjected to constant abuse. At 18, she fled the abuse but was caught by police, jailed and then returned to her family. Her father-in-law, husband and three other family members took her into the mountains, cut off her nose and her ears, and left her to die. “I was a woman exchanged for someone else’s wrongdoing. [My new husband] was looking for an excuse to beat me.”
(left) Afghanistan: Roshan, age 8. Female relatives of the bride-to-be, Roshan, prepare food and tea for guests on the day of her engagement to Said, 55, at her home in rural Afghanistan. Upset about the engagement of her daughter, Roshan’s mother exclaimed, “We are selling our daughters because we don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children!” (center) Yemen: Tehani, age 8. Tehani works in the fields just outside her village in a rural area of Hajjah, Yemen. (right) Nepal: Surita, age 16. Village leader Pudke Shreshta Balami blesses the home of Surita directly following the wedding ceremony in Nepal.
(left) Afghanistan: Roshan, age 8. Female relatives of the bride-to-be, Roshan, prepare food and tea for guests on the day of her engagement to Said, 55, at her home in rural Afghanistan. Upset about the engagement of her daughter, Roshan’s mother exclaimed, “We are selling our daughters because we don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children!”
(center) Yemen: Tehani, age 8. Tehani works in the fields just outside her village in a rural area of Hajjah, Yemen.
(right) Nepal: Surita, age 16. Village leader Pudke Shreshta Balami blesses the home of Surita directly following the wedding ceremony in Nepal.

Too Young to Wed is part of a transmedia campaign led by VII Photo Agency photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has documented the global issue of child marriage for nearly a decade. The original photos in the exhibit were taken by Sinclair and Jessica Dimmock. Too Young to Wed is a partnership between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and VII, a premier photo agency known for focusing on social issues and human rights. Sinclair and Dimmock collaborated on the project. Learn more about the project here.

You can read more about child marriage. The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program maintains the Stop Violence Against Women (StopVAW) website, which includes information and resources about child marriage. In December 2013, an organization called Women Living Under Muslim Laws submitted the results of its multi-country study on child and forced marriage to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

How can you use words, images, cartoons, and other media to be an advocate for human rights?

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

For more on children’s rights in Ethiopia, read the report by The Advocates for Human Rights and the International Oromo Youth Association to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

UN flags_HighRes

Update: This blog post was updated on May 30, 2014, after the Armenian Mission to the UN in Geneva contacted The Advocates with the final, official version of the statement that was delivered on May 6. The changes do not have any particular relevance to the substance of this post. To see the statement that was uploaded to the UN website and included in the original post, please click here.

We often say at The Advocates for Human Rights that making progress on human rights is running a marathon, not a sprint. For example, the United Nations’ newest human rights mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), takes place just once every four and a half years for each country.

The Ethiopian Government's delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos
The Ethiopian Government’s delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos

So it was particularly fortuitous that the UPR of Ethiopia took place this morning, as Oromo students continue a second week of demonstrations across the federal state of Oromia to protest the Ethiopian Government’s plans to annex that state’s lands in order to expand the territory of Addis Ababa, and as the Oromo diaspora gears up for protests around the world on Friday to show their support for the students on the ground.

Despite the UPR’s early hour–2:00 this morning here in Minnesota, or “Little Oromia” as the diaspora calls it–social media have been buzzing about the review. And as the 3 1/2 hour review progressed, the Oromo diaspora reported on breaking news of more student protests in Oromia.

A quick primer on the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review
Every country that is a member of the United Nations participates in the UPR once every 4 1/2 years. Unlike the opt-in treaty-body review processes, where independent human rights experts conduct the examination, the UPR is a peer-to-peer diplomatic process. Governments comment on the human rights records of other governments. As you might expect, some governments shower their allies with praise, while other governments use the UPR to offer sharp criticism. Each statement typically includes some words of praise, some statements of concern, and some recommendations for the government under review. Later, the government under review must respond to each recommendation, stating whether it accepts or rejects it.

Like other UN human rights mechanisms, the UPR process has a role for civil society. Last September civil society organizations around the world submitted “stakeholder reports” about human rights conditions on the ground in Ethiopia. These reports are supposed to cover: (1) what progress the government has made on any recommendations it accepted during the last round of review; and (2) any developments since the last review.

Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014
Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014

Diaspora civil society groups play critical role in UN reviews
Diaspora advocacy is critical when the UN reviews the human rights records of closed societies like Ethiopia, where local groups may not feel free to criticize the government openly. The Advocates worked with the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota to prepare a stakeholder report for Ethiopia’s UPR, just as we have done for some of the UN’s treaty body review mechanisms. Other diaspora groups are also engaged in the process. For example, groups like the International Oromo Women’s Organization, the UK and Australia and branches of the Oromia Support Group, and the Toronto-based Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa also submitted stakeholder reports for today’s UPR.

Earlier this year, we did in-person and email advocacy with the Geneva missions of governments that we thought might be receptive to the issues we raised in our report. And over the weekend, we followed up with an update on the student protests and government crack-down in Oromia. Watching the live webcast this morning, we were relieved to see that many governments took up some of the Oromo diaspora’s concerns.

The Advocates’ new diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways, includes a chapter on how to conduct advocacy at the United Nations, and another on advocacy with regional human rights mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Armenia draws attention to diaspora ties, recent casualties in Oromia

Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia's statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014
Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia’s statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014

A whopping 119 governments signed up to make statements during the review. Because of the limited time and intense interest, each government had just 65 seconds to make its points.You can watch the full review here.

The Armenian government offered the most direct commentary on the student protests in Oromia, and also referenced the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia:

We would like to stress the friendly relations existing between our 2 nations. The presence of the Armenian community in Ethiopia has a centuries old history. Armenia particularly appreciates the generosity of the Ethiopian people and government, who hosted and integrated the survivors of the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

Armenia commends the commitment of Ethiopia to the promotion of human rights, including respect for minority rights, cultural diversity and tolerance. In this regard, we are concerned about the reports of recent casualties in the state of Oromia. Armenia hopes that Ethiopia will continue to make efforts to further promote human rights, as a basis for encouraging tolerance and diversity in the country. . . .We have 2 recommendations for Ethiopia:

1) To further promote tolerance and dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups.

2) To further develop and expand human rights awareness-raising programs in the country.

Perhaps reflecting last-minute changes to incorporate a reference to the government’s use of lethal force against student protesters in Oromia last week, the version of Armenia’s statement originally uploaded to the UN website includes the words “New Version” in handwriting at the top.

Governments press Ethiopia to address inter-ethnic conflict, allow free expression, open up civil society
Governments raised a variety of important human rights issues, many of which directly concern the Oromo people, as reflected in our stakeholder report. (Click the country name to read the full text of the country’s statement.)

  • Violence and mistreatment by security forces
    • Costa Rica urged Ethiopia to take urgent measures to investigate torture and extrajudicial killings committed by the national defense forces of Ethiopia.
    • Finland and Montenegro recommended that Ethiopia ensure that is has clear, independent, and effective complaints mechanisms in place for individuals to raise allegations of mistreatment by security, military, and law enforcement authorities and prison officials.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to set up police and military training on human rights.
  • Forcible resettlement of farmers and pastoralists
    • Austria recommended that Ethiopia’s national human rights institutions be equipped with the resources and capacities needed to independently investigate, and provide appeals and redress for, alleged human rights violations in relation to the resettlement of communities through Ethiopia’s Commune Development Program. The United Kingdom also expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of abuses by special police in relation to relocation programs.
    • Bolivia encouraged Ethiopia to protect the rights of farmers and other rural workers.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to strengthen measures to ensure food security.
    • Malaysia and Thailand urged Ethiopia to step up efforts to improve health services, especially in rural areas.
    • Morocco recommended that Ethiopia ensure that all segments of society benefit from economic growth.
  • Ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution
    • Namibia urged Ethiopia to enhance the institutional and financial capacities of the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission to effectively carry out its mandate, especially with regard to its working relations with the Oromo, Ogaden, Gambella, and Somali communities.
    • The Holy See urged Ethiopia to improve its outreach to all ethnic communities to actively participate in the political process.
    • Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua urged the Ethiopian Government to combat racism, intolerance, and other forms of discrimination directed at vulnerable groups.
    • Burundi and the Holy See, like Armenia, recommended that Ethiopia expand activities to promote inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Canada made a similar recommendation to address inter-religious tensions.
    • Tunisia called on Ethiopia to address education discrimination, and Sudan recommended that Ethiopia expand primary education in students’ mother tongue.
    • Malaysia, the Maldives, and Namibia encouraged Ethiopia to improve the quality of education for children, especially in rural areas.
  • Freedom of expression and association for opposition political parties, human rights defenders
    • Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia fully implement its constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, expression, and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups, and non-governmental organizations.
    • Canada urged Ethiopia to fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists, and journalists from arbitrary detention. Estonia called on Ethiopia to end harassment of political opposition party members, journalists, and human rights defenders. Finland recommended that Ethiopia take further measures to ensure the safety and freedom of action of human rights defenders.
  • Restrictions on civil society, media; anti-terrorism measures
    • Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia abolish or amend its Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow non-governmental organizations to operate more effectively and to receive funding from outside the country.
    • Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland urged Ethiopia to narrow its definition of terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and exclude the practice of journalism from the definition, to ensure protections for freedom of expression and assembly, and to better allow non-governmental organizations to function. The United States called for Ethiopia to ensure that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is applied apolitically.
    • The Czech Republic also called on Ethiopia to immediately release all journalists detained for their professional activities, including the bloggers and journalists arrested in April 2014 and those jailed earlier, such as Mr. Nega and Ms Alemu.
    • Estonia, Ireland and South Korea urged Ethiopia to stop online censorship and respect freedom of the press. Ghana recommended that Ethiopia decriminalize defamation.
    • Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France encouraged Ethiopia to amend its Mass Media Proclamation to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
  • Due process and judicial independence
    • Botswana expressed concern about intimidation, harassment, threats, and firing of judges who resist political pressure, and called on Ethiopia to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
    • Switzerland called on Ethiopia to ensure the right to a fair trial.
  • Disappearances, torture in detention facilities
    • Argentina, France, Japan, Paraguay, and Tunisia recommended that the Ethiopian Government take further actions to address enforced disappearances, such as ratifying the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.
    • Austria and recommended that Ethiopia train all personnel in detention facilities to investigate and prosecute all alleged cases of torture. Paraguay and Spain also called for efforts to prevent torture in detention. The United Kingdom expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of mistreatment of prisoners. Bhutan and Russia recommended that Ethiopia improve prison conditions. Kyrgyzstan called on Ethiopia to add a definition of torture to its criminal code that includes all elements contained in the Convention Against Torture.
    • Hungary, Paraguay, and Tunisia urged Ethiopia to grant the Red Cross and other independent international mechanisms immediate, full, and genuine access to all detention facilities in Ethiopia, and Hungary expressed concern about allegations of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of detainees, including torture, rape, and prolonged incommunicado detention.

Recommendations to engage with UN Special Procedures

Some of the recommendations had to do with other United Nations procedures:

  • Ghana and Hungary, Japan, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Uruguay recommended that Ethiopia permit visits from all UN special procedures mandate-holders.
  • The United States called on Ethiopia to allow the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association to conduct a country visit, and the United Kingdom recommended that Ethiopia invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country.
  • Spain also urged Ethiopia to respond to individual communications from special procedures mandate-holders.

The Oromo diaspora may want to use some of these special procedures, described in more detail in our chapters of Paving Pathways on UN advocacy and capacity-building, to submit urgent action letters and request country visits to investigate the situation on the ground in Oromia.

What’s next?
The Ethiopian Government will have several months to examine the recommendations, but then it will have to say definitively whether it accepts or rejects each one. Civil society in Ethiopia, with support from the diaspora, can then lobby for implementation of any accepted recommendations. And the diaspora can engage in remote monitoring of rejected recommendations to continue to shed light on ongoing human rights violations.

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for advocacy at the United Nations specifically relating to the rights of children in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and July 1 is the deadline for civil society groups to share information with the human rights experts on the Committee on the Rights of the Child as they prepare for their 2015 review of Ethiopia. Oromos in the diaspora who are concerned about students in Oromia who are under age 18 and who have faced violence, threats, and arrests because of their participation in protests may want to engage in more systematic remote monitoring and then write a report to bring the issue to the attention of the Committee. They may also want to raise other human rights concerns relevant to children in Ethiopia.

Advocacy at the UN is a long process, but when governments stifle dissent and ignore civil society, sometimes international pressure can prompt incremental reforms. Persistent advocacy from diaspora groups is essential to the process.  The Oromo diaspora is up to the task. We know, after all, that the Oromo people are particularly talented distance runners and can run the marathon needed to improve human rights in Ethiopia.

This post is the second in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 1 describes the important role the Oromo diaspora is playing in remotely monitoring recent human rights developments in Ethiopia. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

RainbowFLASH

Update: Great news! A district court in Nizhni Tagil acquitted Elena Klimova on charges of violating Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, according to a report this morning from Deti-404.

In the court hearing, Klimova’s attorney, Maria Kozlovskaya, presented an expert opinion that Deti-404 does not contain information that “promotes non-traditional sexual relations,” and that in fact the site helps LGBTI teenagers cope with their feelings. Kozlovskaya, an attorney for the Russian LGBT Network, that the law contradicts “Russia’s international obligations and, as it was proved by the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, consolidates discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and violates the freedom of speech.”

“. . . [S]ometimes common sense wins,” Klimova said, expressing her relief.

Vitali Milonov, the St. Petersburg deputy who called for Klimova to be charged under the law, announced on Twitter that he will appeal the court’s decision. In a statement on Facebook, the Deti-404 team responded: “The Deti-404 project will continue to work regardless of any attack on us. Only one reason can serve as a pretext for closing the project – complete overcoming of homophobia in Russia and the cessation of harassment of LGBT teens. We hope that such a time will surely come!”

Original post:

In 2010, in response to an alarming escalation in the number of students in the United States committing suicide after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage and his then-partner (now husband) Terry Miller created a YouTube video with a message of hope for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people facing harassment.

Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr
Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr

Savage and Miller launched the It Gets Better Project as a way for supporters around the world to use social media to record and share video messages telling LGBTI youth that, yes, it does indeed get better.

LGBTI youth in all corners of the world can feel isolated and alone, lacking support from peers, teachers, and frequently even their own families. These young people can often find solace and support on the internet, whether by watching It Gets Better Project videos, joining Facebook support groups, tweeting about their experiences, or joining anonymous chat rooms where they can talk with other LGBTI youth.

Youth suicide in Russia is a chronic problem; rates are three times the world average, and Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe. Russia’s law banning gay propaganda strikes at the very heart of critical lifelines for vulnerable LGBTI youth.

From Sochi to Social Media: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Free Expression

Despite President Putin’s assurances that LGBTI visitors to the Olympics could “feel free,” on Sunday Russian authorities detained Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender activist and former member of the Italian Parliament, after she held up a sign in Olympic Park saying “Gay is Okay” in Russian. Upon her arrival in Sochi, she tweeted:

On Monday, Luxuria was again detained, this time as she attempted to enter an arena to watch an Olympic hockey game. She was wearing a rainbow-colored outfit and had been shouting, “It’s okay to be gay.” Four men who were not wearing identification surrounded her and shouted, “Take her away.” They placed her in a car with Olympic markings, stripped Luxuria of her Olympic spectator pass, and dumped her in the countryside about a 10-minute drive from the arena. She has since been asked to leave the country.

Luxuria’s detention and de facto deportation are particularly troubling in light of the International Olympic Committee’s assertion that it “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [anti-LGBTI propaganda] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Luxuria’s case just the latest in a series of detentions and prosecutions under the new propaganda law:

  • In December, authorities in Arkhangelsk found Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko guilty of violating the law for holding up banners in front of a children’s library reading: “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” They were fined 4,000 rubles and their appeal was denied.
  • Russian LGBTI activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan and was fined 4,000 rubles in January after a teenager saw photos of Isakov’s protest online and filed a complaint.
  • In late January, a court in Khabarovsk fined newspaper editor Alexander Suturin 50,000 rubles for publishing an interview with an openly gay teacher.
  • In January, a government commission threatened to take a 14-year-old girl to court after she held a one-person picket in the town of Kyatkova to protest the propaganda law. The commission subsequently dropped the case, but the girl remains fearful that authorities will reinstate proceedings against her.
  • A juvenile court in the city of Bryansk found a 9th grade girl in violation of the law for admitting her sexual orientation in front of her classmates. She was reportedly hospitalized after suffering a severe head injury at the hands of her father.
  • On the day before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, ten LGBTI activists were arrested in Moscow after holding rainbow flags and singing the Russian national anthem. Four others were arrested for a similar demonstration the same day in St. Petersburg.
  • At the same time, however, police allowed an anti-gay demonstration in Sochi to proceed, despite a ban on demonstrations in the Olympic host city.
  • In January, police arrested a young man named Pavel Lebedev for waving a rainbow flag as the relay brought the Olympic torch through Voronezh.

Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Дети-404, Russia’s “It Gets Better Project”

Perhaps the most troubling investigation, however, is that of Elena Klimova, 25, founder of a social media support group for LGBTI teenagers called “Дети-404. ЛГБТ подростки. Мы есть!” (Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Klimova started Deti-404 last year after a 15-year-old lesbian named Nadya from a small town in Russia reached out to her. Klimova is a journalist, and she had posted a column to a news website expressing her dismay about the draft propaganda law. Nadya, who faced ruthless bullying at school and didn’t have support from her mother, contacted Klimova to thank her for the column, saying that it had helped keep her from committing suicide.

After speaking with Nadya, Klimova wondered why nobody was doing anything to help LGBTI youth in Russia: “Many of them close in on themselves, they don’t tell anyone. They are scared of parents and classmates. If they open up, parents sometimes beat them, insult them, throw them out, take away their phones, ban them from going on the internet and even lock them up in a psychiatric clinic.”

Klimova set up Deti-404 as an online support group for LGBTI youth. The name of the group is a play on the familiar internet message “Error 404, Page Not Found,” suggesting that LGBTI youth are unable to be visible in Russia.  On the Russian social networking site В Kонтакте (VK), Deti-404’s closed group for LGBTI youth had nearly 2,000 members as of last September, and the open group now has over 20,000 supporters. Deti-404’s parallel Facebook site has over 3,900 likes, and a supporter in the United Kingdom has started a blog posting English translations of Deti-404 posts.

"I refuse to be invisible" Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons
“I refuse to be invisible!”
Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons

Deti-404’s main approach is a photo campaign. LGBTI youth are invited to send in photographs, drawings, or other images, along with personal testimony about their experiences coming out, falling in love, or facing stigma and discrimination. To date, the site has published more than 1,000 letters from LGBTI youth. Klimova and her team also provide teenagers with contact information for LGBTI-friendly psychologists.

On January 31, 2014, Russian authorities launched proceedings against Klimova for violations of the propaganda law. Russian LGBTI teenagers turned to Deti-404 to express their support for Klimova and their fears that authorities would shut down Deti-404, including these posts:

Я только нашла эту группу (долго я искала=)), только нормально поверила, что смогу принять себя как человека, и тут такое… Без боя свой кусочек свободы не отдам!

I just found this group (I looked for a long time =)), and I just began to believe that I could accept myself as a person, and now this happens. . . I won’t give up my piece of freedom without a fight!

Если закроют и это место, где я впервые почувствовала себя хоть немного свободной – Капут. Как можно то… У меня не укладывается это в голове. Поддерживаю, бедная Лена…

If they shut down this site, where I for the first time felt a little free – kaput. How could they . . . I can’t wrap my head around it. I support you, poor Elena…

This post is the third in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo of a Rainbow Flashmob in St. Petersburg on the 2009 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, courtesy Воскресенский Пётр, Wikimedia Commons.

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists Are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Moscow_Pride_2010_(Family)

On June 30, 2013, just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decisions in favor of marriage equality in Windsor and Perry, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law Federal Law 135, which bans propaganda to minors about “non-traditional sexual relations.”

Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law "On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development," and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values
Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law “On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development,” and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values

For several years, opponents of marriage equality in the United States have turned their attention overseas, to places like Uganda, Nigeria, and Russia, where their rhetoric about “traditional family values” and their lies conflating homosexuality with sexual abuse of children appear to have found receptive audiences. Today, as the last days of the Sochi Olympics approach, and as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni prepares to sign into law a bill that would impose punishments of up to life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” it’s important to examine Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, its effect on children, and the origins of Russia’s law and others like it.

It Gets Worse: Russia’s Propaganda Law Targets Civil Society Groups that Support LGBTI Youth

Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)
Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)

Russia’s propaganda law is designed to isolate LGBTI youth in Russia from all possible sources of support, driving them deeper into the closet and ensuring that they won’t be able to see or hear any information that could suggest anything positive about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Article 3(2)(b) of Federal Law 135 imposes administrative fines and, in the case of non-citizens, deportation, for:

Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, including distribution of information that intends minors to adopt non-traditional sexual orientations, that makes non-traditional sexual relations attractive, that presents distorted conceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or that imposes information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest in these relations.

This language is just as vague in Russian as it is in my English translation. But what’s not vague are the penalties, which show that the law’s real targets are civil society organizations and individuals who use the internet to reach out to and support Russian LGBTI youth:

  • Russian citizens: fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles ($114-$142), or enhanced penalties of 50,000-100,000 rubles ($1,419-$2,839) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Russian administrative officials: fines of 40,000-50,000 rubles ($1,140-$1,420), or enhanced penalties of 100,000-200,000 rubles ($2,839-$5,677) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Legal entities (businesses, non-governmental organizations): fines of 800,000-1,000,000 rubles ($22,710-$28,387) or suspension of activities for up to 90 days, or enhanced penalties of 1,000,000 rubles ($28,387) or suspension of business activities for up to 90 days for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Non-citizens: fines and penalties identical to those for Russian citizens, but also administrative deportation and /or administrative arrest for up to 15 days.

The vague language describing the prohibited conduct and the steep fines that escalate for individuals who distribute their “propaganda” on the internet are designed to chill speech and stifle any efforts to provide support to LGBTI youth in Russia.

Some observers have noted that eight states in the United States have laws prohibiting classroom instruction that portrays homosexuality in a positive light. But Russia’s law is much broader in scope, prohibiting everything from gay pride parades to online support groups.

“Leave the Children Alone”: Harming Children under the Pretext of Protecting Them

In attempting to reassure Olympians, coaches, and other visitors to Russia about the new law, President Putin announced in January that LGBTI people “can feel free” in Sochi, as long as they “leave the children alone.” As insinuated by Putin’s comment, and by the text of the law itself, the pretext for the law is the protection of children. As such, the law is grounded in three fundamental misconceptions and lies:

  1. Being gay is a choice
  2. LGBTI adults “recruit” young people
  3. Gay people are pedophiles

The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child is the first treaty body to review Russia’s human rights record since it adopted the propaganda law last year. On January 31, the committee issued its Concluding Observations from that review, condemning the propaganda law and related policies as violating the rights of Russia’s children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The committee urged Russia to repeal the propaganda law, noting that it “encourages stigmatization and discrimination against LGBTI persons, including children, and children of LGBTI families” and “leads to the targeting and ongoing persecution of the country’s LGBTI community, including abuse and violence, in particular against underage LGBTI activists.” The committee called on Russia to “ensure that children who belong to LGBTI groups or children of LGBTI families are not subjected to any forms of discrimination” and to “take urgent measures to prevent bullying of LGBTI children in schools by educating children and school staff and punishing the perpetrators accordingly.”

Scott Lively’s “Greatest Success”

Just a few days after the Russian Duma (parliament) unanimously passed the propaganda law last June, a delegation of U.S. and French anti-gay activists traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Duma. The U.S. delegates included Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. Brown was there to testify in favor of a bill that would tighten Russia’s laws governing international adoptions, prohibiting international adoptions by same-sex couples and by single people living in countries that recognize marriage equality. The adoption ban passed five days later, and the Russian government just last week officially implemented that law.

Last October, Brown, along with Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries, and several other Americans who had led the fight against LGBTI rights in the United States, was back in Moscow to plan for the World Congress of Families VIII, scheduled for September 2014 in Moscow. At least 14 American conservative leaders have lobbied Russian lawmakers to support the propaganda law and adoption legislation. The Illinois-based World Congress of Families has staff in Russia who have been actively lobbying in favor of the latest anti-gay laws in Russia.

Lively is no stranger to Russia. Nearly a decade ago, he gave up on fighting against LGBTI rights in the United States, setting his sights on Russia, Uganda, and “other countries in the world that are still culturally conservative to warn them . . .  and to help put barriers in place.” In 2006 and 2007, he conducted a 50-city tour of the former Soviet Union. In 2006, prior to Lively’s tour, the Duma had overwhelmingly rejected a bill similar to Federal Law 135.

Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012. Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012.
Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

The purpose of Lively’s tour, as he explained in his 2007 Letter to the Russian People, “was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement,” which he described as “a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it.”

During the tour, Lively called on Russians to “criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. . . . [H]omosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never [be] publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage ‘gay pride’ parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.”

Several regional governments in Russia adopted Lively’s proposed propaganda bans before the federal law took effect last June. Lively recently boasted: “My greatest success, in terms of my own personal strategy, is Russia.” He told Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association that the Russian law was one of his “proudest achievements.”

A key chapter in Lively’s worldwide playbook is the argument that lawmakers need to protect families from Western gays who are attempting to recruit their children. In his book, Redeeming the Rainbow, Lively advises opponents of gay rights to fight back against sympathy toward gays by emphasizing child recruitment and rape.

"Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia" Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
“Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia” Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

It’s probably no coincidence that in October 2013, during Lively’s last visit to Moscow, the Duma began consideration of a bill that would add sexual orientation as a ground for terminating parental rights. The Duma postponed consideration of the bill in the run-up to the Olympics, but observers predict it will be back before legislators as soon as international attention on Russia fades.

Another pernicious U.S. export to Russia is the discredited 2012 study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus. His study included only two respondents who were even arguably raised by same-sex parents, and more than 200 sociologists signed a letter criticizing Regnerus’ methodology. The American Sociological Association submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Windsor case thoroughly examining the flaws in Regnerus’ work.

Lawmakers backing Russia’s bill to terminate parental rights on the basis of sexual orientation cited the study in support of the proposition that parenting by LGBTI people is dangerous, despite Regnerus’ objections to the legislation. Last June, the Regnerus study also played an important role in the Duma’s decision to pass the propaganda law and the law restricting international adoptions. Although Regnerus has refused to give an interview to the New York Times, he did an interview last year with a Russian-language news agency in Ukraine, which profiled him in an article titled “First shocking scientific facts published about the families of homosexuals,” concluding that Regnerus’ study amounted to “shocking” evidence showing the “tragic results” of same-sex parenting on children.

Lively has expanded on his work in Russia and Uganda to include Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine, all with the goal of encouraging the adoption of laws to block the open expression of homosexuality, keep discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity legal, and make pro-gay advocacy a crime.

Lively is being sued under the Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The suit, brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, with the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges that Lively’s active participation in a conspiracy to strip away fundamental rights from LGBTI persons in Uganda constitutes persecution.

This post is the second in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 3 will explore how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo credit: Wikimedia Commons