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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

Nine Things Everyone Needs To Know About International LGBTI Rights

Nine Things Everyone Needs To Know About International LGBTI Rights

 

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May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT). Created in 2004 to raise awareness about the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTI people internationally, it has become a worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities. The date of May 17 was chosen specifically to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

This year, IDAHOT’s theme focuses on families. This focus includes both the role of families in the well-being of their LGBTI members, as well as respect for the rights of LGBTI families (rainbow families).  Given the proximity in dates and values of the  International Family Equality Day (IFED) in early May, this year IFED and IDAHOT were combined for joint recognition and celebration.

In honor of IDAHOT 2017, we put together a list of nine basic things that everyone needs to know about international LGBTI rights.

1.

Internationally, the acronyms LGBT and LGBTI

(standing for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and

intersex”) are the most commonly used terms.

While many understand the meaning of the terms lesbian, gay and bisexual, some may be unfamiliar with the other terms. As defined by the United Nations’ Free & Equal Campaign, transgender (sometimes shortened to “trans”) is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of identities — including transsexual people, cross-dressers, people who identify as third gender, and others whose appearance and characteristics are perceived as gender atypical. Some transgender people seek surgery or take hormones to bring their body into alignment with their gender identity; others do not. An intersex person is born with sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, and/or chromosome patterns that do not fit the typical definition of male or female. An intersex person may identify as male or female or as neither. Intersex status is not about sexual orientation or gender identity: intersex people experience the same range of sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI) as non-intersex people.

It is worth noting that other terms are also used when talking about LGBTI rights. In many countries, the term MSM (“men who have sex with men”) is also used, particularly in the public health context of the fight against HIV/AIDS. MSM is also used in recognition of the fact that some men engaged in same-sex relations may not identify as gay or bisexual. Different cultures also have their own terms to describe people who form same-sex relationships and those who exhibit non-binary gender identities (such as hijra, meti, lala, skesana, motsoalle, mithli, kuchu, kawein, muxé, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, hamjensgara and Two-Spirit).

2.

SOGI stands for “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.”

As the UN states, sexual orientation refers to a person’s physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction towards other people. Sexual orientation is not related to gender identity. Gender identity reflects a deeply felt and experienced sense of one’s own gender. For transgender people, there is an inconsistency between their sense of their own gender and the sex they were assigned at birth.

3.

Private, consensual same-sex conduct

is a crime in at least 76 countries.

Because of these discriminatory laws, millions of LGBTI persons around the world face the risk of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment every day. And in as many as 10 countries, same-sex acts can be punished with the death penalty.

Laws that criminalize private, consensual sexual relationships between adults violate the rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination under international law. In addition to violating these basic rights, criminalization legitimizes prejudice in society at large and exposes people to hate crimes, police abuse, torture and family violence. The Advocates’ partner organization LGBT Voice Tanzania has reported that because Tanzania criminalizes homosexual conduct, police officers harass, abuse, and demean LGBTI people with impunity, and often disregard complaints brought by LGBTI persons about harassment from others. Police routinely use violence and coercion against the LGBTI community, including torture, blackmail, corrective rape, detention without charge, and arbitrary charges. Many are forced to bribe officers to get out of jail for these arbitrary charges.

Further, criminalization hampers efforts to halt the spread of HIV by deterring LGBT people from coming forward for testing and treatment for fear of revealing criminal activity.

4.

LGBTI people and rights are not a Western export.

LGBTI people exist everywhere — in all countries, among all ethnic groups, at all socioeconomic levels, and in all communities. Further, global archeological and anthropological evidence — from prehistoric rock paintings in South Africa and Egypt to ancient Indian medical texts and early Ottoman literature — show that LGBTI people have always been a part of our communities. In fact in many parts of the world, it was Western colonial powers that imposed the criminal laws that punish same-sex conduct.

Click on the interactive map below that shows how colonization spread homophobic legislation to many parts of the world.

map for blog

5.

Some countries are passing “gay propaganda” laws

and other discriminatory laws that limit the rights

to free speech, freedom of association, and assembly.

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law Federal Law 135, banning propaganda to minors about “non-traditional sexual relations.” 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.

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.

Nearly identical proposals have been introduced throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with proposals currently are under discussion in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Lithuania and Indonesia.

6.

LGBTI persons around the world

experience widespread violence.

While official data on international homophobic and transphobic violence is difficult to obtain, the information that is available shows a clear pattern of widespread, brutal violence, often committed with impunity. Human rights violations experienced by LGBTI persons can include violent attacks, ranging from aggressive verbal abuse and psychological bullying to physical assault, beatings, torture, kidnapping and targeted killings. Sexual abuse and violence is also common, sometimes at the hands of the police. While violence can be perpetrated by individuals or groups and takes place in both public and private spaces, a common characteristic of many anti-LGBT hate crimes is their brutality. The torture and murder of Cameroonian activist Eric Ohena Lembembe in July 2013 is just one example, but one that hits close to home for The Advocates for Human Rights. Shortly before he was murdered, we partnered with Eric and his organization CAMFAIDS to write a report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Cameroon.

7.

LGBTI persons around the world experience

discriminatory treatment every day, in workplaces,

schools, family homes, and health care settings.

In Tanzania, for example, LGBTI youth are expelled from school simply because of actual or suspected sexual orientation or gender identity. Most of these youth are also rejected by their families and are left to fend for themselves. Anti-LGBTI discrimination in the health sector includes denial of service, verbal harassment and abuse, and violations of confidentiality, all justified by the criminalization of same-sex conduct. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in 2015 that national laws in most countries do not provide adequate protection from employment-related discrimination on grounds of SOGI, allowing employers to fire or refuse to hire or promote people simply because they are perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Map 2 for blog

Discrimination has a tremendous personal cost for those who experience it. Rates of poverty, homelessness, depression and suicide are far higher among LGBT people than in the general population. But the UN Free and Equal Campaign  argues that we all pay a price: a study of 39 countries showed that the marginalization of the LGBT community was causing a substantial loss of potential economic output. “Every LGBT child thrown out of home and forced to miss out on education is a loss for society. Every LGBT worker denied their rights is a lost opportunity to build a fairer and more productive economy.”

8.

International law protects LGBTI rights.

The right to equality and non-discrimination are core human rights principles included in the United Nations Charter, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and all multilateral human rights treaties. The equality and non-discrimination guarantee provided by international human rights law applies to ALL people, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity or “other status.”

According to the United Nations, governments have core legal obligations to protect the human rights of LGBT people, including obligations to:

Protect individuals from homophobic and transphobic violence and prevent torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Countries should enact hate crime laws that discourage violence against individuals based on sexual orientation, and set up effective systems for reporting hate motivated acts of violence, including effectively investigating, and prosecuting perpetrators, bringing those responsible to justice. They should provide training to law enforcement officers and monitor places of detention, and provide a system for victims to seek remedies. Additionally, asylum laws and policies should recognize that persecution based on sexual orientation may be a valid basis for an asylum claim.

Repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality including all legislation that criminalizes private sexual conduct between consenting adults. Ensure that individuals are not arrested or detained on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and are not subjected to any degrading physical examinations intended to determine their sexual orientation.

Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Enact legislation that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Provide education and training to prevent discrimination and stigmatization of LGBT and intersex people.

Safeguard freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly for all LGBT people and ensure that any restrictions on these rights – even where such restrictions purport to serve a legitimate purpose and are reasonable and proportionate in scope – are not discriminatory on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Promote a culture of equality and diversity that encompasses respect for the rights of LGBT people.

9.

You can take action to support LGBTI rights in

your community and around the world.

May 17 is the single most important annual date for global LGBTI mobilization and awareness raising. Research has shown that 17% of all annual discussions on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia are generated around the IDAHOT. Those discussions are happening in almost every country in the world. Please share this article and others that raise awareness about LGBTI rights on social media.

Learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work on LGBTI rights here. Read Staff attorney Amy Bergquist’s article about our strategies in “Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies For Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World.”

By: Jennifer Prestholdt, The Advocates for Human Rights’ deputy director, and director of its International Justice Program. 

Learn more about #IDAHOT and ways to take action here.

We all need to keep keeping fighting for the rights of LGBTI persons, wherever they are in the world! In 2016, the UN Free & Equal Campaign released this inspiring video “Why We Fight” of courageous LGBTI activists and allies around the world and the rights that they are fighting for.

More posts by The Advocates for Human Rights on international  LGBTI rights:

Anti-LGBTI Discrimination Harms Efforts to Fight HIV/AIDS

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

Leading By Example: The International Impact of Marriage Equality Ruling

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

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

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

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Leading by Example? The International Impact of Marriage Equality Ruling

LGBT_world*This post, written by Amy Bergquist, a staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights, is part of American Constitution Society’s blog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing a right to marriage equality would make headlines around the world, but the implications for the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) in other countries may be complex.

The Advocates for Human Rights collaborates with partner organizations advocating for LGBTI rights in African countries like Cameroon and Tanzania, where the governments not only criminalize consensual sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but also condone or even participate in discrimination and violence targeting LGBTI people.  We know from our partners that government officials, religious leaders, celebrities and the media fuel anti-LGBTI animus by arguing that, in African culture, “homosexuality . . . is considered universally as a manifestation of moral decadence that should be fought.”

Many countries have laws on the books prohibiting sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but Cameroonian authorities aggressively enforce their country’s law; courts convict people simply for acting or dressing in a gender-non-conforming manner.  Vigilante groups in Cameroon organize patrols to round up suspected violators and hand them over to the police.  Violence and discrimination targeting LGBTI people are widespread.

The complexity of advocacy for LGBTI rights in the international context arises out of the false characterization, in some parts of the world, of LGBTI rights as a “western invention.”  In collaboration with our partners in Cameroon, we submitted a report to Africa’s leading human rights body, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, debunking this myth.  In Cameroon, as in many other African countries, criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct is a legacy of the colonial era.  In our report, we quote Dr. Sylvia Tamale, law professor and former dean of the law faculty of Makere University in Kampala, who explains: “There is a long history of diverse African peoples engaging in same-sex relations. . . . Ironically, it is the dominant Judeo-Christian and Arabic religions that most African anti-homosexuality proponents rely on, that are foreign imports.”  Indeed, as I’ve argued at The Advocates Post, anti-gay extremists from the United States and Europe attempt to export their animus to Africa and the former Soviet Union.

A decision on marriage equality by the highest court in the United States could spur countries to adopt sweeping reactionary legislation similar to two laws adopted last year: Nigeria’s “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” which not only imposes criminal penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment for entering into a same-sex marriage, but also criminalizes participation in “gay clubs, societies and organisations” and public displays of affection by same-sex couples; and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which increased that country’s criminal penalties for crimes such as “aggravated homosexuality,” imposed a penalty of life imprisonment for any person “purport[ing] to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex,” and imposed a punishment of up to seven years imprisonment for any person or institution conducting a same-sex marriage.  (Uganda’s law was later struck down on a procedural technicality.)  Our partners in Tanzania are already reporting that their parliament is considering a law similar to Uganda’s.

When the U.S. Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, some foreign courts will, without a doubt, cite the opinion ― or the dissent ― as they address challenges to laws prohibiting marriage equality.  (Courts in countries with common-law traditions, including Fiji, Hong Kong and India, have cited Lawrence v. Texas in assessing domestic laws prohibiting same-sex sexual conduct.)

In the international context, however, marriage equality is not the end of the road but just one component of a complex set of efforts to ensure equal rights for LGBTI persons throughout the world.  In 2006, for example, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to recognize a right to marriage equality.  Yet nine years on, anti-LGBTI violence in South Africa is still common.  Photojournalist Clare Carter recently documented the practice of “corrective rape” ― oftentimes with the collusion of the victim’s family ― intended to “cure” lesbians and transgender men.  The South African government has only recently stepped up efforts to respond to widespread violence targeting LGBTI people.  To achieve lasting change, advocates for LGBTI rights around the world need to develop strategies that take into account the local context.  The Advocates recently published a toolkit of resources to help.

The African Commission, in an official concluding statement about Cameroon’s human rights record, recently urged Cameroonian authorities to “[t]ake appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”  For our partners, these words offer more promise for advancing LGBTI rights in Africa than any ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court ever could.

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)
An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)

Last month, Cameroonian human rights defender Alice Nkom traveled to London with a plea: “I need everyone because right now, I am a little isolated. It’s on occasions like this that we must show we are one, united, universal in this fight.” Nkom, who is in her 70s and was the first woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, is one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who represents people who are charged with violating the country’s law criminalizing same-sex conduct.

The Advocates for Human Rights has been working with Nkom and other human rights defenders to advance the rights of LGBTI persons in Cameroon.  And, in part because of this collaborative advocacy, Africa’s leading human rights body has joined the fight against LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon.

The Advocates and Cameroonian partners report on LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon

Jennifer and Alice NkomIn 2013, after meeting with Nkom in Douala, The Advocates for Human Rights partnered with Nkom’s organizations, the Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) and the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), along with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), to submit a 45-page report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its periodic review of Cameroon’s human rights record. The report details violations of rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon, demonstrating how the Government of Cameroon is violating its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

African Commission responds, urging Cameroon to protect and promote tolerance of sexual minorities

African Commission on Human and People's RightsThe African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recently published its concluding observations from its review of Cameroon. The concluding observations draw on our report, making several references to persecution of sexual minorities. The African Commission identifies several areas of concern:

“The judicial harassment, offences against life and other violations of rights of human rights defenders, in particular the rights of defenders working in the area of sexual orientation;” and

“The discrimination, stigma and violation of the right to life and physical and mental integrity of individuals based on their sexual orientation.”

The African Commission urges Cameroonian authorities to “Take appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”

LGBTI Cameroonians and their advocates continue to face pervasive violence and discrimination

As the African Commission’s concerns suggest, people in Cameroon face pervasive violence and discrimination based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination extends to human rights defenders like Nkom, who work on their behalf. Nkom describes conditions as “an anti-homosexual apartheid.”

Eric Ohena LembembeAs we highlighted in our report, in 2013 CAMFAIDS founder Eric Ohena Lembembe was discovered brutally murdered in his own apartment. Authorities have conducted a lackluster investigation into the circumstances of his death, and investigators have even attempted to intimidate his friends and family.

After Ohena Lembembe’s murder, threats against other human rights defenders escalated, with some anonymous messages simply saying, “You’re next.” “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” observed Nkom. “Because many died for us to be free today—free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”

In 2014, Roger Jean-Claude Mdede died in his home village under troubling circumstances. Mbede had notoriously been convicted in 2011 for sending a man a text message saying “I’ve fallen in love with you.” Nkom and Michel Togué, the other Cameroonian lawyer who takes on these cases, secured Mbede’s release.

But Mbede faced serious health problems. And the notoriety of Mbede’s case meant escalating persecution; he was physically assaulted by four unknown men near the university where he studied. Local and international efforts to get Mbede out of Cameroon failed. Mbede returned to his village in ill health, and some people close to him say that his family thought he was cursed and held him in the village against his will until he died.

Nkom takes case to Cameroon’s Supreme Court

Nkom is taking Mbede’s case to the Supreme Court of Cameroon, challenging the constitutionality of the country’s prohibition on same-sex relations. The Constitution of Cameroon includes and incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The constitution further states that “duly approved and ratified treaties and international agreements,” including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, shall “override national laws.”

When we first met with Nkom back in 2013, we discussed ways that The Advocates and its volunteers could collaborate on Mbede’s case and in placing pressure on Cameroonian authorities to respect the rights of LGBTI people. Our report to the African Commission was one such strategy. The African Commission’s call for Cameroonian authorities to take action to end persecution and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a positive sign of change.  Now the the Supreme Court of Cameroon must pay careful attention to the African Commission’s words when it hears Mbede’s case.  At The Advocates for Human Rights, we will be watching closely.

Because, in the words of Alice Nkom, “[W]e are one, united, universal in this fight.”

Read more about the global movement for LGBTI rights:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

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

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

 Watch the short documentary Hate Unleashed, which follows Alice Nkom as she seeks to challenge the prosecutions, and provide some care and support to those who have been incarcerated.

Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

“I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings”

The quilt created by Gail Irish, and inspired by resilience and strength of others.
Created by Gail Irish, the quilt’s inspiration was the resilience and strength of others.

Each year, the quilt club I belong to sets a theme for the quilts we create for our annual exhibit at Glad Creations, Inc., a Minneapolis quilt shop. “Stripes” was the subject for our Winter 2014 projects.

At about that time, Cece McDonald, a transgender African-American woman who used deadly force to protect herself during a brutal transphobic and racist assault in Minneapolis, was released from prison after serving 19 months of a 41-month sentence. When she took a plea to avoid potential murder convictions and possibly 80 years in prison, she was freed. Through her story, I learned about the disproportionate numbers of transgender people of color in prison, not to mention the prison population’s disproportionate numbers in general of people of color.

Then, when the world lost Maya Angelou, I was reminded once again how her poem “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” uses the image of a caged bird as a metaphor to tell the story of Angelou’s struggle to escape oppression of racism and sexism.

In my volunteer work at The Advocates for Human Rights, I meet refugees seeking asylum in the United States because they fear persecution and death if they return to their home countries. Many of them spent time in prisons under deplorable conditions in their countries of origin.

In my work teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees, students have told me stories about unlawful detention, torture, isolation, long separation from loved ones, and many other hardships.

What stands out for me through all of this is the resilience and strength that allow these individuals to fight for survival and dignity.

With my students, the refugees with whom I work, McDonald, and Angelou as inspirations, I imagined bars on windows for the quilt theme of “stripes.” I chose a traditional pattern called Attic Windows, and used a striped fabric for the windows. While all of the windows have bars, the sun is shining brightly.

Some of us are in cages of our own making. Others are in cages that result from the many inequities in our society. My hope is for greater compassion and a greater understanding of the issues and realities that put people behind bars, and more humane treatment of those who remain there.

By: Gail Irish, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights

2014’s Lesson: Take Action. Lives Depend on It.

Painted hand for WordPressDecember has been a terrible month for human rights—from the U.S. Senate’s report confirming the use of torture, to the slaughter of Pakastani school children, to two grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Overall, 2014 has been an extremely troubling year. Some human rights abuses garnered a lot of attention; many did not, taking place under the radar of the media and public conversation. Let’s consider a few examples, and let them serve as a call to action.

  1. Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria one night in mid-April. This travesty garnered wide media attention and support from around the world, with celebrities carrying “Bring Back Our Girls” placards and rallies demanding the girls’ return. Unfortunately, 219 girls are reported to remain in captivity. Boko Haram continued its reign of terror, and is responsible for other atrocities throughout Somalia and Nigeria during 2014, including kidnappings, mass recruitment of child soldiers, and bombings of churches and public squares. Just this month news reports surfaced that Boko Haram kidnapped at least 185 women and children and killed 32 people in northeast Nigeria.
  2. Central American refugees―mostly children (and many by themselves)―are seeking asylum, after journeying across one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes to escape horrific violence in their home countries. The crisis was brought to light and much of the nation was shocked when, in June, images of children being held by US authorities surfaced, showing children crowded in makeshift prisons, and crammed into rooms and sleeping on concrete floors. Instead of treating them as refugees and in accordance with internationally-recognized human rights standards, the U.S. has treated these children as national security threats, warehousing them in razor-wired prisons, detaining them in horrendous conditions, and subjecting them to expedited proceedings to deport them at warp speed and back to the life-threatening dangers they fled.
  3. The terrorist organization ISIL has committed gruesome acts of violence that have alarmed the world community, including murdering political opposition members in mass, enslaving and brutalizing women and girls, and forcing young boys into its ranks. An August attack by ISIL in the Sinjar region caused thousands of Shiites and Yazidis to flee; in October, ISIL abducted 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women and children and sold them into slavery, reported the UN.
  4. Grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner highlighted racial profiling, police brutality, and failures of the justice system throughout the country, including a police officer shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in Cleveland, Ohio.
  5. The Ethiopian government attacked a student protest in the nation’s Oromia region in April, killing as many as 47 students, as some reports indicate. The Ethiopian government has persecuted and targeted the Oromo people for years, subjecting Oromo to abduction, mass incarceration, and extreme levels of torture, including electric shock and repeated rapes.
  6. Nearly 200,000 people have been killed and millions more took flight because of violence in Syria―the world’s largest refugee crisis resulting from a civil war that has raged in the region following popular uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. To date, UNHCR estimates that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled the disaster, surpassing the refugee crises in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Central America.
  7. Countries took huge steps backward for rights of LGBTI communities, enacting draconian laws which punish homosexuality with prison terms, torture, and death. Members of LGBTI communities in some countries are hunted down by vigilantes and are beaten or killed. In 2014, Uganda enacted one of the most notorious laws—its “Kill the Gays” law—punishing homosexuality with life in prison. The Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down law. Unfortunately, because the court ruled on procedural grounds rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed.
  8. The U.S.’s use of drone strikes are a significant setback to international law, setting new precedents for use of force by nations around the world. As of November 2014, attempts to kill 41 people resulted in snuffing out the lives of an estimated 1,147 individuals, reports The Guardian. The U.S. has, to date, used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people— including civilians and children—in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, all countries against whom the U.S. has not declared war, the organization Reprieve reports.
  9. An Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death in a mass trial in March. The next month, a court sentenced another 680 to death in a proceeding that lasted only a few minutes. These mass executions, issued by a military government than came to power in a July 2013 coup, represent some of the largest ordered executions in the last century. Activists who supported efforts to oust former President Hosni Mubarak continue to be rounded up and targeted by the military, aiming to crush political opposition and to roll back achievements made during the Arab Spring. And in November, an Egyptian court dismissed conspiracy to kill charges against Mubarak, and he was cleared of corruption charges; he will likely be freed in a few months.
  10. Women and girls have suffered immeasurably where they should be safest, in their homes. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria, according to the World Bank. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. One high profile domestic violence incident this year involved NFL player Ray Rice beating his then-fiance into unconsciousness and flattening her to the floor of an elevator. As a result of the attack, Rice was suspended for two games. When TMZ posted the video of the attack for the world to see, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely and the Baltimore Ravens pressured his victim to apologize. Ultimately, the NFL reversed its decision to suspend Rice indefinitely in late November.
  11. Harmful cultural practices violate women. Many governments “address” human rights violations—even the most cringe-worthy, stomach-churning―against women and girls by punishing the victims. Or—as in the case of women from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking refuge in other countries—governments turn their heads to the violence, empowering the perpetrators and further victimizing and subjugating the women. These abuses include acid attacks, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, bride burning, and gang rapes. Consider the death of Farzana Iqbal, 25, in May in Pakistan; her family stoned her to death outside a courthouse in Pakistan because she sought to marry without consent from her family a man she loved. Consider Hanna Lalango, 16, who died a month after she entered a public mini-bus in Ethiopia and was gang-raped by strangers for five days―a case similar to one in India two years ago, but one that did not garner the same level of attention and outrage. As an added note, Lalango’s father said he would not have made the case public if his daughter had lived because the shame would have shadowed her for the rest of her life.
  12. The U.S. Senate “torture report” released on December 9 graphically details the CIA’s use of abuse, including keeping a prisoner awake for 180 hours with his hands shackled over his head, threatening to sexually assault and cut the throat of a detainee’s mother, penetrating a detainee’s anus for “rectal feeding,” and tying a prisoner to a floor until he froze to death.
  13. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed more than 130 students in a terrorist attack on December 16 to retaliate against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who caught the world’s attention for being shot for going to school. Responding to the Peshwar slaughter, Malala stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”
  14. Forty-three students traveling to a protest in Mexico were rounded up and “disappeared” in September. The mayor of Iguala, Mexico in concert with local gangs ordered the capture and murder of these students, reports indicate. Federal police may also have complicity in the crime. The act has garnered widespread attention in Mexico, with people questioning the legitimacy of federal and state Mexican authorities, who for years has been corrupted by the influence of narco-traffickers and gangs.
  15. More than 2,000 Gazans were killed when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza strip in July to stop rocket attacks that followed an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The disproportionate level of force used by the Israeli military resulted in large number of civilian deaths. Of the 2,192 Gazans killed, about 1523 civilians (including 519 children), 66 Israeli soldiers, five Israeli civilians (including a child), and one Thai civilian were killed, reports indicate. At the end of the conflict, 110,000 people were internally displaced and 108,000 were made homeless, according to Amnesty International.

What can we do in the face of these human rights violations and the countless others that go unnoticed? Pay attention. Look behind the headlines. Make our voices heard by public officials, leaders, and the world community. Volunteer for projects that address the issues most important to us. Support organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights which take on the larger systemic issues that allow human rights abuses to continue. We are not helpless. In 2015, we can, by working together, move closer to our vision of a world in which all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace . . . because every person matters.

By: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Deepinder Mayell, Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt, and Susan Banovetz

Donate now. Because every person matters.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)

Today, the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down that country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which had been signed into law in February of this year. And earlier this summer, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Africa’s regional human rights body, issued a landmark resolution calling on its member states to respect and protect the human rights of sexual minorities. Meanwhile, however, as friends and family of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe recently gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of his brutal murder, the police investigation remains at a standstill.

Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act Struck down on procedural grounds
Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act imposed harsh penalties for “homosexuality” and “aggravated homosexuality,” and even criminalized “aiding and abetting homosexuality” and promoting homosexuality. A Ugandan LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights group has alleged in ongoing proceedings in U.S. court that American Scott Lively played a central role in lobbying for the legislation.

Ten petitioners, including academics, journalists, human rights groups, activists, and members of parliament from the ruling and opposition parties, challenged the law on several grounds, arguing that it violates the privacy and dignity rights enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They also argued a procedural point, contending the act was adopted unlawfully because parliament lacked a quorum when it voted on the bill.

The Court considered the procedural argument first, and agreed with the petitioners. The five-judge panel ruled that the speaker of parliament acted unlawfully in allowing the bill to come up for a vote, because there were at least three objections that not enough members of parliament were present. “The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum,” the court ruled. “We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally.” The vote was unlawful, the court concluded, and therefore the act is null and void.

Because the court ruled on procedural grounds, rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed. The Ugandan government is considering whether to appeal the decision of the Constitutional Court to the Ugandan Supreme Court.

The Advocates and partners mobilize in wake of Cameroonian activist’s murder
Eric Ohena LembembeUganda is not the only country in Africa where laws, the justice system, and societal homophobia endanger LGBTI people and human rights defenders who work on their behalf. In advance of the African Commission’s 54th Ordinary session in October 2013, The Advocates for Human Rights and its partner organizations, Le Reseau des Defenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and L’Association pour la Defense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO), submitted a report to the African Commission detailing rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in Cameroon.

The report came on the heels of the brutal torture and murder of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe, executive director of CAMFAIDS. Just weeks before his murder, as the report noted, Lembembe had spoken out about the dangers facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people:

“There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

Before the African Commission session, REDHAC and CAMFAIDS also participated in an NGO forum that culminated in an oral presentation to the African Commission and the NGO forum’s adoption of a resolution on violence and human rights violations based on imputed or actual sexual orientation and gender identity. The African Commission’s history-making resolution mirrors the resolution adopted by the NGO forum.

Coalition condemns Cameroonian authorities’ lackluster response to Lembembe’s murder, calls for thorough and fair investigation
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, along with CAMFAIDS, ADEFHO, REDHAC, Alternatives Cameroon, and MDHC, recently denounced the dysfunctional justice system in the case of Lembembe’s murder. One year after the murder, the investigating judge has summoned only Lembembe’s family members. Authorities never took any photographs or fingerprints at the scene of the crime. The medical certificate indicating the nature of the death does not mention the burns and other obvious injuries visible on Lembembe’s body. In what seems to be an attempt at intimidation, several of Lembembe’s friends and family members were placed in police custody early in the investigation.

Coalition members fear that the attitude of the police and judiciary authorities in the investigation reflects those institutions’ disregard for the respect and protection of LGBTI people’s human rights in Cameroon. “The Cameroonian authorities’ inertia in this case is all the more worrying that it might reinforce the sentiment of impunity of the authors of the crimes and persecutions against LGBTI people, and feed the stigma and discrimination against these people and the defenders of their rights,” added Michel Togue, a Cameroonian lawyer and Legal Advisor for CAMFAIDS.

The coalition renewed its call for Cameroonian authorities to conduct an independent, effective, rigorous, impartial, and transparent investigation in order to identify the perpetrators, bring them before an independent, competent, and impartial court in accordance with international and regional human rights protection instruments, and to apply criminal, civil, and/or administrative sanctions as provided for by the law.

African Commission’s landmark resolution condemns anti-LGBTI violence on the continent, calls for end to impunity
The African Commission’s resolution is particularly timely in light of the breakdown in the investigation into Lembembe’s murder. The Resolution on Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity  unequivocally confirms that violence and human rights abuses directed at individuals based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity breach the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This is the Commission’s first official resolution on the issue of LGBTI human rights.

The Commission expresses alarm at the ongoing violence, abuse, and discrimination against sexual minorities by state and non-state actors as well as the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. The Commission directs state parties to the African Charter to comply with their obligations to protect all Africans from human rights abuses and violence and urges them to enact and enforce laws to prohibit and punish violence directed at the LGBTI community and its defenders.

Laws and public attitudes in many African countries reflect and foster widespread discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
The African Commission is responsible for setting the human rights standards to be observed by states that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; essentially every African country except South Sudan and Morocco. A significant number of those states outlaw same-sex activity, and African governments continue to enact new repressive legislation, such as the Anti-Homosexuality Act that the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down today.

In January, the president of Nigeria signed a law that mandates a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union and a 10-year term for anyone “who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.” “Supporters” would include health centers providing treatment and counseling for AIDS and other health concerns as well as civil society organizations and human rights defenders. The potential impact on HIV transmission and treatment alone is tremendous, yet public opinion appears to favor these laws.

According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of the population in Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal consider same sex activity “unacceptable,” according to The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Over the past year, reports of mob violence, murder, rape, assault, arbitrary arrests, and detention have increased.

African Commission on Human and People's RightsAfrican Commission Resolution is groundbreaking step toward tolerance
In this context, the resolution is especially meaningful and groundbreaking. Taking a firm stand against the widespread intolerance of non-conforming sexual minorities, the Commission has articulated a legal basis for the protection against discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and advised its member states that their commitments to universal equality under the African Charter require them to respect the human rights of sexual minorities.

The resolution states:

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), meeting at its 55th Ordinary Session held in Luanda, Angola, from 28 April to 12 May 2014:

Recalling that Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) prohibits discrimination of the individual on the basis of distinctions of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or any status;

Further recalling that Article 3 of the African Charter entitles every individual to equal protection of the law;

Noting that Articles 4 and 5 of the African Charter entitle every individual to respect of their life and the integrity of their person, and prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;

Alarmed that acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations continue to be committed on individuals in many parts of Africa because of their actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity;

Noting that such violence includes ‘corrective’ rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings and executions forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail;

Further alarmed at the incidence of violence and human rights violations and abuses by State and non-State actors targeting human rights defenders and civil society organisations working on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in Africa;

Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;

Deeply disturbed by the failure of law enforcement agencies to diligently investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence and other human rights violations targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;

  1. Condemns the increasing incidence of violence and other human rights violations, including murder, rape, assault, arbitrary imprisonment and other forms of persecution of persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
  2. Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
  3. Calls on State Parties to ensure that human rights defenders work in an enabling environment that is free of stigma, reprisals or criminal prosecution as a result of their human rights protection activities, including the rights of sexual minorities; and
  4. Strongly urges States to end all acts of violence and abuse, whether committed by State or non-state actors, including by enacting and effectively applying appropriate laws prohibiting and punishing all forms of violence including those targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identities, ensuring proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims.

Adopted at the 55th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Luanda, Angola, 28 April to
12 May 2014.

Julie Shelton
Julie Shelton

By Julie Shelton and Amy Bergquist. Guest-blogger Julie Shelton was the team leader on The Advocates for Human Rights’ trip to Cameroon in February 2013. The team conducted a pro bono needs assessment with over 35 Cameroonian organizations that work to promote human rights and rule of law. Shelton led the project to draft the shadow report to the African Commission on LGBTI rights in Cameroon. She was honored for her volunteer work on June 25 at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner.

More from The Advocates Post on LGBTI rights in Africa:

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

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Top photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters