Inter Press Service » LGBTQ Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 13 Oct 2015 21:02:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Anti-gay Sentiment Arises During the U.N. General Assembly Wed, 30 Sep 2015 12:28:53 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. UN Photo/Lou Rouse

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. UN Photo/Lou Rouse

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the importance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights during a High-Level Core Group event on Sep. 29, noting his experiences in working with governments to eliminate LGBTI-discriminatory policies.

“Sometimes I am successful and other times I am not but I will continue to fight until all LGBT people can live freely without suffering any intimidation or discrimination,” Ban said.

The politically-sensitive issue also came up during the high-level segment of the General Assembly, when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe highlighted the need to respect and uphold human rights while rejecting LGBTI rights.

Speaking during the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly, he pointedly said: “We…reject attempts to prescribe ‘new rights’ that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions and beliefs.”

“We are not gays,” Mugabe continued.

The statement was met with some laughter and little applause during the General Assembly session whose theme is the “United Nations at 70: The road ahead for peace, security, and human rights.”

Mugabe’s rejection of rights for the LGBTI community remains in line with the country’s policies.

In Zimbabwe, those found guilty of performing any homosexual acts can be imprisoned or fined. For instance, in 2006, the government made it a criminal offence for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss.

President Mugabe has been vocal about the country’s anti-LGBT stance, describing LGBTI individuals as “worse than pigs, goats and birds” during a rally on July 23, 2013.

The government of Saudi Arabia also rejected any references to homosexuality during the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit Sep. 25 to 27.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told world leaders that “mentioning sex in the text, to us, means exactly male and female. Mentioning family means consisting of a married man and woman.”

Similar reservations regarding LGBTI rights were expressed by several member States during the creation of the SDGs.

For instance, in the report of the Open Working Group on SDGs, Cameroon rejected any policies or reporting for SDG 5.6, which “will include or tend to include, explicitly or implicitly, the concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity, same-sex couples.”

Target 5.6 states the need to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, and to ensure reproductive rights.

As a result, Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning Amina Mohammed publicly declared last year that gay rights were “off the table” in the SDG agenda.

The SDGs currently make no mention of sexual orientation or LGBT rights.

However, a joint statement released on Sep. 29 by 12 U.N. entities including United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has called on States to end violence and discrimination against the LGBTI community.

“International human rights law establishes legal obligations on States to ensure that every person, without distinction, can enjoy these rights,” the statement says.

U.N. agencies specifically urge governments to repeal discriminatory laws, strengthen efforts to prevent, monitor and report violence against LGBTI individuals, and ensure the inclusion of LGBTI individuals in development.

“Failure to uphold the human rights of LGBTI people and protect them…constitute serious violations of international human rights law and have a far-reaching impact on society…and progress towards achievement of the future Sustainable Development Goals,” declared the U.N. agencies.

In Zimbabwe, anti-gay legislation had already hindered LGBTI-related efforts including the eradication of HIV/AIDS under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

According to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Zimbabwe has one of the largest HIV rates in the world, with an estimated 15 percent of residents living with HIV.

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Security Council, in Historic First, Discusses Gay, Lesbian Rights Mon, 24 Aug 2015 21:27:27 +0000 Thalif Deen Advocates hope a historic U.N. Security Council meeting on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights could bring greater equality. Credit: Bigstock

Advocates hope a historic U.N. Security Council meeting on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights could bring greater equality. Credit: Bigstock

By Thalif Deen

The U.N. Security Council (UNSC), whose primary mandate is the maintenance of international peace and security, has occasionally digressed to discuss global issues such as climate change and HIV/AIDS.

But in a historic first, and at a closed-door meeting co-hosted by the United States and Chile, the UNSC took up the issue of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights – providing a platform for an Iraqi and a Syrian, both of whom escaped persecution by the radical Islamic State (IS) purely for their sexual orientation.

“In a world where there's homophobia and transphobia, the U.N. should lead by example." -- Hyung Hak Nam, President of UN-GLOBE, which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) staff fighting for equality and non-discrimination in the U.N. system
The meeting took place Monday, under what is called the “Arria-formula”, named after Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela who initiated the practice back in 1992.

Described as “informal and confidential gatherings”, they enable Security Council members to have a frank and private exchange of views – but with no official commitments.

Critical of this restricted political dialogue, Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS that Monday’s meeting was clearly “not an official U.N. Security Council meeting.”

Security Council members are not obliged to attend or participate in these meetings, he pointed out. “Having said that, I think it is interesting” this debate was held, Dittrich added.

He said testimony given by people who experienced the IS attacks on human rights will draw attention to the atrocities perpetrated by IS against gay men – or men who are perceived to be gay.

“The debate will not end in the adoption of a UNSC resolution. For LGBT people in Iraq and Syria the importance of the debate lies in changes on the ground,” he argued.

“Will the debate lead to less human rights abuses against LGBT people? Or will heightened attention at the U.N. level lead to more targeted killings by IS?” he asked.

“I don’t have the answer, but I will be interested to hear what the panelists have to say about that,” said Dittrich.

He said the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should take care that its staff members on the ground in Turkey and other countries, where LGBT asylum seekers flee to, will be sensitized to address the issue of homosexuality in a speedy and serious manner.

Too often, he said, HRW hears stories of asylum seekers who flee persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, that their issues are ignored.

“This is something the U.N. could actually do. It would be a great outcome of the debate,” he noted.

Asked about the UNSC digression into non-security issues, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative, told IPS: “Well, I believe, maintenance of international peace and security depends on many interrelated things and issues.”

It is therefore “absolutely unrealistic, impractical and irresponsible” to categorize any issue as having no implications for maintenance of peace and security, he said.

“I recall in the past, the Security Council has considered HIV/AIDS, climate change and serious violations of human rights.

“I also remember the Council issuing an agreed statement on the floods in Mozambique because the torrential flood water washed away many landmines from their original positions which were mapped by U.N. for demining,” said Chowdhury, who presided over Security Council meetings when he was the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations.

“Even when the core concept which ultimately became UNSC resolution 1325 was introduced to recognize women’s equality of participation at all decision-making levels during my Presidency of the Security Council in March 2000, I was criticized for overloading the Council agenda by introducing a ‘soft issue’ in the area of international peace and security and was pressurized not to push for a resolution on the issue, particularly by its permanent members,” Chowdhury said.

Of the 15 members in the UNSC, five are permanent (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) and 10 are non-permanent members elected for two-year terms on the basis of geographical rotation.

For the last 70 years, said Chowdhury, the Council has narrowly focused on state security and military strategies – not on human security, as the complexity of today’s global situation requires.

“This perspective has to change if the Council wants to be meaningfully effective in its decisions and actions,” he added.

Hyung Hak Nam, President of UN-GLOBE, which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) staff fighting for equality and non-discrimination in the U.N. system and its peacekeeping operations, told IPS, “When I read reports of the horrible violence perpetrated by the Islamic State against LGBTI individuals, I think of the victims.”

“[But] I also think of the U.N. offices or missions in these countries, and whether or not they are prepared to handle such cases. And I think of LGBTI staff working in these countries and whether they feel safe and feel their U.N. offices would be able to protect them,” he said.

There’s a long way to go before the U.N. mainstreams LGBTI issues into the way it operates, including in its employment policies, he added.

“I do hope the U.N. will move towards becoming a showcase for others of what full equality and inclusion for all, including LGBTI staff, looks like.”

“In a world where there’s homophobia and transphobia, the U.N. should lead by example,” he declared.

Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer at the Human Rights Foundation, told IPS his Foundation applauds UNSC member states Chile and the United States for their initiative to hold an ‘Arria-formula meeting’ highlighting the plight of LGBT people in territories currently controlled by IS (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS).

ISIS, a terrorist organization currently committing numerous crimes against humanity and perpetrating a genocide against the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq and Syria, has already been condemned by the council repeatedly, he pointed out.

So, Chile and the U.S. are now taking the opportunity to highlight ISIS’s barbaric crimes against a particular minority that is deliberately ignored or discriminated against by several authoritarian governments that sit on the U.N. Security Council, El-Hage said.

Many U.N. Security Council permanent and non-permanent member states are themselves notorious for either repressing LGBT people domestically or blocking LGBT rights advocacy internationally, he noted.

Putin’s Russia, for example, bans the discussion of LGBT rights in the public sphere as “gay propaganda,” while China usually teams up with dictatorships at the U.N. to exclude from the text of U.N. resolutions language that recognizes LGBT people as a minority especially vulnerable to, for example, extrajudicial executions.

Similarly discriminatory of LGBT people in their countries are non-permanent members Chad, Angola, Nigeria, and Malaysia, he added.

“Thanks to the symbolic move by the U.S. and Chile, today they are all being forced to sit through a meeting to address an issue that they would rather avoid,” he declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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The U.N. at 70: Leading the Global Agenda on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – Part Two Mon, 17 Aug 2015 13:25:15 +0000 Lakshmi Puri Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of U.N. Women. Credit: U.N. Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Lakshmi Puri

The efforts of the United Nations and the global women’s movement to promote the women’s rights agenda and make it a top international priority saw its culmination in the creation of U.N. Women, by the General Assembly in 2010.

UN Women is the first – and only – composite entity of the U.N. system, with a universal mandate to promote the rights of women through the trinity of normative support, operational programmes and U.N. system coordination and accountability lead and promotion.This is a pivotal moment for the gender equality project of humankind.

It also supports the building of a strong knowledge hub – with data, evidence and good practices contributing to positive gains but also highlighting challenges and gaps that require urgent redressal.

UN Women has given a strong impetus to ensuring that progressive gender equality and women’s empowerment norms and standards are evolved internationally and that they are clearly mainstreamed and prioritised as key beneficiaries and enablers of the U.N.’s sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, humanitarian action, climate change action and World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) + 10 agendas.

In fact, since its creation five years ago, there has been an unprecedented focus and prioritisation of gender equality and women’s empowerment in all normative processes and outcomes.

With the substantive and intellectual backstopping, vigorous advocacy, strategic mobilisation and partnerships with member states and civil society, U.N. Women has contributed to the reigniting of political will for the full, effective and accelerated implementation of Beijing Platform commitments as was done in the Political Declaration adopted at 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women; a remarkable, transformative and comprehensive integration and prioritisation of gender equality in the Rio + 20 outcome and in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal and gender sensitive targets in other key Goals and elements.

Additionally, there was also a commitment to both gender mainstreaming and targeted and transformative actions and investments in the formulation and implementation of financial, economic, social and environmental policies at all levels in the recently-concluded Addis Accord and Action Agenda on  Financing For Development.

Also we secured a commitment to significantly increased investment to close the gender gap and resource gap and a pledge to strengthen support to gender equality mechanisms and institutions at the global, regional and national levels. We now are striving to do the same normative alchemy with the Climate Change Treaty in December 2015.

Equally exhilarating and impactful has been the advocacy journey of U.N. Women. It  supports and advocates for gender equality, women’s empowerment and the rights of women globally, in all regions and countries, with governments, with civil society and the private sector, with the media and with citizens – women and girls, men and boys everywhere including through its highly successful and innovative Campaigns such as UNiTE to End Violence against Women / orange your neighbourhood, Planet 50/50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality and the HeforShe campaign which have reached out to over a billion people worldwide .

UN Women also works with countries to help translate international norms and standards into concrete actions and impact at national level and to achieve real change in the lives of women and girls in over 90 countries. It is in the process of developing Key Flagship Programs to scale up and drive impact on the ground in priority areas of economic empowerment, participation and leadership in decision making and governance, and ending violence against women.

Ending the chronic underinvestment in women and girls empowerment programs and projects and mobilising transformative financing of gender equality commitments made is also a big and urgent priority.

We have and will continue to support women and girls in the context of humanitarian crisis like the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the earthquake relief and response in Nepal and worked in over 22 conflict and post conflict countries to advance women’s security, voice, participation and leadership in the continuum from peace-making, peace building to development.

UN Women’s role in getting each and every part of the U.N. system including the MFIs and the WTO to deliver bigger, better and in transformative ways for gender equality through our coordination role has been commended by all. Already 62 U.N. entities, specialised agencies and departments have reported for the third year on their UN-SWAP progress and the next frontier is to SWAP the field.

Much has been achieved globally on women’s right from education, to employment and leadership, including at the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has appointed more senior women than all the other Secretary-Generals combined.

Yet, despite the great deal of progress that has been made in the past 70 years in promoting the rights of women –persistent challenges remain and new ones have come up and to date no country in the world has achieved gender equality.

The majority of the world’s poor are women and they remain disempowered and marginalised. Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Women and girls are denied their basic right to make decisions on their sexuality and reproductive life and at the current rate of progress, it would take nearly another 80 years to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment everywhere, and for women and girls to have equal access to opportunities and resources everywhere.

The world cannot wait another century. Women and girls have already waited two millennia. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and all other normative commitments in the United Nations will remain ‘ink on paper’ without transformative financing in scale and scope, without the data, monitoring and follow up and review and without effective accountability mechanisms in this area.

As we move forward, the United Nations must continue to work with all partners to hold Member States accountable for their international commitments to advance and achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in all sectors and in every respect.

UN Women is readying itself to be Fit For Purpose but must also be Financed For Purpose in order to contribute and support the achievement of the Goals and targets for women and girls across the new Development Agenda.

This is a pivotal moment for the gender equality project of humankind. In order to achieve irreversible and sustained progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment for all women and girls – no matter where and in what circumstances they live and what age they are, we must all step up our actions and investment to realise the promise of “Transforming our World ” for them latest by 2030. It is a matter of justice, of recognising their equal humanity and of enabling the realisation of their fundamental freedoms and rights.

As the U.N. turns 70 and the entire international development  and  security community faces many policy priorities – from poverty eradication, conflict resolution, to addressing climate change and increasing inequalities within and between countries – it is heartening that all constituents of the U.N. – member states, the Secretariat and the civil society – recognise that no progress can be made in any of them without addressing women’s needs and interests and without women and girls as participants and leaders of change.

By prioritising gender equality in everything they pledge to not only as an article of faith but an operational necessity, they signal that upholding women’s rights will not only make the economy, polity and society work for women but create a prosperous economy, a just and peaceful society and a more sustainable planet.

Part One can be read here.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. Post-2015 Development Agenda Adopted Amidst Closed-Door Deals Fri, 07 Aug 2015 12:41:13 +0000 Bhumika Muchhala Bhumika Muchhala of Third World Network. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Bhumika Muchhala of Third World Network. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

By Bhumika Muchhala

At about a quarter to seven on the evening of Sunday, Aug. 2, the member states of the United Nations adopted the post-2015 development agenda outcome document, titled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda.”

As governments endorsed the 29-page product resulting from almost two years of transparent and relatively democratic negotiations, the final 48 hours had witnessed a very different story, that of a sharp turn towards closed-door consultations and last-minute bargaining chips.What transpired requires a moment to reflect on the reality of vested interests and deeply unequal power between negotiating governments.

The 2030 Agenda is arguably the most ambitious and expansive development agenda that has ever been set in motion. It will be in effect for 15 years (2015-2030) and is to be implemented on all levels ranging from the global and multilateral level (such as the World Bank), regional (such as regional commissions and funds) and national (both government level and development agencies).

The main meat of the 2030 agenda is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), comprised of 17 goals and 169 targets covering economic, social and environmental issues ranging from inequality, poverty, climate change, infrastructure, energy, industrialisation, consumption and production, health, education, ecosystem, biodiversity and oceans.

These SDGs will be the first global development paradigm to be marked by universality, meaning that all countries are to take action toward sustainable development, including the rich and powerful. This distinguishes the SDGs from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000-2015, which was based on an explicitly donor-recipient model of aid from the rich countries to the poor.

For all 193 governments of the U.N. to come to an agreement on this agenda was a breathtaking feat of conflict and compromise. However, over the first weekend of August, the otherwise open and recorded negotiations went into radio-silence in the back-rooms as the United States reportedly issued an ultimatum without which they refused to adopt the document.

The U.S. wanted to replace the word “ensure” with the word “promote” in two goals that talked about ensuring that the profits and patents reaped from the world’s natural biodiversity are shared fairly with the countries and communities from which they are extracted. The legal agreement on biodiversity clearly states the word “ensure.” By injecting the much weaker word “promote,” the U.S. tried to dilute hard-won legal language to something that is nebulous at best and unenforceable at worst.

This amendment essentially lets rich and powerful countries, whose corporations and research institutions extract the vast majority of biodiversity resources of the world, off the hook from their legal commitments to equitably share benefits and rewards that come from these resources. Developing countries were infuriated because most of this extraction happens in their countries, specifically, from the seeds, plants, forests and land on which most indigenous peoples across the world live in.

The negotiating group of 134 developing countries had repeatedly stated that the global goals were not to be re-opened for negotiation at the last minute, that they were sacrosanct. The fact that this firm position was flagrantly violated as a last-minute take-it-or-leave-it deal filled the air of the U.N. conference room with a palpable distrust and tension. People rushed in and out of conference rooms, furiously whispering in each other’s ears while working day and night to reach a consensus, no matter what.

Similarly, the progressive language on debt was also undermined, reportedly by the European Union this time. Up until the morning of Sunday, Aug. 1, the document said: “We recognize the need to assist developing countries … through debt financing, debt relief, debt restructuring and sound debt management, as appropriate.” This language recognised the sound development economics arguments called for by numerous economists and developing countries, on the urgent need to address external debt if any development goals are to be achieved.

By late afternoon, this was inserted: “Maintaining sustainable debt levels is the responsibility of the borrowing countries…”  Plucked out of the outcome document of the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa last month, this sentence harmfully faults borrowing countries for their debt burdens without due attention on the complex role of lenders and creditors, a point that has been repeatedly emphasised in the Greek case.

It’s a stark regression from the notion of co-responsibility between lenders and borrowers in previous U.N. documents from Monterrey in 2002 and Doha in 2008.

The fear of such retrogression in language from the Addis Ababa document drove developing countries to keep insisting until the last hour that it not be annexed to the 2030 Agenda as developed countries called for. In the end, the Addis Ababa text was not annexed. But the compromise was this sort of selective importation of language. Other attempts were also proposed by developed countries in the final hours but were steadfastly fought back, such as removing reference to “policy space,” arguably the most vital demand of developing countries.

Although policy space is mentioned twice in the 2030 agenda and once in the SDGs, it is qualified with language from the Addis Ababa text in one of these three mentions. This language is: “…while remaining consistent with relevant international rules and commitments.” This negates the very point of policy space, which is to address the very “international rules and commitments” that constrain the ability of a state to formulate and carry out development-oriented policies and pathways.

On the other side of the North-South firewall, African and Arab countries called for the removal of a critical paragraph recognising human rights as a principal aim of sustainable development and a commitment to non-discrimination for all. While the paragraph was saved from this late Friday night intervention, the essential term “discrimination” was scrapped and the word “fulfill” was demoted to “promote.”

Issues such as ethnicity, migration status, culture, economic situation or age as a protected status were also scrapped although “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status” remain.

African and Arab diplomats argued against the recognition of LGBT rights and objected to the inclusion of “all social and economic groups,” while many Latin American countries, the European Union and the U.S. firmly opposed the offense against human and civil rights.

It is now more than two decades since the U.N. reaffirmed the interdependence of human rights and development at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and more than 20 years since the U.N. first recognised sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination.

The 11th hour turn from openness to opacity reflects a crisis of multilateralism in the world’s primary locus of multilateralism, the U.N. After all, the U.N. is supposed to be the most democratic and universal institution that exists to date, one in which every nation has a vote, unlike the rich country-dominated IMF or World Bank.

The private bilateral consultations over the weekend of Aug. 1-2 were, according to many independent observers, a manufactured crisis that opened the door to text that endangers global development and law.

The problem is that backroom dealings and pressure campaigns have ominous implications for the legitimacy and fairness of international negotiations, not to mention the political will of governments to take the sustainable development goals seriously.

The new global development agenda has powerful potential to make an ambitious and universal dent of urgently needed progress in our economies, societies and environments.  At the same time, process is also important. What transpired this first weekend of August requires a moment to reflect on the reality of vested interests and deeply unequal power between negotiating governments.

(Note: As of Aug. 6, 3:00 p.m., the final outcome document of the post-2015 development agenda has not yet been officially published by the U.N. Secretariat. The last draft available is the Aug.1  draft without the changes noted above.  There is some speculation and concern as to why there is a delay of four days, which is only compounding the lack of transparency in the final hours of negotiation.)

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Obama Walks Fine Line in Kenya on LGBTI Rights Sat, 25 Jul 2015 19:42:09 +0000 Aruna Dutt Presidents Barack Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta wave to delegates at the Opening Plenary at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in Nairobi, Kenya on July 25, 2015. Credit: U.S. Embassy Nairobi

Presidents Barack Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta wave to delegates at the Opening Plenary at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in Nairobi, Kenya on July 25, 2015. Credit: U.S. Embassy Nairobi

By Aruna Dutt

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in Nairobi at the end of a two-day visit Saturday, focusing on Kenya’s economy and the fight against terrorism, but also briefly touching on gay rights and discrimination.

“When you start treating people differently not because of any harm they are doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta."You can't encourage change by staying silent." -- Charles Radcliffe

But LGBTI Kenyans are not in agreement about whether Obama’s presence will help or hurt their struggle, according to the Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Jessica Stern.

“The difference of views is a sign of the strength and diversity of the Kenyan LGBTI movement, but there’s no question that this is a potential minefield, and ultimately, those who stand to get hurt most are regular Kenyans,” she told IPS.

Some have argued that the U.S. president speaking out on LGBTQ human rights in Kenya was counterproductive in the past, and has made the people of Kenya, where same-sex relations are punishable by up to 14 years in prison, more homophobic and unsupportive of the LGBTQ community.

Anti-gay organisations like the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum claim that they gained more support due to President Obama’s comments in 2013, along with some American policies, likely because the protection of LGBTQ communities is widely viewed as an American value being imposed on African society.

After Obama’s comments Saturday, President Kenyatta stated that in Kenya, it is “very difficult to impose” gay rights because the culture is different from the United States, and the societies do not accept it – which makes it a “non-issue” to the government of Kenya.

“There’s been a deliberate attempt to portray homosexuality as a Western import, which it isn’t,” the U.N. adviser on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, Charles Radcliffe, told IPS. “The only Western imports in this context are the homophobic laws used to punish and silence gay people,” these laws mostly originating from 19th century British colonialism.

By speaking on LGBTQ human rights abuses, Obama is “imposing human values, not Western ones,” says Radcliffe. “It’s possible to respect tradition, while at the same time insisting that everyone — gay people included — deserve to be protected from prejudice, violence, and unfair punishment and discrimination.”

Radcliffe said he believes Obama and other leaders should speak out, as it will “open people’s eyes to the existence of gay Kenyans and the legitimacy of their claim to respect and recognition.”

Radcliffe advises prominent individuals to take their lead from members of the local LGBT community – who are best placed to advise on what interventions are likely to help, and which ones risk making things more difficult.

“LGBT activists are too often isolated in their own countries; they need the support of fellow human rights activists, women’s rights activists and others campaigning for social justice. Public opinion tends to change when individual members of the public get to know LGBT individuals and realise they are people too. The government should hasten that process, not obstruct it. ”

Radcliffe notes that “you can’t encourage change by staying silent.”

According to Stern, “LGBTI Kenyans have been fighting their own heroic struggle for years, but the extremists have seized upon this opportunity to undermine their credibility as Kenyans.  All Kenyans, gay and straight, lose when there’s this kind of media spin doctoring.”

Stern urged leaders like Obama and the media not to undermine an opportunity to address a spectrum of human rights abuses Kenyans are living with. Instead, she says there should be a focus on concerns which are being left by the wayside, such as the lack of police accountability, abuse by government security forces, abuse of Somali and Muslim communities, and a crackdown on NGOs, among many others.

“If the mechanisms for government accountability are weak, human rights of all stripes will suffer,” says Stern. “Kenyan activists of all stripes, including those working on LGBTI rights, are protesting corruption in government.  They’ve continued calling for accountability for violence in 2007/2008 after elections.

“They’re defending people who’ve been arbitrarily arrested and charged, such as two men in Kwale County being tried under the ‘unnatural offenses law’. They’ve documented hundreds of extrajudicial killings by police in recent years, and they’ve called for police guilty of violence and theft to be disciplined and prosecuted.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Kenya continues to be plagued by corruption at all levels of government with limited accountability.

For example, although both presidents Kenyatta and Ruto campaigned for elected office on pledges to continue their cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has charged both presidents with crimes against humanity in the past, their campaigns later painted the ICC as a tool of Western imperialism, and encouraged other African leaders to undermine the ICC.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Homosexuality Will Never Be Eliminated. How About Eliminating Homophobia? Fri, 17 Jul 2015 19:34:22 +0000 Neela Ghoshal A Ugandan transgender woman in a town near Kampala, shortly before she fled the country. She left to escape the police harassment and violence she experienced after the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

A Ugandan transgender woman in a town near Kampala, shortly before she fled the country. She left to escape the police harassment and violence she experienced after the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

By Neela Ghoshal
NEW YORK, Jul 17 2015 (IPS)

A report published in June by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), in collaboration with the Uganda National Academy of Sciences, could help reshape understandings of human sexuality – if African policymakers take the time to consider the report’s findings.

Contrary to widespread belief amongst African lawmakers and ordinary citizens, homosexuality is neither a Western import nor a matter of choice. These are some of the findings the panel of African scientists revealed after reviewing hundreds of studies on same-sex attraction.Same-sex relationships and diverse gender identities exist even where laws are most repressive, and levels of stigma are highest. Criminalising LGBT identities or same-sex conduct simply won’t make LGBT people disappear.

But some African politicians seem too busy fomenting panic around homosexuality to pay attention to the facts, by, for example, spreading false claims that U.S. President Barack Obama is pushing same-sex marriage on Kenya and Nigeria.

Desperate to distract voters from real, unresolved problems, such as poverty, insecurity and corruption, many African politicians like to raise the specter of homosexuality as a mortal danger. In the name of protecting society, “traditional values,” or children, they pass deeply discriminatory laws.

Nigeria, under former president Goodluck Jonathan, slapped 10-year prison sentences on anyone who even “indirectly” demonstrates a “same sex amorous relationship.” In Uganda, before its Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down on procedural grounds last year, a landlord who didn’t evict a gay or lesbian tenant could have been convicted for maintaining a “brothel.”

For the proponents of these laws, Obama is the latest bogeyman, with one Kenyan politician suggesting that if Obama so much as mentions the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people during his upcoming visit to Kenya, this might tear Kenya’s “social fabric.”

But the panel of well-respected African scientists roundly dismissed claims that homosexuality is imported, finding the prevalence of homosexuality in African countries “no different from other countries in the rest of the world”.

The panel concurred with a previous a finding by Ugandan scientists that “homosexuality existed in Africa way before the coming of the white man.” When these Ugandan scientists presented their report to President Yoweri Museveni in early 2014, he shamelessly ignored their conclusions, claiming their report justified the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

The recent report notes that same-sex relationships and diverse gender identities exist even where laws are most repressive, and levels of stigma are highest. Criminalising LGBT identities or same-sex conduct simply won’t make LGBT people disappear.

Likewise, an approach to sexuality and gender that is in line with international human rights law will not open the floodgates to waves of Africans “converting” to homosexuality. Indeed, countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, known to be particularly open to sexual diversity, have no higher rates of homosexuality than any other countries in the world.

The scientists find that “… studies such as this show that young people can be friends with LBGTI youngsters without fearing (or their parents fearing) that they will ‘catch’ same-sex attraction from their friends. Such ‘transmission’ of sexual orientation simply does not happen.”

Nor should policymakers worry that LGBT people are a threat to children. The fear that gays are recruiting and abusing children is often offered to justify cracking down on homosexuality. However, the panel found “no scientific evidence to support the view” that LGBT people are more likely to abuse children than anyone else.

Instead, the panel, having examined studies of child sexual abuse, concluded that “most of the perpetrators are heterosexual men.” Rather than scapegoating homosexuals, the report suggests, governments should identify and hold accountable the real child abusers.

When given an opportunity to speak for themselves, LGBT people often emphasise that they were aware of their sexual or gender identity from an early age. Similarly, heterosexual people often develop romantic feelings toward the opposite sex from early childhood—they don’t “choose” those feelings, nor can they change them.

In examining the scientific literature, the panel says that, “Overall, the surge in recent confirmatory studies,” including those of twins and of similarities in chromosomes across a population group with a particular trait, “have reached the stage where there is no longer any doubt about the existence of a substantial biological basis to sexual orientation.”

If sexuality has a biological basis, the scientists ask – and if there is no evidence that LGBT people “recruit” or otherwise harm children – what could possibly be the justification for punishing people for their sexual orientation or gender identity?

African policymakers should ask themselves the same. And rather than wringing their hands about a US court decision on marriage equality, or tearing their hair out over purely hypothetical comments that Obama may or may not make, they should look at the very real social harms caused by homophobia and transphobia.

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights – which, like the South African and Ugandan scientists who produced the report, can hardly be dismissed as Western – passed a resolution in 2014 condemning widespread violence on the grounds of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

The commissioners expressed “alarm” 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.” They cited “‘corrective’ rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings and executions, forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail.”

The commission calls on African countries to end all violence and abuse on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The ASSAf report goes a step further in concluding that “As variation in sexual identities and orientations has always been part of a normal society, there can be no justification for attempts to ‘eliminate’ LGBTI from society.”

As the study shows, same sex attraction and gender variance have always existed and nothing will change that, no matter how many repressive laws are passed, how many LGBT people are raped, murdered, imprisoned, expelled from schools or evicted from their homes.

Instead of trying to “eliminate” LGBT people, why not begin taking steps to eliminate violence and discrimination against them?

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Latin America Has Beaten Down, but not Beaten, HIV/AIDS Tue, 14 Jul 2015 22:57:26 +0000 Alvaro Queiruga A group of children use bottle caps to create the red ribbon that symbolises the fight against AIDS, in one of the awareness-raising activities carried out in Latin America. Credit: UNAIDS Latin America

A group of children use bottle caps to create the red ribbon that symbolises the fight against AIDS, in one of the awareness-raising activities carried out in Latin America. Credit: UNAIDS Latin America

By Álvaro Queiruga
MONTEVIDEO , Jul 14 2015 (IPS)

The countries of Latin America have partially met the Millennium Development Goal referring to the fight against HIV/AIDS, according to the UNAIDS report on the global epidemic released Tuesday.

“The world has achieved the AIDS targets of Millennium Development Goal 6. The epidemic has been halted and reversed,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in the preface to the report “How AIDS changed everything —“MDG6: 15 years, 15 lessons of hope from the AIDS response”.

Among the advances mentioned by the UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) report was the fact that 47 percent of people over 15 and 54 percent of children under 14 living with HIV/AIDS in Latin America were receiving antiretroviral treatment in 2014 – one of the highest levels of coverage in the world.

The global average is 41 percent for adults and 32 percent for children.“In 2000, AIDS was a death sentence. People who became infected with HIV had just a few years to live….Today, the life expectancy of a person living with HIV who is receiving treatment is the same as that of a person who is not infected with HIV. That is success.” -- UNAIDS report

In some Latin American countries coverage is higher, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, the five countries that account for over 75 percent of cases of HIV/AIDS in the region. But in others it is much lower, like Bolivia, where antiretroviral coverage stands at less than 25 percent.

As an example to be followed, the report cites a major regional accomplishment: on Jun. 30 Cuba became the first country in the world to receive validation from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that it had eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay are set to become the next countries in the region to receive validation, possibly before June 2016, the regional director of UNAIDS for Latin America, César Núñez, said in an interview with IPS from Panama City.

The three pillars of the struggle

The experts, activists and HIV-positive persons consulted by IPS agreed that any effective struggle against the epidemic must be based on three pillars: prevention through early detection and treatment of HIV/AIDS, universal access to antiretroviral therapy, and the reduction of HIV-related stigma and discrimination, which limits access to detection and treatment.

According to UNAIDS, an estimated 70 percent of cases of HIV/AIDS in Latin America have been diagnosed and 47 percent of the patients have begun antiretroviral therapy. Of those in treatment, the virus has been suppressed among 66 percent – in other words, 28 percent of all HIV-positive people in the region.

HIV prevalence in the region stands at 0.4 percent of the population – compared to 0.8 percent globally. But it rises to 25 or 30 percent among trans women involved in sex work, over 10 percent among gays and other men who have sex with men, and six percent among female sex workers.

HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are continually carried out in Latin America, such as this one launched by Chile’s Health Ministry, which shows a man and a woman who do not fit the stereotypes of HIV-positive persons, and warns that “HIV doesn’t kill; your fear does.” Credit: Chilean government

HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are continually carried out in Latin America, such as this one launched by Chile’s Health Ministry, which shows a man and a woman who do not fit the stereotypes of HIV-positive persons, and warns that “HIV doesn’t kill; your fear of the test does.” Credit: Chilean government

“HIV is concentrated in sexual diversity communities…who even find it very hard just to have an AIDS test in a health centre when, in the best of cases, they face stigma or discrimination on the streets or in the health centre itself, and in the worst of cases, they face the threat of physical violence,” Núñez said.

Between January 2013 and March 2014 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights received 770 reports of violence (594 murders and 176 serious assaults) motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or identity or gender expression.

UNAIDS figures

In Latin America the epidemic is concentrated in certain population groups, as well as in cities and ports, and along trade routes.

AIDS-related deaths in the region dropped 29 percent between 2005 and 2014, when the death toll was 41,000.

In 2014 there were 1.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Latin America, including 33,000 children. Of that total, 65 percent, or 1.1 million people, were men. The main route of transmission is sexual contact.

Over 75 percent of the 87,000 new HIV infections in the region in 2014 occurred, in descending order, in Brazil (which accounted for approximately 50 percent of the total), Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina.

Fewer than 2000 children acquired HIV in 2014 in Latin America. High coverage of prevention of mother-to-child transmission has helped drive reductions in new infections among children, with 79 percent of the region’s 20,000 pregnant women living with HIV receiving antiretroviral therapy in 2014.

The Court recommended that states document such cases in order to develop policies for protecting the human rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersexual (LGBTI) population.

“Laws on gender identity, gay marriage, anti-discrimination…are clear examples of legislation that…contribute to reducing discrimination and make it possible for the most affected populations to have access to health systems,” Carlos Falistocco, president of the Horizontal Technical Cooperation Group in Latin America and the Caribbean, which brings together the heads of AIDS programmes in the region, told IPS.

Núñez acknowledged that the region “managed to curb the spread of HIV, but we fell short of reversing the epidemic,” one of the targets of the sixth MDG, which like the other seven are to be met this year, when they will be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There is still a long way to go, as reflected by the number of new HIV infections. Although they were reduced 13 percent from 2000 to 2014, in the last five years there has been little change in the annual number of new cases in the region.

Núñez said “there has been a kind of relaxation in the response. In some cases I think there’s a perception that this isn’t a problem anymore in Latin America, which has not enabled us to channel additional resources or put a higher priority on diagnosing and treating HIV.”

María José Fraga, a representative of the Network of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS in Uruguay, concurs.

“Because HIV has become a chronic disease, like diabetes or hypertension, social concern has died down,” she told IPS. “Today the epidemic is practically not discussed, because it’s not present. And for that reason we keep running into late diagnoses. There is no individual awareness of taking the test, or going to the doctor and asking for it.”

Fraga, 44, has been living with HIV for 24 years. When she was diagnosed in 1990, “there was practically no treatment,” she recalled.

“But that changed astoundingly fast, because by 1995 or 1996 there was already a wide variety of drugs…Back then they waited longer to start treatment. And the guidelines for treatment have gradually changed as more is understood about the disease and how it evolves in people,” she said.

Juan José Meré, a U.N. population fund (UNFPA) HIV/AIDS adviser, told IPS that in the case of Uruguay, “in nearly 40 percent of cases, full-blown AIDS is present by the time they are diagnosed. This can obviously be reverted, and in general it is, but at a high cost to their health.”

According to UNAIDS, in at least half of the countries in the region, 38 percent of people living with HIV had, when they were first tested, full-blown AIDS, which is defined by a CD4 cell count of less than 200 per cubic mm of blood. (CD4 cells are a type of lymphocyte or white blood cell; they are an important part of the immune system.)

WHO and UNAIDS recommend that antiretroviral treatment start when a person’s CD4 cell count falls to 500, when they are still asymptomatic.

“Some countries, like Brazil and Argentina, offer treatment to any diagnosed patient, regardless of the CD4 level,” said Falistocco.

What direction should Latin America take in the future?

“We must base whatever we do on that great message from Secretary General Ban…we can’t leave anyone behind. In the region we can make great progress, especially if we guarantee access to services for the sexual diversity community across the entire continent,” said Núñez.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Challenges Asia-Pacific to Be World’s First Region to End AIDS Epidemic Fri, 05 Jun 2015 14:01:03 +0000 Thalif Deen HIV-positive women gather in Kathmandu, Nepal for a skills training. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

HIV-positive women gather in Kathmandu, Nepal for a skills training. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations has expressed confidence that the Asia-Pacific region, with almost five million people living with HIV, is politically committed towards the elimination of the deadly disease AIDS.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said the Asia-Pacific region is moving the world forward into new frontiers of development. "Our region has broken many barriers and saved countless lives, showing how developing countries can share responsibility, cooperate and take the lead in ending AIDS." -- Dr. Shamshad Akhtar

“You have all the right tools in your hands, beginning with political commitment. I challenge you to be the first region to end the AIDS epidemic,” he told a meeting in Bangkok.

According to the latest figures, new HIV infections have declined since 2001 and more than 1.6 million people were receiving anti-retroviral treatment by June 2014.

At the 71st session of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in the Thai capital Friday, political leaders and high level officials from 50 countries and territories in the region endorsed the Report of the Asia-Pacific Intergovernmental Meeting on HIV and AIDS.

The new framework identifies three areas of action. The first area is supported by ESCAP and focuses on continuing national reviews and consultations to address legal and policy barriers for ensuring universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The second area calls for national reviews and consultations on ensuring access to affordable drugs and medicines.

The third area promotes the development of national HIV investment cases and plans to ensure sustainable financing of the AIDS response.

Addressing the meeting, Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, said “less than halfway through 2015, with renewed vigour, governments at the highest level have committed to meet [several] regional challenges, [including that] of HIV and AIDS.”

“Our region has broken many barriers and saved countless lives, showing how developing countries can share responsibility, cooperate and take the lead in ending AIDS,” he added.

Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji and chair of the 71st session, said: “The framework is a road map for countries on how best to accelerate their efforts in the HIV response. It will help shape the future of the HIV response in the Asia-Pacific region beyond 2015.”

In the past 10 years, at least 56 countries have either stabilised or reduced new HIV infections by more than 25 percent, according to the United Nations.

Globally, new HIV infections have been reduced by nearly 20 percent and new HIV infections among babies have dropped by 25 percent—a significant step towards achieving virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015.

In 2011, the world commemorated 30 years of AIDS and the AIDS response.

In June 1981, scientists in the United States reported the first clinical evidence of a disease that would later become known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS.

Its cause, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was identified in 1983.

And according to the United Nations, 30 years later the AIDS epidemic has spread to every corner of the world and more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Murders of Gays Raise the Question of Hate Crimes in Cuba Sat, 16 May 2015 16:16:45 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez “Homosexuality Isn’t a Danger; Homophobia Is” reads a sign held by an activist from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community during a demonstration in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Homosexuality Isn’t a Danger; Homophobia Is” reads a sign held by an activist from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community during a demonstration in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, May 16 2015 (IPS)

During the events surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba, it emerged that a young transsexual had recently been killed in the city of Pinar del Río near the western tip of this Caribbean island nation.

While efforts to combat discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBT) are stepped up in Cuba, this segment of the population remains vulnerable to harassment and violence – and even death.

The Apr. 26 murder of Yosvani Muñoz, 24, which is under investigation, as the legal advice office of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) confirmed to IPS, raised questions about a sensitive and little-known issue in Cuba: hate crimes.

IPS asked experts and members of the LBGT community about the causes of killings of “men who have sex with men” (MSM), of which no official statistics have been published, but which have been reported periodically since 2013 by word of mouth, or in blogs or alternative media outlets.

Hate crimes include verbal abuse, threats, physical assaults and homicides motivated by prejudice based on questions like sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnic group or religion.

“We are fighting hate crimes together with the Interior Ministry (which the police answers to),” CENESEX director Mariela Castro said in exclusive comments to IPS. Castro is the most visible face of the national campaign in favour of freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“A thorough expert analysis is needed to determine what kind of killing it was because not all crimes involving LGBT persons as victims are motivated by hatred,” Castro, a sexologist, explained during the May 5-16 events surrounding the Day Against Homophobia.

With a big Cuban flag and smaller rainbow flags representing gay pride, LGBT persons participate in one of the events in Havana surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

With a big Cuban flag and smaller rainbow flags representing gay pride, LGBT persons participate in one of the events in Havana surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In Havana and the eastern province of Las Tunas, this year’s activities, focused on the right to work, had the support for the first time of Cuba’s trade union federation Central de Trabajadores de Cuba and the blessing of protestant pastors for more than 30 gay and lesbian couples.

The activities involved a festive conga line and demonstration with signs and banners, video clips, and debates on the rights of LGBT persons to information, freedom of thought, access to justice, personal safety, and violence-free lives.

The situation in Latin America

In Latin America only Uruguay specifically mentions hate crimes in its legislation, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico have laws against discrimination that take into account aggravating circumstances in certain crimes, and some Brazilian states have anti-discrimination clauses in their local constitutions.

Because of the lack of official figures, non-governmental organisations compile information that is not systematised.

The Centre for AIDS Education and Prevention in Nicaragua documented some 300 hate crimes against the LGBT population, especially trans women, in Central America from 2009 to 2013. In Mexico and Brazil the number of crimes targeting this population group is high.

In Cuba, the Ibero-American and African Masculinity Network is the only organisation that has published the results of investigations, without explaining the methods used to compile the information. It reported that in 2013 it heard about “more than 40 murders of homosexuals” killed in the same circumstances as the cultural figures Velázquez and Díaz.

They preceded the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is observed on May 17 because on that date in 1990, the World Health Organisation (WHO) general assembly removed homosexuality from the global body’s list of mental disorders.

Castro said “theft and common crime are more frequent aspects in murders of homosexuals, according to the data presented to us by the DGICO (criminal investigation bureau),” which receives advice from and collaborates with CENESEX.

“There might be a hate crime murder once in a while, but they are very few,” she said.

The sexologist added, however, that “the number of hate crimes is not completely clear because of the lack of a specialised institution dedicated to classifying them….and this classification is important because the old term ‘crime of passion’ hides gender violence, violence between men, and violence between couples.”

Violent crime is generally surrounded by silence in this island nation of 11.2 million people, and killings of LGBT individuals are no exception. The 1987 penal code does not specifically recognise hate crimes, or sexual orientation and gender identity as aggravating circumstances in murders.

The law provides for sentences of 15 to 30 years in cases of homicide, and the death penalty is still on the books, although it has not been applied since 2003.

“MSM are at greater risk of being killed than women,” Castro said, citing the results of DGICO investigations regarding a category of men that includes gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

“Part of the gay population does not perceive the danger when they irresponsibly choose sexual partners, without information,” she said. “They seek out young men who work as prostitutes, some of whom are criminals and try to rob them, and even kill when they defend themselves.”

Along with its work raising awareness to prevent HIV/AIDS, CENESEX warns of other risks posed by irresponsible sexual practices in gay meeting and recreational places or community social networks.

Oneida Paz, a 59-year-old manager, has not heard of murders or rapes of lesbians, a population group she belongs to. “Violence among women can exist, but it’s not common,” she said. “I do have friends who have been injured, because they were married to men who beat them when they got into a relationship with another woman.”

CENESEX said the number of murders of MSM in 2013 and 2014 was high. At that time the issue came to the forefront because of the deaths of two high-profile openly gay cultural figures, who died in strange circumstances, according to activists.

The local media, which is entirely state-owned, gave ample coverage to the violent deaths of choreographer Alfredo Velázquez, 44, in September 2013 in the eastern city of Guantánamo, and theatre director Tony Díaz, 69, found dead in his Havana home in January 2014. But they only mentioned their careers in the arts.

“I haven’t seen statistics and I’m no expert, but the murders I know about were ruthless. We’re killed for some reason, like theft or vengeance, but also because we’re gay,” said Leonel Bárzaga, a 33-year-old chemical engineer who told IPS about the murder of his friend Marcel Rodríguez.

Rodríguez, a 28-year-old gay professional, was stabbed 12 times on Jan. 6 in his central Havana home. “The police haven’t shared the results of their investigation yet,” said Bárzaga, who preferred not to discuss the specific motives for the murder.

Veterinarian Manuel Hernández, 41, said “I haven’t heard of murders of gays. But verbal attacks are definitely common in small towns, and in the workplace there’s a lot of discrimination,” above all in the rural town where he lives, Quivicán, 45 km south of Havana.

“It wouldn’t be crazy to talk about ‘hate crimes’ against LGBT persons in Cuba,” said Jorge Carrasco, a journalist who investigated gay gathering places in the capital in 2013. “That’s a term used by the Cuban police, in fact, and it’s not a product of paranoia. But I know as little about them as any other Cuban.”

Based on his interviews conducted in lonely outlying parts of the city, like the Playa del Chivo, a beach frequented by MSM to talk, arrange meetings and have sex with strangers, Carrasco explained by email that “many criminals go to those places to steal, and there have been murders. That’s why the police patrol them.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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In Nicaragua Marriage Is Only for ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ Wed, 29 Apr 2015 21:49:55 +0000 Jose Adan Silva One of the many protests held in 2014 by sexual diversity activists and organisations demanding recognition of the right of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans persons to marry and adopt, which was not included in the new Family Code. Credit: Courtesy of the Sustainable Development Network of Nicaragua

One of the many protests held in 2014 by sexual diversity activists and organisations demanding recognition of the right of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans persons to marry and adopt, which was not included in the new Family Code. Credit: Courtesy of the Sustainable Development Network of Nicaragua

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Apr 29 2015 (IPS)

A new Family Code that went into effect in Nicaragua this month represents an overall improvement in terms of the rights of Nicaraguans. However, it has one major gap: it fails to recognise same-sex marriage, and as a result it closes the doors to adoption by gay couples.

Organisations that defend the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and intersex persons (LGBTI) fought to the end without success to get the new Code – Law 870 – to include the right of gay couples to marry and adopt children.

Marvin Mayorga, an activist with the Urgent Actions Against Discrimination for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Project in Nicaragua, told IPS that the law is discriminatory.

“The lack of recognition of gay marriage forces us to formally remain single, and single people are not legally allowed to adopt children in this country and establish a family,” he said.“The lack of recognition of gay marriage forces us to formally remain single, and single people are not legally allowed to adopt children in this country and establish a family.” -- Marvin Mayorga

“And outside the family there are more barriers to achieving minimal guarantees and benefits like decent work, social security coverage, education, healthcare and housing,” he complained.

The activist stressed that “families in Nicaragua are diverse, but they want to impose one single model of what a family is.”

The new Code, approved by the legislature in 2014, finally entered into force on Apr. 8.

Its aim is to protect the rights of each member of the family as well as enforce the collective rights and obligations of families.

The driving force behind the drafting of the new Code, lawmaker Carlos Emilio López of the governing left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), told IPS that the 674-article Code updates and brings together in one legal instrument what was previously dispersed in 47 different laws and regulations.

The new Code addresses questions such as marriage, property rights, adoption, retirement, the rights of mothers, fathers and children, divorce, alimony and paternal and maternal responsibility.

Up to now, family questions were mainly included in the 1904 Civil Code, which according to López regulated these issues with a strongly conservative and Catholic tint, which subordinated women and children to the father as the breadwinner of the family.

“A careful analysis was made so that each member of society, as individuals that form part of families, had clear rights, obligations and duties in keeping with the country’s constitution and laws, so that there would be no discrimination against anyone for any reason,” he said.

López argued that there is no discrimination against the LGBTI community because the Nicaraguan constitution, which is above the new Code, protects the right of all Nicaraguans, and provides guarantees against inequality.

But Luis Torres, head of the local NGO Nicaraguan Sexual Diversity Alternative, told IPS that the new Code does discriminate against LGBTI persons by excluding them from the right to marry and forcing the state to provide social benefits only to family units recognised as such by the new Code.

“It’s a step backwards,” he complained. “Through the Code, the state excludes cohabiting same-sex couples from social security coverage. Neither marriage nor civil union between people of the same sex are recognised.”

That means in practice that “LGBTI couples do not have access to related rights like the right to a family loan, to adopt children, or to obtain social security coverage in case of the death or injury of a spouse, among other rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples,” Torres said.

The advances made by the new Code include recognition for the first time in this Central American country that civil unions – but only between a man and a woman – have the same rights and obligations as traditional married couples.

Ramón Rodríguez, a professor of criminal law and human rights law at the Central American University and the American University, said that because the Code “establishes that marriage and stable civil unions are only between a man and a women, a significant segment of the population, which forms part of the sexual diversity spectrum, is the direct victim of the violation of the universal principals of equality and non-discrimination.”

But Samira Montiel, Nicaragua’s ombudswoman for sexual diversity, disagreed with the criticism by human rights activists and LGBTI rights organisations.

“I would also have liked the Code to allow me to marry and adopt, but the constitution does not permit that and the Code cannot be above the constitution,” she told IPS.

Montiel said that although “for now” same-sex marriage has not been recognised, “the individual rights of each member of the lesbian-gay community are protected because they have equal rights as siblings, children, parents, relatives and citizens.”

“No lesbian woman or gay man who has a child will lose their right to parenthood, and they won’t be denied any benefits. So far I haven’t received a single formal complaint about the Code, no one has appealed it, there isn’t a single request for adoption of a child by a gay couple, and healthcare has not been denied to any lesbian or bisexual,” she told IPS.

One of the positive aspects of the Code is the fact that it accelerates the legal process for suing for alimony in divorce cases. Instead of dragging on for up to five years, the process can now take no longer than 150 days.

It also sets child support for sons and daughters under 18 to up to half of the income of the parent who is being sued, and creates fines for incompliance.

In addition, it creates a process for elderly parents to sue their children for abandonment, and gives sons and daughters up to the age of 24 the right to receive from their families money to buy food, in the case of proven need.

Furthermore, it addresses matters related to divorce, the division of assets, child protection, parental leave and other areas.

It also prohibits physical punishment or other humiliating treatment of children in any setting, and sets the age of marriage at 18 – the age of majority for both sexes, in terms of legal obligations.

The Nicaraguan federation of non-governmental organisations that work on behalf of children and adolescents had demanded that the age of marriage be raised, in order to put an end to marriages between girls aged 14 or even younger to adult men.

These marriages are often the so-called “family remedy” in cases of sexual abuse or pregnancy of girls and adolescents by adult men.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Lesbians Receiving Unequal Treatment from Cuban Health Services Wed, 01 Apr 2015 07:41:50 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez Two women hugging at a Day Against Homophobia in Havana organised by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Two women hugging at a Day Against Homophobia in Havana organised by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Apr 1 2015 (IPS)

In addition to other forms of discrimination, lesbian and bisexual women in Cuba face unequal treatment from public health services. Their specific sexual and reproductive health needs are ignored, and they are invisible in prevention and treatment campaigns for women.

Many lesbian and bisexual women are afraid of gynaecological instruments and procedures which they experience as particularly distasteful given their sexual orientation. Many are unaware of their risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STI) and postpone attending gynaecology appointments in order to avoid questions about their love life, activists and health experts told IPS.

Dayanis Tamayo, a 36-year-old education specialist who lives in Santiago de Cuba, 862 kilometres from Havana, feels that health professionals are judgmental when they discover that her partner is a woman. They make lesbophobic comments and give her disapproving looks.

“Sometimes I get by unnoticed because I don’t fit the stereotype of a butch lesbian, but otherwise I always feel judged,” said Tamayo, who is engaged in research at Universidad de Oriente.

Recent studies back up Tamayo’s statement, pointing to prejudice against lesbian and bisexual women among the country’s health personnel, and ignorance about their particular sexual health needs.

Cuban psychiatrist Ada Alfonso presented a report on “Salud, malestares y derechos sexuales de las lesbianas” (Lesbians’ sexual health, illnesses and rights) at the 2014 Cuban Day Against Homophobia. She said that when they go to see the doctor, these women are asked more about their sexual experiences than about their reason for seeking treatment.

“If we look at women’s health through the lenses of inequality, the gap between lesbians and heterosexuals in regard to health services has a lesbophobic subtext hidden behind the discourse on ‘social needs’,” said Alfonso, an expert with the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX).

In her view, social pressure on women who are not heterosexual, amounting to homophobia, causes various forms of psychological and sexual malaise.

Alfonso interviewed women in several of the island’s provinces. She found that ethical deficiencies in the system are leading women to postpone clinical tests until they can see a doctor who has been recommended, or a health professional sharing their own sexual orientation.

The women are particularly averse to gynaecological tests because of the instruments used and invasive procedures such as pelvic and vaginal examinations.

Gynaecology outpatient consultations total 925,549 a year, for a population of 4.7 million women aged over 15, according to the National Office of Statistics.

Personnel working in preventive screening services for cervical and uterine cancer told Alfonso that lesbian women tend to come forward for testing too late for any therapeutic action to be taken.

“We generally think that since we do not have sex with men, we are exempt from those risks, because the information campaigns in the media only portray heterosexual couples,” an accountant resident in the Diez de Octubre neighbourhood of Havana told IPS, requesting anonymity.

The 39-year-old accountant, who works in the state sector, has never had a Papanicolau (Pap) test, which involves collecting cells from the uterine cervix and checking them for abnormalities. The Pap test is recommended for women aged over 25 to prevent cervical and uterine cancer and in Cuba it is offered free to women every three years.

“Although I do know that it is important, I find it psychologically difficult to face this test because I feel so exposed, assaulted even, and I personally do not like penetration,” she said.

All Cubans enjoy health coverage by a local family clinic, which is responsible for reminding women when it is time for their next Pap test. However, many women put it off.

In 2013, a total of 765,822 Cuban women aged over 25 had a Pap test done, a take-up rate of 195.8 per 1,000 according to the most recent figures from the Cuban Annual Health Statistics.

All treatment in the Cuban health system is free of charge and is delivered without institutionalised discrimination. But prejudice against non heterosexual people continues to grow.

“Health personnel are part of society, and society rejects lesbians,” José Martínez, a medical doctor in the eastern province of Granma, told IPS.

According to Martínez, medical training in Cuba is too narrowly focused on a biological approach and makes hardly any reference to psychosocial determinants of health.

“When a lesbian woman goes to see a gynaecologist, the doctor will probably assume that she is at lower risk (of cervical or uterine cancer) because penetration is not involved in her relationship, because this is what they have been taught,” Martínez said.

Yenis Milanés, who has a degree in hygiene and epidemiology, told IPS that “medical students are not required to take a single course on sexuality” during their training.

Women who have intimate relations with women tend to have a low perception of their own risk, and seldom take protective measures during sex, Milanés and Martínez said.

They both collaborated in a 2013 study of 30 lesbian and bisexual women in the province of Granma, which found these women thought they were unlikely to acquire sexually transmitted infections.

Another study in 2014 by Martínez and Milanés confirmed that sexual and reproductive health programmes in Cuba generally do not include information about the risks of contracting STI and HIV/AIDS that specifically addresses lesbian women’s issues.

Lesbians receive less information about STI prevention than other population groups and they have fewer welcoming institutional spaces where they can socialise and discuss their problems, said the report, to which IPS had access.

The research study debunks the myth that engaging in lesbian sex avoids all infection risks, although these are indeed much lower than for other sexual behaviours.

Depending on the sexual practices of a same-sex lesbian couple, unprotected contact with exchange of vaginal secretions and menstrual blood can lead to infection with the HIV/AIDS and Herpes simplex viruses, bacterial vaginosis, gonorrhoea, syphilis, vaginal parasites and other diseases.

Women represented 18.5 percent of the 2,156 new HIV-positive cases diagnosed in Cuba in 2013, bringing the total number of people living with the virus to 16,400, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

Training health professionals to be sensitive to sexual diversity has been a long-established demand by groups of lesbian women supported by CENESEX in the provinces of Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila, Cienfuegos, Granma, La Habana, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and Villa Clara.

Through community activism, these groups are struggling for their rights to responsible enjoyment of sexual health, including equality of treatment in the health services and access to assisted reproduction technology.

Editado por Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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Activists Protest Denial of Condoms to Africa’s High-Risk Groups Sat, 28 Mar 2015 08:46:40 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo Distributing condoms in prisons and schools has set off a heated debate, rendering the fight against HIV/AIDS a challenge ahead of this year's U.N. deadline for nations to halt its spread. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

Distributing condoms in prisons and schools has set off a heated debate, rendering the fight against HIV/AIDS a challenge ahead of this year's U.N. deadline for nations to halt its spread. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 28 2015 (IPS)

Tatenda Chivata, a 16-year old from Zimbabwe’s Mutoko rural district, was suspended from school for an entire three-month academic term after he was found with a used condom stashed in his schoolbag.

Regerai Chigodora, a 34-year-old prisoner at a jail in Harare, had his 36-year sentence stretched to 45 years after he was caught with used condoms in prison early this year.

With restrictions blocking the distribution of condoms in schools and prisons in Africa, health experts say the continent’s opportunity to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in line with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals may be squandered,

“It will be hard for Africa to win the war against HIV/AIDS if certain groups of people like students and prisoners are being skipped from preventive measures,” Tamasha Nyerere, an independent HIV/AIDS counsellor based in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, told IPS.

Human rights activists in Zimbabwe say more cases of youths like Chivata and prisoners like Chigodora may be going unreported in countries where condom use in jails and schools is anathema.With restrictions blocking the distribution of condoms in schools and prisons in Africa, health experts say the continent’s opportunity to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in line with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals may be squandered.

“It’s indeed disturbing how hard we have worked as Africa to fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS yet we have not been so pragmatic in our bid to institute preventive measures in schools and jails, where most of our African governments have vehemently refused to allow condoms to be distributed with the common excuse that they promote homosexuality in jails and sexual immorality in schools,” Elvis Chuma, a gay activist in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, told IPS.

Zimbabwean prisoner Chigodora agreed, telling IPS that “whether or not authorities here like it, homosexuality is rife in jails and even if we may smuggle in condoms to use secretly, if you get caught like in my case, you will be in for serious trouble.”

Schoolchildren in Africa like Zimbabwe’s Chivata have to contend with secret use of condoms in school. Their only crime is that they are underage, said Chivata.

“I’m serving a suspension from school because I was caught with a condom I used during sex with my girlfriend, but the same teachers teach us about use of protection if we get tempted to engage in sex. Now I’m wondering if I was wrong using a condom. Perhaps I could have gone undetected if I had opted to have unprotected sex,” he told IPS.

Under Zimbabwe’s Legal Age of Majority Act, any Zimbabwean under the age of 18 years is a minor, while a person between the age of 16 years and 18 years is defined as a young person under the Children’s Protection and Adoption Act.

Sodomy is also a punishable offence in Zimbabwe, which rights activists say, makes it difficult for this Southern African nation and other African nations to distribute condoms in prisons.

“African countries like Zimbabwe are being cornered by their own laws which bar them from dishing out condoms to prisoners and school children,” Tonderai Zivhu, chairperson of the Open Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, a lobby group in Masvingo, Zimbabwe’s oldest town, told IPS.

South Africa and Namibia may be the only two out of Africa’s 54 countries that have adopted HIV/AIDS preventive measures in schools and jails.

In 2007, South Africa’s new Children’s Act came into effect, giving children 12 years and older the right to obtain contraceptives. The country’s Department of Correctional Services also provides condoms to inmates.

In Namibia, the country’s policy on HIV/AIDS states that all convicted prisoners awaiting trial and inmates are entitled to have access to the same HIV-related prevention information, education, voluntary counselling and testing, means of prevention, treatment, care and support as is available to the general population.

Other African countries, however, seem unclear about their position on condoms use in jails and schools.

Last year, the government of Rwanda confirmed the prevalence of homosexuality in prisons, but was non-committal on whether or not it would start distributing condoms in its correctional facilities.

This year, Zimbabwe’s Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora told parliament that parents were free to pack condoms for their children in their schoolbags, but that the government would not allow them to be openly distributed at schools.

“We must say children are in school to learn and be initiated for certain life skills, and when it comes to condoms, you are the guardian of your child and you must have an intimate connection with your child so that when you pack their school luggage and prepare their books you can also pack condoms,” Dokora had said.

This laissez-faire approach has incensed certain African indigenous pro-culture activists who have been vocal in their calls against condom distribution in prisons and schools.

“Distributing condoms in prisons and in schools will render African governments accomplices to the commission of the crime of sodomy and sexual immorality among school-going children, which is against our cultural values and norms as Africans,” Bupe Mwansa, head of the Culture and Traditions Conservation Association in Zambia, an indigenous pro-culture lobby group, told IPS.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 3.2 million children lived with HIV at the end of 2013, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, with approximately 145,000 HIV-positive children from Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) states that Zimbabwe has a total of 18,000 prisoners, with 28 percent of these living with HIV and AIDS.

In South Africa, an estimated 41.4 percent of that country’s 166,267 prisoners are also living with HIV/AIDS, based on statistics from the Ministry of Health there, despite the country being the only African nation that does not outlaw homosexuality.

Although other African governments admit there are sexual activities going on in schools and prisons, they remain hesitant to allow condom distribution in them.

“School children engage in premarital and often unprotected sex, yes we know, and prisoners also have unprotected anal sex, but presently there is nothing we can do as government to address these challenges because our laws do not allow underage children to engage in sex while homosexual, now rife in our jails, is also unlawful,” a top Zimbabwean government official speaking on the condition of anonymity told PS.

But for human rights doctors like Nomalanga Zwane in Johannesburg, fighting HIV/AIDS in schools and jails requires drastic measures.

“If school kids are left on their own with the belief that they are not engaging in sex because they are barred by being underage, we are fighting a losing battle against HIV/AIDS because the same school pupils will spread the disease even outside school while prison inmates with no access to condoms will also one day come out of jail and further spread the disease,” Zwane told IPS.

Zimbabwe’s ex-convicts like 37-year-old Jimson Gwatidzo, now an ardent campaigner for the distribution of condoms in jails after he contracted HIV in jail, sees no credible reason why some African governments forbid condoms in prisons “in the face of rampant rape-induced HIV/AIDS infections behind prison walls.”

“It is time for governments across Africa to scrap anti-sodomy laws to allow for the distribution of condoms in prisons and be able to fight HIV/AIDS spread in jails without legal barriers,” Gwatidzo told IPS.

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris    

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Joan Baez, Ai Weiwei Awarded Amnesty International’s Top Honour Wed, 25 Mar 2015 17:45:33 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Folk singer Joan Baez and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei were announced Tuesday as the winners of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Baez was recognised for her lifetime of “non-violence, and civil and human rights activism,” according to Amnesty, which includes civil rights marches with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, advocacy against the death penalty, support of LGBTI campaigns, and peace campaigns in Vietnam, as well as contributing her musical talents to countless charity events.

“With her mesmerizing voice and unwavering commitment to peaceful protest and human rights for all, Joan Baez has been a formidable force for good over more than five decades,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Weiwei is a well-known and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, with his work exploring human rights and prison.

Weiwei was incarcerated and beaten by officials before he was due to testify during the trial of an environmental activist in 2008, then held without charge for over 80 days in 2011.

“Through his work Ai Weiwei reminds us that the right of every individual to express their self must be protected—not just for the sake of society, but also for art and humanity,” Shetty said.

The Ambassador of Conscience Award is Amnesty International’s top honour. It recognises “those who have shown exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights, through their life and work,” according to the organisation.

Both Weiwei and Baez expressed thanks at the announcement.

“I am very privileged to receive this special honour, and shall not fail the encouragement and profound expectation of me with this Award,” Weiwei said.

“Amnesty International attracted me because of its founding principle that all human rights abuses and the suffering they create are unacceptable,” Baez said.

“The process of eliminating those abuses, even one step at a time, has created a compassionate, non-partisan, powerfully effective movement. I’m lucky to be part of it and proud to be honored with this Award.”

The awards will be officially presented in Berlin on May 21.

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter @JoshButler

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CSW 59 Wraps up as Delegates Look Towards 2016 Mon, 23 Mar 2015 15:50:34 +0000 Josh Butler UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the Commission on the Status of Women, which ended its 59th session in New York last week. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the Commission on the Status of Women, which ended its 59th session in New York last week. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

By Josh Butler

The Commission on the Status of Women, one of the biggest events on the calendar for United Nations headquarters in New York City, is over for another year.

For two weeks, thousands of delegates, dignitaries, ambassadors, experts, and activists flooded the city, with more than 650 events, talks, briefings, meetings, presentations and panels all striving for the same goal – “50:50 by 2030,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the CSW’s goal for gender equality within 15 years, at the official opening of the commission.

Soon-Young Yoon, U.N. Representative of the International Alliance of Women and Chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, estimated more than 11,000 people took part in CSW 59.

“This was the largest feminist movement at the U.N. in New York, ever,” she told IPS.

“It was more than double the number we usually get.”

Yoon attributed the huge attendance to well-documented attempts to scale back women’s rights worldwide in the last year, including fundamentalist activities in the Middle East and Africa, the kidnapping of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, and a growing culture of hostility and harassment of women online.

“Against all this, the women’s movement has stepped up. The CSW is a pilgrimage for the international women’s movement,” she said.

The 59th session of the CSW was about reaffirming the world’s commitment to, and marking the anniversaries of, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the 2000 Security Council Resolution 1325.

Rather than lay out any new bold agenda or fighting for political reforms, it was important to take stock of progress and assess what further action was necessary, said Christine Brautigam, Director of the Intergovernmental Support Division of U.N. Women.

“We were tasked with a comprehensive review of the Beijing platform, of how implementation stands. We’ve come up with good indications of how to move forward,” Brautigam told IPS on the final day of the meeting.

She said the Commission had “benefited tremendously” from an “unprecedented” amount of reporting by member states, with 167 countries preparing reports on how gender equality reforms had been implemented. Brautigam said through the immense preparatory work, member states had agreed CSW 59 would produce a “short, succinct political declaration” reaffirming the commitment to fulfilling the vision of the Beijing platform and achieving gender equality by 2030."I’ve always seen CSW as one of the most, if not the most, dynamic meetings on the U.N. calendar." - Liesl Gerntholtz, Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch

There was not an expectation for lengthy negotiations, as we usually have, it was to pledge further action to accelerate gender equality, and ensure full implementation of the platform. The key outcome is that political outcome adopted on the first day,” she said.

The declaration features six points for action, calling for renewed focus on and faster progress toward the ideals set out in the Beijing platform. Member states called for strengthened laws and policies, greater support for institutional mechanisms striving for gender equality, transformation of discriminatory norms and gender stereotypes, greater investment to close resource gaps, strengthened accountability for the implementation of commitments; and enhanced capacity for data collection, monitoring and evaluation.

“This is a formidable basis for everyone, from governments to the U.N. system to civil society, to take action,” Brautigam said.

While reaffirming past commitments and analysing progress was the official aim of CSW, it was far from the only function of the fortnight of feminism. Liesl Gerntholtz, Executive Director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said the annual CSW has become an important meeting place for the sharing of ideas, energy and inspiration for women around the globe.

“The value of the CSW has shifted from negotiations and outcome documents, to being a space for civil society to engage with member states and with each other. There are fewer and fewer spaces where civil society can come together, and in this one place hordes of women’s rights organisations can come together and talk,” she told IPS.

“Networking is critical, and it has become the most valuable part of the conference. It’s a chance for the movement to meet and strategise, to make stronger alliances, and have very rich and interesting discussions about what the issues are.”

Gerntholtz said the inclusive nature of the CSW – where activists can mingle with ambassadors, where politicians share panels with academics and celebrities – fostered cross-pollination of ideas, and the sharing of concerns between social strata.

“I’ve been fascinated to watch people talking about forms of harassment we haven’t talked about before, like cyber harassment, women threatened with sexual violence on social media,” she said.

Brautigam echoed the sentiments, saying one of CSW’s most formidable strengths was as a meeting place for sharing of ideas.

“I’ve always seen CSW as one of the most, if not the most, dynamic meetings on the U.N. calendar. It is a prime marketplace of ideas and lessons learnt, for solidarity, and drawing strength for the work for the coming year. People get together, brainstorm and energise each other,” she said.

However, for all the energy, enthusiasm and excitement during the mammoth program, there are also criticisms. Gerntholtz said recent years have seen some member states hoping to roll back progress already carved out, to undo achievements made, and to break pledges for future reform.

“There have been concerns for a while over the value of CSW. There have been some attempts in recent years to push back on language in the Beijing platform, particularly on violence against women and reproductive rights,” she said.

“That remains a huge concern for this forum – every year, it opens up the possibility member states might try to undermine and dilute and change some of these really important rights women have fought to establish.”

Gerntholtz said 2014 saw such a push by representatives from Iran, Egypt, Vatican City and several African nations – a group she called “the Unholy Alliance.”

“In any other circumstances, they wouldn’t be talking to each other, but they caucus to dilute important women’s rights,” she said.

The CSW was also criticised from civil society groups. Ahead of the CSW, the Women’s Rights Caucus labelled the proposed political declaration as “a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments,” saying it “threatens a major step backward” for rights and equality.

“Governments cannot pick and choose when to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women and should not do so in this declaration,” it wrote in a statement.

On Friday, the CSW wrapped up after two weeks of meetings. UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called CSW 59 “a forceful, dynamic and forward-looking session.”

“We are all aware that there are no shortcuts to realising gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls. Based on the road we have travelled, we know that there are more challenges ahead of us,” she said in remarks at the closing of CSW 59, where Brazil was elected Chair of the 60th session.

Already plans for action are being set out for next year’s session. Brautigam said gender equality through the lens of sustainable development would be the theme, with three major global conferences – the Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Abada, negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, and the Climate Change Conference in Paris – to shape, and be shaped by, the women’s rights movement.

“The priority next year is women’s empowerment and the link to sustainable development. Between now and then, many important milestones will be met. We’re trying to ensure gender equality will be at the core of those discussions,” she said.

Yoon also stressed how the outcomes of the three major conferences would influence the next CSW.

“The priority of sustainable development is very important, because gender equality is missing to some extent in the discussions around climate change and sustainability,” she said.

Yoon said CSW 60 would likely have much more substantive, concrete outcomes and action plans than this year’s conference, and hoped 2016 would tackle issues of violence against women.

“The CSW will decide its whole multi-year program of work, for the next four years. We need to stay focused on violence against women in its broader definition,” she said.

“Not just domestic violence, but things like sexual harassment, campus safety and sexual violence on campuses, and online safety. It is inexcusable we have not been able to put all our resources to fix this.”

“We are rescuing victims, chasing perpetrators, but not preventing these things from happening. We simply must do this, otherwise all that we want to accomplish will fall apart, because women are terrified to speak out.”

With the thousands of delegates, dignitaries, ambassadors, experts, and activists now heading home after an exhausting fortnight, the focus will be on implementing the ideas and actions inspired by the conference.

“I hope people can go home with renewed energy, that people can refine their strategies for holding governments accountable, and that they learnt a lot,” Gerntholtz said.

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter: @JoshButler

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Opinion: Measurement Matters – Civic Space and the Post-2015 Framework Mon, 23 Mar 2015 07:18:34 +0000 Mandeep S.Tiwana

In this column, Mandeep Tiwana, a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, argues that with recent trends pointing to shrinkage of civil society space, goals and targets to protect this space in the post-2015 agenda will count for nothing if not backed by relevant indicators.

By Mandeep S.Tiwana

For those of us interested in a vibrant civil society, it seems to be best of times and the worst of times.

In recent months, there has been great progress in recognising the importance of civil society in shaping the so-called ‘post-2015’ agenda and an explicit recognition of the important role that civil society will play in delivering sustainable development. However, in many countries around the world, the actual conditions in which civil society operates are getting worse not better.

As we come closer to a new global agreement on sustainable development goals (SDGs), we need to push for an agreement – backed by robust indicators – that will make a tangible difference in protecting civic freedoms.

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Indeed, a perceptible rise in bureaucratic harassment and raids on NGO offices, violent dispersal of citizen demonstrations, attacks on and illicit surveillance of activists, combined with the application of draconian laws to silence dissent and restrict funding, has many civil society observers worried about shrinking space for the sector.

Over the course of last year, CIVICUS, the global alliance for citizen participation, monitored severe threats to civic freedoms in roughly half of the globe’s 193 countries. Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2014/2015 calls it “a devastating year” for those seeking to stand up for human rights. Front Line Defenders, which works to protect human rights defenders at risk, reports the killing or death in detention of over 130 human rights defenders in the first ten months of 2014 alone.

All of this is happening while the United Nations is making unprecedented efforts to ensure greater civil society participation in the post-2015 global development framework.

While the next generation of sustainable development goals, their associated targets and indicators will be decided by world leaders at their Sep. 25-27 summit in New York this year, civil society’s role in grounding the framework in people’s aspirations and holding duty bearers to account is crucial.“Assurances for a civil society enabling environment and respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the post-2015 framework are integral to greater public involvement and accountability in development”

In light of recent trends which point to shrinkage of civil society space, in both democracies and non-democracies, there is naturally a high level of anxiety whether guarantees on civic freedoms and civil society participation will be included in the final framework. Indeed, a major criticism of the current Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework is that it has failed to recognise and thereby institutionalise the role of active citizens and civil society organisations in development.

Assurances for a civil society enabling environment and respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the post-2015 framework are integral to greater public involvement and accountability in development.

So far, some progress has been made but the gains remain shaky because many governments which will be involved in adopting the final framework in September are themselves complicit in serious violations of civic freedoms. These include some influential states such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Turkey whose developmental models are predicated on top-down governance with scant role for independent civil society.

Positively, the U.N. Secretary General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda, released in December last year, calls for the creation of an “enabling environment under the rule of law for the free, active and meaningful engagement of civil society and advocates reflecting the voices of women, minorities, LGBT groups, indigenous peoples, youth, adolescents and older persons.”

Notably, participatory democracy – without which civic freedoms cannot meaningfully exist – has been described as both an enabler and outcome of development.

From the perspective of civic freedoms and civil society participation, the U.N. Secretary General’s report has done well to elaborate on the proposal submitted to the U.N. General Assembly by the Open Working on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) in July 2014.

Comprising 30 representatives nominated by U.N. member states from all the regions of the world, the OWG recommended 17 goals and 169 corresponding targets which are the basis of intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs this year.

Two goals are particularly relevant from the standpoint of civil society’s ability to freely operate and monitor progress on the framework.  These are proposed Goal 16 (“promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”) and proposed Goal 17 (“strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for development”). 

The proposed goals are further sub-divided into targets. For instance, targets under Goal 16 include “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels” and “public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” A key target under Goal 17 is to “encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.”

Progress on the proposed targets will be measured by indicators currently being developed by various U.N. bodies, including the U.N. Statistics Division. Ultimately, it will be the indicators that will anchor the post-2105 agenda because gains will be gauged through their prism. It is therefore crucial that the United Nations is able to identify suitable tools to measure civic space and civil society participation.

Although, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) has produced a report titled ‘Accountability through Civic Participation in the Post-2015 Development Agenda’, much more needs to be done to put in place relevant indicators that are linked to the targets identified by the OWG.

For instance, in relation to proposed Target 16.10 with its focus on “fundamental freedoms”, it would be valuable to evaluate whether both legislation and practice protect civic space, in particular the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.  Similarly, under proposed Target 17.17 with its focus on encouraging and promoting civil society partnerships, it will be vital to measure the existence of enabling conditions such as mandated requirements for civil society involvement in official policy making processes at the national level.

Currently, there are a number of initiatives that measure civic space and civil society participation. Some of these, such as the World Press Freedom Index, the Freedom in the World survey and the Enabling Environment Index, are led by civil society organisations, while others such as the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation are being developed by multi-stakeholder initiatives.

With post-2015 negotiations entering the final phase, it is vital that political negotiators and technical experts are convinced that adoption of the above and associated methodologies will lead to better service delivery, citizen monitoring and accountability.

With the attention on the post-2015 agenda now focused on measurement, civil society advocates have their work cut out to also engage and influence the statisticians. Ambitious goals and targets will count for nothing if not backed by relevant indicators. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Mixed Prospects for LGBT Rights in Central and Eastern Europe Sun, 15 Mar 2015 11:29:55 +0000 Pavol Stracansky Billboard for the referendum called to strengthen a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption in Slovakia in February.  It says: WE ARE DECIDING ABOUT CHILDREN'S FUTURES. LET'S PROTECT THEIR RIGHT TO A MOTHER AND FATHER. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS

Billboard for the referendum called to strengthen a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption in Slovakia in February. It says: WE ARE DECIDING ABOUT CHILDREN'S FUTURES. LET'S PROTECT THEIR RIGHT TO A MOTHER AND FATHER. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS

By Pavol Stracansky
BRATISLAVA, Mar 15 2015 (IPS)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in Central and Eastern Europe, which still faced mixed prospects as they fight for rights and acceptance, are now taking some heart from the “failure” of a referendum in Slovakia, a member of the European Union.

Last month, a referendum called to strengthen a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption in Slovakia was declared invalid after only just over 20 percent of voters turned out.

The controversial plebiscite was heavily criticised by international rights groups, which said it pandered to homophobic discrimination and was allowing human rights issues affecting a minority group to be decided by a popular majority vote.

The campaigning ahead of the vote had often been bitter and vitriolic, including public homophobic statements by clergy, and a controversial negative commercial about gay adoption, which Slovak TV stations refused to broadcast and eventually only appeared on internet.The reasons behind the relative societal intolerance towards LGBT groups in Central and Eastern Europe vary from entrenched conservative attitudes rooted in countries’ isolation under communism, to local political aims and the influence of the Catholic Church.

The commercial showed a child in an orphanage being told that his new parents were coming to collect him and, after two men appear at the door, asking: “Where’s Mum?”

Activists here say that the referendum’s outcome was a sign that, despite this campaigning, Slovaks know that LGBT people pose “no threat” to society and has positively furthered discussion about allowing registered partnerships in the country.

Martin Macko, head of the Bratislava-based LGBT rights group Inakost, told IPS: “The referendum showed that people consider the family important, but that they do not see same-sex families as a threat to traditional families. The long-term perspective regarding discussions on registered partnerships in Slovakia is positive.”

Importantly, the result has also been welcomed in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe where many LGBT groups still face intolerance and discrimination.

Evelyne Paradis, Executive Director of international LGBT rights group ILGA-Europe told IPS: “LGBT activists across Europe have welcomed the outcome of the Slovak vote … hopefully the referendum will lead to a constructive discussion about equality in Slovakia. At the same time, we know that there is a broad diversity of views in the region which means that much work remains to be done before full equality is realised.”

Compared with Western Europe, attitudes in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe to LGBT people and issues are often much more conservative and in some states actively hostile.

The Czech Republic, whose larger cities have relatively open and vibrant gay communities, is the only country in the region which allows for registered partnerships of same-sex couples.

In other countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Poland, marriage is defined constitutionally as only between a man and a woman. In January this year, Macedonia’s parliament voted to adopt a similar clause in its constitution.

Adoption by same sex couples is banned in all states in the region while other important legislation relating to LGBT issues is also absent. In Bulgaria, for instance, inadequate legislation means that homophobic crimes are investigated and prosecuted as ‘hooliganism’. This, activists claim, creates a climate of fear for LGBT people.

Poor records on minority rights in general in places like, for instance, Ukraine, mean that while the state may ostensibly be committed to LGBT rights, such communities are in reality extremely vulnerable.

In Russia, legislation actively represses same-sex relationships, with federal laws criminalising promotion of any non-heterosexual lifestyle, while Lithuania has legal provisions banning the promotion of homosexuality.

Deeply negative attitudes towards homosexuals are widespread in some societies. A 2013 survey in Ukraine showed that two-thirds of people thought homosexuality was a perversion, while a study in the same year in Lithuania showed that 61 percent of LGBT people said they had suffered discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Isolated verbal and physical attacks and passive intolerance among more conservative groups are common across the region. But in some countries, specifically Russia, anyone even suspected of being non-heterosexual faces open, organised and sometimes lethally violent persecution.

Natalia Tsymbalova, an LGBT rights activist from St Petersburg, was forced to flee Russia in September last year after receiving death threats. Now claiming asylum in Spain, she was one of at least 12 LGBT activists who left Russia last year.

Speaking from Madrid, she told IPS about the continuing repression of LGBT people in her home country.

She said that although state propaganda campaigns had “switched to ‘Ukrainian fascists’ and the West” being portrayed as the public’s greatest enemy instead of LGBT people since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Ukraine conflict, “state homophobia has not disappeared”.

“It has just faded into the background,” she added, “no longer making top headlines in the news, but it is still there and it has never left. The number of hate crimes is not falling, and they are being investigated as badly as before.”

The reasons behind the relative societal intolerance towards LGBT groups in Central and Eastern Europe vary from entrenched conservative attitudes rooted in countries’ isolation under communism, to local political aims and the influence of the Catholic Church.

In Slovakia, a strongly Catholic country where the Church’s influence can be extremely strong in many communities, supporters of the referendum welcomed Pope Francis’ personal endorsement of their cause.

It has been speculated that the conservative Alliance for Family movement, which initiated the referendum, is funded by Slovakia’s Catholic Church and that the Church was the driving force behind moves to bring about the vote.

In Lithuania, another strongly Catholic country, Church officials have supported laws restricting LGBT rights and have openly called homosexuality a perversion.

However, some rights activists also say that politicians in countries struggling economically or looking to entrench their own power can often use minorities, including LGBT people, as easy political targets to gain voter support.

ILGA’s Paradis told IPS: “Unfortunately many political leaders use the LGBT community as scapegoats … from activists we often hear that they do this to hide ‘real problems’ in countries, such as youth unemployment, access to education and healthcare. They promote ‘traditional family values’ as the way to rescue society. Sadly, in doing this, political leaders build a climate of intolerance and hatred.”

Saying that Russian politicians are now using homophobia to push wider agendas, Tsymbalova told IPS: “Homophobia plays an important role in the anti-Western rhetoric of President [Vladimir] Putin and his fellows. It is one of the main points of the conservative values that they try to promote and the public still has negative attitudes toward LGBT communities.”

The outcome of the Slovak referendum has left activists there more optimistic about the future for LGBT people in their country.

They are now pushing for discussions with the government about introducing registered partnerships and they hope that LGBT communities in other countries in the region will be heartened by the result or that, at least, people hoping to organise similar referendums will reconsider what they are doing.

Macko of Inakost told IPS: “Religious groups in some Balkan and Baltic countries are considering organising similar referendums and we really hope this will discourage them.”

Paradis told IPS that while the Slovak referendum had already been welcomed by many of its member groups in Central and Eastern Europe, progress on LGBT issues in many countries, including registered partnerships, was unlikely to be swift. “There indeed is more discussion in the region on granting rights to same sex partnerships, but what we see is a very mixed picture.”

However, the outlook for LGBT people in some places remains grim. Tsymbalova told IPS that many LGBT people in her home country have given up hope of any positive changes in the foreseeable future.

“In our community, there is almost no one who believes that the situation for LGBT people in Russia will seriously change for the better any time soon. Under the existing regime, which promotes and exploits homophobia, these changes will not happen and there is almost no hope of a regime change, so expectations are gloomy.”

She added: “Many LGBT activists have either left Russia, like me, or are going to. [As] for same-sex registered partnerships, it would take several decades to be accepted in Russia and I don’t believe I will see this in my lifetime. It is completely out of the question for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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U.N. Member States Accused of Cherry-Picking Human Rights Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:38:24 +0000 Thalif Deen Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has criticised member states for ‘cherry-picking’ human rights – advocating some and openly violating others – perhaps to suit their own national or political interests.

Despite ratifying the U.N. charter reaffirming their faith in fundamental human rights, there are some member states who, “with alarming regularity”, are disregarding and violating human rights, “sometimes to a shocking degree,” he said.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views." -- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Addressing the opening session of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) Monday, Zeid faulted member states for claiming “exceptional circumstances” for their convoluted decisions.

“They pick and choose between rights,” he pointed out, without identifying any member state by name.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status.

“Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views,” he noted.  “A third State will comprehensively violate the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

Asked for her response, Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS, “Prince Zeid has hit the nail on the head.”

If every government that professed a commitment to human rights followed through consistently, she added, “we’d have a much different – and better – world.”

In an ironic twist apparently proving Zeid’s contention, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at the “appalling human rights record” of several nations, blasting Syria and North Korea while singling out human rights violations in Crimea and by separatists in Ukraine.

But he did not condemn the devastation caused by Israel’s 50-day aerial bombardments of Palestinians in Gaza last year nor the rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas.

The death toll in the Gaza bombings was 1,976 Palestinians, including 1,417 civilians and 459 children, according to figures released by the United Nations, compared with the killing of 66 Israelis, including two soldiers.

The Palestinians have accused Israel of war crimes and are pushing for action by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague: a move strongly opposed by the United States.

Kerry told the HRC the United States believes that it can continue to make progress and help the U.N. body fulfill its mandate to make the world a better and safer place.

“But for that to happen, we have to get serious about addressing roadblocks to our own progress. And the most obvious roadblock, I have to say to you, is self-inflicted,” he said.

“I’m talking, of course, about HRC’s deeply concerning record on Israel,” Kerry added.

“No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country,” he said, as he openly advocated the cause of Israel, one of the closest political and military allies of the United States.

And no other nation, he said, has an entire agenda item set aside to deal with it. Year after year, there are five or six separate resolutions on Israel, he told delegates.

This year, he said, there was a resolution sponsored by Syrian President Bashar al Assad concerning the Golan (which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war).

“How, I ask, is that a sensible priority at the very moment when refugees from Syria are flooding into the Golan to escape Assad’s murderous rule and receive treatment from Israeli physicians in Israeli hospitals?”

Kerry referred to the Council’s “obsession” with Israel, which, he argued, “actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organisation.”

Zeid told the HRC the only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the “solemn ballet of grand diplomacy” but the “extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law, Zeid said, adding that such logic is abundant around the world today.

“I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me,” he noted.

“And so it goes, on and on, as we spiral into aggregating crises,” Zeid declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: Can the Violence in Honduras Be Stopped? Sun, 22 Feb 2015 17:57:50 +0000 LisaHaugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

By Lisa Haugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung
WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb 22 2015 (IPS)

Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the world. The situation in the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula, demonstrates the depth of the problem.

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Its murder rate in 2014 was an astonishing 171 per 100,000. The city, which is caught in the crossfire between vicious criminal gangs, has been the largest source of the 18,000 Honduran children who have fled to the United States in recent years.

The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity. For example, 97 percent of the murders in San Pedro Sula go unsolved.

Corruption within and abuses by the civilian police undermine its effectiveness. A controversial new internal security force, the Military Police of Public Order (Policia Militar del Orden Publico, or PMOP), does not carry out investigations needed to deter crime and is facing a series of allegations of abuses in the short time it has been deployed. There are currently 3,000 PMOP soldiers deployed throughout the country, but this number is expected to grow to 5,000 this year. The national police feel that the government is starving them for funds and trying to replace them with PMOP."The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity."

The rise of PMOP is part of a larger trend toward the militarization of government and civil society. The military is now in charge of most aspects of public security in Honduras. But the signs of militarization are everywhere. Each Saturday, for example, 25,000 kids receive military training as part of the “Guardians of the Homeland” program, which the government says is designed to keep youths age 5-23 from joining the street gangs that control entire sections of the country’s most violent cities.

But putting more guns on the street is unlikely to sustainably stem the tide of violence in Honduras. What would make a difference is an end to the climate of impunity that allows murderers to kill people with no fear of consequences.

“This country needs to strengthen its capacity and will to carry out criminal investigations. This is the key to everything,” said an expert on violence in Honduras who spent years working in justice agencies there, and who spoke on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.

The Three-Fold Challenge

The Honduran government faces three key challenges: It must reform a corrupt and abusive police force, strengthen criminal investigations, and ensure an impartial and independent judiciary.

Police reform appears to be stalled. There was some hope after the surge of civilian pressure for reform that followed the 2011 killing of the son of the rector for the Autonomous National University of Honduras and a friend. The Commission for the Reform of Public Security produced a series of proposals to improve the safety of the Honduran citizenry, including recommendations for improving police training, disciplinary procedures, and the structure of pubic security institutions.

Unfortunately, the Honduran Congress dissolved the commission in January 2014, during the lame duck period before President Juan Orlando Hernandez took office. Few of its recommendations have been carried out.

“They could have purged and trained the police during this time. But instead they put 5,000 military police on the street who don’t know what a chain of custody is,” lamented the expert on violence.

The Honduran government claims that over 2,000 police officers have been purged since May 2012, but there is little public information that would allow for an independent assessment of the reasons for the dismissals. And even when police are removed, they are not prosecuted; some are even allowed to return to the force. This is no way to instill accountability.

Meanwhile, the independence of the Honduran justice system is under attack. Since November 2013, the Judiciary Council has dismissed 29 judges and suspended 28 without an appropriate process, according to a member of the Association of Judges for Democracy. “This means that judges feel intimidated. They feel if they rule against well-connected people, against politicians, they can be dismissed.”

In an attempt to improve investigations and prosecutions, special units have been created to investigate specific types of crimes. For example, the Special Victims Task Force was created in 2011 to tackle crimes against vulnerable groups such as journalists, human rights advocates, and the LGBT community. This approach has been funded by the United States. It has promise, but the results are unclear so far. So is the question of whether the success of these specialized efforts can lead to broader improvements in the judicial system.

Protecting the Protectors

Providing security for justice operators is a particularly daunting problem. From 2010 to December 2014, 86 legal professionals were killed, according to information received by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Although the state provides some protection, the funding allocated for this purpose is inadequate. “In a country with the highest levels of violence and impunity in the region,” noted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “the State necessarily has a special obligation to protect, so that its justice sector operators can carry out their work to fight impunity without becoming victims in the very cases they are investigating.”

To try and target the problems driving the endemic violence in Honduras, the government, joined by the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, has released its Alliance for Prosperity plan, which is designed to increase investment in infrastructure and encourage foreign investment. The Obama administration has announced that it will ask Congress for $1 billion to help fund the initiative, but details about the security strategy are scarce.

It remains to be seen exactly how this money will be spent. Looking at San Pedro Sula, it is clear that a dramatic change in political will would be needed for any initiative of this kind to be successful. International donors should not support a militarized security strategy, which would intensify abuses and fail to provide sustainable citizen security.

Funding for well-designed, community-based violence prevention programs could be helpful, but only if there is a government willing to reform the police, push for justice, and invest in the education, jobs, violence prevention, health, child protection, and community development programs needed to protect its poorest citizens.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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LGBTI Community in Central America Fights Stigma and Abuse Wed, 18 Feb 2015 20:10:41 +0000 Edgardo Ayala Daniela Alfaro standing in front of the University of El Salvador med school, where the complaints she has filed about the harassment and aggression she has suffered as a transgender student of health education have gone nowhere. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Daniela Alfaro standing in front of the University of El Salvador med school, where the complaints she has filed about the harassment and aggression she has suffered as a transgender student of health education have gone nowhere. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Feb 18 2015 (IPS)

Despite the aggression and abuse she has suffered at the University of El Salvador because she is a trans woman, Daniela Alfaro is determined to graduate with a degree in health education.

“There is very little tolerance of us at the university. I thought it would be different from high school, but it isn’t,” Alfaro, a third year student of health education at the University of El Salvador med school, in the capital, told IPS.

Rejected by the rest of her family, Alfaro only has the emotional and financial support of her mother, “the only one who didn’t turn her back on me,” she said.

Like her, many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community suffer harassment, mistreatment and even attacks on a daily basis in Central America because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, said activists from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua interviewed by IPS.

The discrimination, aggression and harassment that Alfaro has experienced at the university have come from her own classmates, as well as professors and university staff and authorities.“We don’t exist for the state in the areas of health, education, work or social matters, there is no protocol for how public employees should treat us.” -- Carlos Valdés

Since 2010 she has been filing reports and complaints with the university authorities for the aggression she has suffered in the men’s bathroom, which she is forced to use. “But they don’t take my complaints seriously because I’m trans,” said the 27-year-old student.

Alfaro has also experienced the invisibility of LGBTI persons when they receive no response from institutions or officials because their complaints or reports are dismissed or ignored simply because of prejudice against non-heterosexuals, said Carlos Valdés, with the Lambda Organisation in Guatemala.

“We don’t exist for the state in the areas of health, education, work or social matters, there is no protocol for how public employees should treat us,” Valdés told IPS by phone from Guatemala City.

Lambda and three other organisations in Central America are carrying out the regional programme “Centroamérica Diferente” (Different Central America), aimed at securing respect for the human rights of people with different sexual orientations or gender identities.

“Basically we want to improve the quality of life of the LGBTI community, so we are no longer discriminated against by sectors and institutions of the government,” said Eduardo Vásquez, with the Salvadoran Asociación Entreamigos, which is involved in the initiative.

The programme began in May 2014 and will run through June 2016 in the four participating countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

With funds from the European Union, it aims to get 40 organisations and more than 200 human rights activists involved, and to reach 3,550 members of the LGBTI community, 160 communicators, 600 public employees, 8,000 adolescents and 10 percent of the population of the four countries.

The programme provides legal support in cases of abuse and violence, and training for sexual diversity rights activists, and it carries out national and regional campaigns against homophobia.

The activists coordinate the activities with government institutions that provide public services to the LGBTI community, and exercise oversight to prevent abuses and discrimination, for example in health centres, schools and the workplace, or in police procedures.

“We are sad to see that some police continue to use poor procedures during searches, or refer in a disrespectful manner to gay or transgender persons,” Norman Gutiérrez, with the Centre for AIDS Education and Prevention in Nicaragua, another group taking part in the initiative, told IPS by telephone.

The programme will also set up a regional LGBTI human rights observatory to monitor cases of abuse, attacks and violence, and will conduct a study to gauge the magnitude of human rights violations based on sexual orientation or identity.

Hate crimes

The observatory and the study will play a key role in detecting, for example, how severe is the phenomenon of homophobic murders, especially against transgender persons, since official statistics do not recognise hate crimes and merely classify them as homicides, the activists explained.

“In Guatemala the right to life is one of the rights that is most violated, and these murders often target trans persons,” Valdés said.

Given the lack of clear official figures, the organisations compile information as best they can, without the necessary systematisation. Based on this information, the groups participating in the programme estimate that in the last five years, at least 300 members of the LGBTI community, mainly transgender women, were murdered in hate crimes.

These murders occur in a context of generalised violence in the region. The so-called Northern Triangle, made up of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is one of the most violent regions in the world.

The murder rate in Honduras in the last few years has stood at around 70 per 100,000 population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – far above the Latin American average of 29 and the global average of 6.2.

In Honduras, LGBTI activists have reported at least 190 homophobic murders in the last five years, some of which were included in a report published Dec. 17 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

The document reports human rights violations against the LGBTI community committed between January 2013 and March 2014 in 25 Organisation of American States member countries. In that period, at least 594 people perceived to be LGBTI were killed, while another 176 were victims of serious physical assaults.

The IACHR “urges States to adopt urgent and effective measures to prevent and respond to these human rights violations and to ensure that LGBTI persons can effectively enjoy their right to a life free from violence and discrimination.”

Among the cases compiled by the IACHR is the murder of a trans woman in Honduras who was stoned to death on Mar. 4, 2013 in the northern city of San Pedro Sula. She was identified as José Natanael Ramos, age 35.

Unlike other programmes that are implemented only in the capital cities, Centroamérica Diferente plans to reach small cities and towns as well, where the violence, discrimination and vulnerability are generally worse.

“In small towns there is much more ‘machismo’, more violence and more homophobia. Some hate crimes and murders aren’t even reported,” added Gutiérrez, the Nicaraguan activist.

There is also a high level of discrimination in the workplace against the LGBTI community in Central America, said Valdés, with the Lambda Organisation from Guatemala.

“For example, gays have to hide their identity in order to get a job, and if their sexual orientation is discovered, they are harassed until they quit,” he said.

Alfaro, meanwhile, said in front of the med school where she studies that she will not stop denouncing the discrimination and harassment she suffers, until she finally sees justice done.

“I just hope that someday they will respect my identity as a woman,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Inequality Fuels HIV Epidemic in the Caribbean Tue, 10 Feb 2015 18:57:24 +0000 Desmond Brown Outspoken artist Edison Liburd, in St. John's, Antigua. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Outspoken artist Edison Liburd, in St. John's, Antigua. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
ST. JOHN'S, Antigua, Feb 10 2015 (IPS)

At 49 years old, Edison Liburd has established himself as one of Antigua and Barbuda’s most recognisable artists. But Liburd was not always in the spotlight. In fact, you could say he was a man in hiding.

“I have been infected with the HIV virus for about 24 years. I got my first HIV test done in February of 1993 at the Allen Pavilion Hospital in Manhattan New York,” Liburd told IPS."Equity and social justice are very important as we respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV is as much a social and developmental disease as a medical one." -- Eleanor Frederick

“I can remember that day vividly. I felt like the earth had been removed from beneath me when I was handed the results of the test.”

HIV/AIDS first emerged in the 1980s, and now, more than three decades later, stigma associated with the disease has persisted. Liburd pointed to that sigma as the main reason why he concealed his HIV status for as long as he did.

“I hid my status for years from family. I told a few friends, but most people who I knew did not know anything about my health condition. It was fear of being ostracised that kept me from disclosing my status,” he said.

“In Antigua, HIV infected individuals still have to face job insecurity – first to be fired and last to be hired. Stigma and discrimination is still high because many still think themselves superior to individuals who are infected.

“Somehow they think themselves better than, but I believe that it is when infected individuals become empowered by taking hold of their health and indispensable to nation building that this will take a huge bite out of discrimination. People will begin to see you differently,” Liburd said.

The Caribbean is one of the most heavily affected regions in the world, with adult HIV prevalence about one percent higher than in any other region outside sub-Saharan Africa.

The HIV pandemic in the Caribbean is fuelled by a range of social and economic inequalities and is sustained by high levels of stigma, discrimination against the most at-risk and marginalised populations and persistent gender inequality, violence and homophobia.

HIV in the Caribbean is mostly concentrated in and around networks of men who have sex with men. Social stigma, however, has kept the epidemic among men who have sex with men hidden and unacknowledged. There is also a notable burden of infection among injecting drug users, sex workers and the clients of sex workers.

The main mode of transmission in the Caribbean is unprotected heterosexual intercourse – paid or otherwise. Sex between men is also thought to be a significant factor in several countries, although due to social stigma, this is mainly denied.

The level of stigma and discrimination suffered by those infected and affected by the virus in the Caribbean helps drive the epidemic underground. This makes it difficult to reach many groups.

After facing the worst of his fears, being hospitalised and getting close to death’s door, Liburd has “resolved to fight back against the discrimination by increasing my capacity to help others in every way through my gift of art and my voice on and in the media, in church and otherwise.

“This has really been a powerhouse for me. I have become more confident and bold when faced with opposition. It has and is still more than ever being a source of inspiration and encouragement for many who hear my story, both infected and non-infected alike.”

Executive director of the Antigua and Barbuda HIV/AIDS Network (ABHAN), Eleanor Frederick, said individuals living with HIV face many challenges such as unemployment, homelessness, and in some cases, they are abandoned by their families.

She said there are also other issues that are faced by some individuals “such as stigma, discrimination, resource shortage and social marginalisation” depending on the community with which they identify such as sexuality, gender, commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, drug users and prisoners.

“Many individuals are reluctant to start treatment because of the myths and stories about HIV and AIDS,” Frederick told IPS. “Healthcare providers, peers and treatment navigators can help individuals to understand, the barriers and how to overcome them.”

ABHAN has a Peer/Buddy HIV Treatment Adherence Programmme which recruits, monitors and retains patients into treatment and care and ensures that they adhere to their treatment regimen. It also delivers a comprehensive package of services, including case management, leading to decreased risky sexual behaviour, improved immune system functioning, and general health improvement.

“The programme provides direct support services by specially trained ABHAN and American University of Antigua Medical School (AUA) student volunteers, in the form of social interaction, emotional support, monitoring of medication adherence, and facilitation of health care concerns to persons living with HIV and AIDS, and to members of their families,” Frederick told IPS.

At the country level, she said while there is legislation which specifically addresses the treatment of employees living with HIV/AIDS, it is not always followed.

“A pilot programme was undertaken in 2012. The intention was to encourage the implementation and observance of the standards set out in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work, the ILO Recommendation No. 200 as well as the National Tripartite Workplace Policy on HIV and AIDS in Antigua and Barbuda; based on the universal human rights standards applicable to HIV and the world of work,” Frederick explained.

“Individuals have lost their jobs because of their HIV status and others have been asked to take an HIV test when it was suspected that they were possibly infected.”

The ABHAN executive director said HIV should be everyone’s concern, because “HIV does not discriminate, and knows no borders.”

She added that “equity and social justice are very important as we respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV is as much a social and developmental disease as a medical one.

“Therefore, I would like to encourage everyone to help improve the quality of life for people with HIV and AIDS and increase compassion for them and their loved ones by providing vital human services for those in need of it based on a philosophy of non-judgmental support as practiced by ABHAN.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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