Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Gender, Gender Identity, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Middle East & North Africa, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

IRAQ: ‘Tolerance for Abuses Against LGBTQI+ People Has Now Been Made Explicit Through Legislation’

Jul 1 2024 (IPS) -  
CIVICUS discusses the criminalisation of same-sex relations in Iraq with Sarah Sanbar, researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

Sarah Sanbar

The Iraqi parliament recently passed a law criminalising LGBTQI+ people, punishing same-sex relations with between 10 and 15 years in prison and transgender identities with sentences of one to three years. The original proposal included even harsher penalties, but lawmakers introduced amendments in response to strong criticism. Supporters claim the law upholds deeply held religious values, while critics condemn it for institutionalising discrimination and enabling serious human rights abuses.

What led to recent legislative changes criminalising LGBTQI+ people?

On 27 April 2024, the Iraqi parliament passed an amendment to the country’s 1988 anti-prostitution law, effectively criminalising same-sex relations and transgender identities. The amendment states that same-sex relations are punishable with between 10 and 15 years in prison, and provides for one to three years’ imprisonment for those who undergo or perform gender-affirming medical procedures.

The law also punishes those who ‘imitate women’ with a seven-year prison sentence and a fine of between 10 and 15 million Iraqi dinars (approx. US$7,700 to US$11,500) and criminalises the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, a vague and undefined expression.

The passing of this law follows years of steadily increasing hostile rhetoric against LGBTQI+ people. Prominent politicians and media personalities have consistently spread harmful stereotypes, tropes and disinformation. They often claim homosexuality is a western import that goes against traditional Iraqi values.

This rhetoric has increasingly translated into government action. For example, on 8 August 2023, the Communications and Media Commission issued a directive ordering all media outlets to replace the term ‘homosexuality’ with ‘sexual deviance’ in all published and broadcast language. The directive also banned the use of the word ‘gender’, which shows how the crackdown on LGBTQI+ rights is intertwined with broader issues, and is also used to target and silence women’s rights organisations working on gender-based violence.

Sadly, as in many other countries, LGBTQI+ people in Iraq are being used as political pawns and scapegoats to distract from the government’s failure to provide for its people. Tensions are growing between the more conservative and religious groups in society and government and those that take a more secular approach to governance. The fact that conservatives have gained increasing support in successive elections allows laws like this to be passed. Such a law probably wouldn’t have been passed even a few years ago.

What’s the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Iraq, and how do you expect it to change?

The situation of LGBTQI+ people is extremely unsafe. Threats to their physical safety, including harassment, assault, arbitrary detention, kidnappings and killings, come from society at large – including family and community members as well as strangers – and from armed groups and state personnel. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of abductions, rape, torture and killings by armed groups. Impunity is widespread, and the government’s failure to hold perpetrators accountable sends the message that this violence is acceptable.

With the passage of the new law, the already dire situation is expected to worsen. Tolerance for abuses has now been made explicit through legislation. As a result, an increase in violence is to be expected, along with an increase in the number of LGBTQI+ Iraqis fleeing the country to seek safety elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is becoming even harder for LGBTQI+ Iraqis to ensure their physical safety in the country, let alone lead fulfilling lives, find love, make friends and build links with others in their community.

What are the challenges facing Iraqi LGBTQI+ rights organisations?

The space for LGBTQI+ organisations in Iraq has long been extremely limited. For example, in May 2023, a court in the Kurdistan Region ordered the closure of Rasan, one of the few groups willing to publicly advocate for LGBTQI+ rights in the region. The reason the court gave for its closure was its activities ‘in the field of homosexuality’, and one piece of evidence cited was its use of rainbow colours in its logo.

Organisations such as Rasan have previously been targeted under vaguely worded morality and public indecency laws that restrict freedom of expression. By criminalising the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, the new law makes the work of LGBTQI+ organisations even more dangerous. Any action in support of LGBTQI+ rights could be perceived as ‘promoting homosexuality’, which could lead to activities being banned or organisations being shut down. It will be almost impossible for LGBTQI+ rights organisations to operate openly.

In addition, all civil society organisations in Iraq must register with the Directorate of NGOs, a process that includes submitting bylaws, lists of activities and sources of funding. But now, it is essentially impossible for LGBTQI+ organisations to operate transparently, because they can’t openly state their intention to support LGBTQI+ people without risking closure or prosecution. This leaves two options: stop working, or operate clandestinely with the risk of arrest hanging over them.

Given the restrictive legal and social environment, many organisations operate from abroad. IraQueer, one of the most prominent LGBTQI+ advocacy groups, is based in Sweden.

But despite the challenges, LGBTQI+ organisations continue to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights, help people fleeing persecution and work with foreign governments to put pressure on Iraq to roll back discriminatory policies. And they have made significant achievements, facilitating the safe passage of people fleeing persecution and broadening coalitions to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights internationally. Their perseverance in the face of adversity is inspiring.

What international support do local LGBTQI+ groups need?

Global organisations should use their capacity to sound the alarm and advocate for the repeal of the new law and the reversal of other discriminatory measures, and for impunity for violence against LGBTQI+ people in Iraq to be addressed.

An effective strategy could be to focus on human rights violations. Equal protection from violence and equal access to justice are required under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, both of which Iraq has signed. Advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights as human rights can put greater pressure on the Iraqi government to fulfil its obligations.

It’s also essential to provide resources and support to local organisations in Iraq and in host countries where LGBTQI+ Iraqis seek refuge, to ensure people have access to basic needs and community support, and can live full lives without fear.

Civic space in Iraq is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Human Rights Watch through its website, and follow @hrw and @SarahSanbar on Twitter.


Republish | | Print |

manning pub