(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego, known across the world for his activism for LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS work, reacts to the United Nations’ historic report on LGBT rights that was released on Thursday.)
While working as a priest in Orange County several years ago, I was introduced to the courageous work of Judge Pam Isles, who tried to solicit the support of local clergy to end domestic violence, or at least begin to talk about it from our pulpits.
Endless custody battles and messy divorces prompted the judge to engage religious leaders to end our silence and discomfort on a painful social issue. We all knew it was going on but often, we did not want to address it. It was also our belief domestic violence did not happen in our God-fearing congregations. Clergy, she told us, would often side with the perpetrators who appealed to their clergy to bring about reconciliation and save the marriage.
Stability and taboo in religious circles about divorce created a religious culture that tragically trumped the safety of women and children in violent households. Clergy, as gatekeepers of marriage, had an opportunity to end the silence and complicity in domestic violence through education and a more proactive role in preparing couples for marriage and family life. Why should spouses be forced to remain in abusive relationships in the name of reconciliation and maintaining the sanctity of the marriage contract? What was the silent complicity by religious institutions to this epidemic of domestic violence and why was it so difficult to talk about it?
On Thursday, the United Nations was presented with a report from its Human Rights Council on the global impact of violence and discrimination directed towards the LGBT community. It is the most high-powered report ever created in naming a problem that many people would rather just go away or at least not surface to the light of the public domain.
So here it is in all its gruesome tragedy. It is a courageous attempt to document the universal phenomenon of institutional violence directed to a significant minority population in every country. It ranges from negative cultural and religious attitudes towards LGBT and gender non-conformists that are universally expressed through bullying on our playgrounds to all out execution (in five countries) and full criminalization of LGBT people in an additional 71 nations.
John Fisher is executive director with ARC International in Geneva and worked diligently with the South African delegates at the Human Rights Council’s June meeting to propose the resolution that culminated in the creation of the historic report. He writes:
“Once again we were pleased to work with a great coalition of NGO colleagues from around the world to ensure the Human Rights Council addresses human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This session’s reports presented by Special Rapporteurs documented a disturbing number of brutal abuses against LGBTI individuals in all regions of the world. In spite of these documented allegations, certain States insist that the Human Rights Council does not have the responsibility to protect on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. In a major victory at this session, however, a clear majority of the HRC member States voted to put the issue squarely on the Council’s agenda! After various other statements, including supportive ones from Brazil and Mexico, and less pleasant ones from various other countries, the resolution was finally put to a vote and with much applause, cheers, hugs and tears, passed by 23 votes to 19 (with 3 abstentions)!”
The much-awaited report and why it is important
The report argues for the changes in laws outlawing homosexual behavior as the single most obstructive barrier to full human rights that are currently denied to LGBT global citizens. It argues for the need to hold governments accountable for violating human rights agreements to protect their citizens and is using the annual peer review mechanism where 47 countries who make up the Human Rights Council created in 2006 can “check up” on how others are doing on issues of human rights. It can make recommendations on human rights violations that carry enormous moral and political weight within the international community.
Political ramifications of the report
The political arguments surfacing as a result of this controversial document will focus on interpretation of particular sections of the international agreements on human rights particularly where existing laws are used to undermine human rights for LGBT people within particular countries. The Human Rights Council argues these laws are in violation of significant sections of the International Declaration on Human Rights:
“The application of international human rights law is guided by the principles of universality and non-discrimination enshrined in article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. All people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)2 persons, are entitled to enjoy the protections provided for by international human rights law, including in respect of rights to life, security of person and privacy, the right to be free from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to be free from discrimination and the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action confirms that, while the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to
promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The controversial issue remains around the interpretation of existing laws and how governments justify criminalizing homosexuality. The report refers to some of these ambiguities. Under the protection of the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly in a nondiscriminatory manner:
Freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (arts. 19-20) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (arts. 19, 21-22). Under article 19 of the Universal Declaration, everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek receive and impart information and ideas. Under article 20.1, everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits restriction of these rights, but only when provided by law and necessary to protect the rights (or, in the case of expression, reputation) of others or national security, public safety, public order or public health or morals. The Human Rights Committee has confirmed that any such restrictions must be compatible with the provisions aims and objectives of the Covenant and must not violate the non-discrimination provisions of the covenant, including in accordance with the committee jurisprudence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The religious dimension to the report
The report is controversial, and will not be received well by more conservation religious communities. In the same way Judge Isles work is controversial and most of us would wish it would just go away. We wish it could remain in the dark allies, detention centers and shadows where LGBT people are systematically raped, brutalized and tortured by family, community and state agents, often in the name of God or of reparative therapy.
But the report will make sure these voiceless ones can now be heard and the family of nations will be asked to comment. Lesbian “conversion rape”, for example, was cited as a normally acceptable form of social punishment for women who needed to just become heterosexual. The report documents countless experiences and stories in an attempt to raise important questions about the role of states in protecting all citizens against violence, and ensure the right to privacy and to assembly, access to equal opportunities and health care and protection from cultural religious forces which deny them these rights.
The report is a tool for deeper dialogue
The report will raise several important conflicts between the largely secular human rights movement and more conservative religious communities (Muslim and Christian) and will generate a lot of discussion. It will be hailed as a breakthrough document by human rights and LGBT advocates while being trashed by a large majority of cultural and religious organizations who see the report as another attempt to impose a gay-friendly and gender-equality agenda from the United Nations “lefties.”
I remember a slogan used by the Anglican Church of Uganda in response to the concern for human and gay rights in Uganda this past year. “Human Rights do not make human wrongs.” It is important to ask the question – how is human rights language and their framework helping to make it easier to function as an LGBT person in a hostile and violent world, or is this framework making the problem worse? How can this report be used to make life better for LGBT people globally or how will it be used against us?
Rights and wrongs?
The Religious Right has so undermined human rights language in the last decade that it is impossible to engage most of the people we need to reach with reports like this one. Theology and biblical interpretation becomes the superior source of authority in a “Rights vs. Righteousness” debate. It is understandable given the Bible and Quran is respected by more human beings as authoritative texts than those of us who honor to the 70-year-old body of human rights treaties and covenants as our moral compass. Which authority should have the final say?
The work ahead: democracy vs. theocracy?
Revisionist Christians have sterilized the historical development of human rights treaties as a completely secular process (which is historically incorrect given the vast contribution religious leaders for all faiths gave to the creation of international agreements that would prevent the brutality experienced in two world wars). Revisionist Christians also fail to tell Africans how they had a major role to play in the 1950s and 1960s when former western colonial powers tried to exempt themselves from applying these new international agreements to their subject African colonies.
These aspirations and agreements are the only significant tools we have at our disposal to hold powerful political governments to share their power and responsibility with others. Supported by an array of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical and Muslim voices, it would appear universal human rights may become an option that is trumped by religious and cultural values and laws. Democracy and theocracy at potentially at odds with each other.
While we hail the advent of the report and bask in the power of the commitment to human rights from President Obama and Hilary Clinton on Human Rights Day last week, Russia is attempting to enact a new major anti-gay law that will devastate LGBT rights there for many years to come. Nigeria’s anti gay-marriage bill had passed both houses of parliament and if signed by the president will close down all advocacy of LGBT people in Nigeria and their support organizations.
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