‘In response to anti-right narratives, we need to support one another in all of our diversity’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?
OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.
In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.
While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.
In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.
The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.
Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.
Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?
I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.
The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.
Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?
I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.
So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.
But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.
Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.
From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.
How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?
I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.
People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.
‘Threats to women’s and LGBTI rights are threats to democracy; any retrogression is unacceptable’
Recent years have seen an apparently growing tendency for anti-rights groups to seek to claim the space for civil society, including at the intergovernmental level. CIVICUS speaks about it with Gillian Kane,asenior policy advisor for Ipas, a global women’s reproductive health and rights organisation.Founded in 1973, Ipas is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion. Through local, national and international partnerships, Ipas works to ensure that women can obtain safe, respectful and comprehensive abortion care, including counselling and contraception to prevent future unintended pregnancies.
- Do you observe any progress on sexual and reproductive rights in the Americas? What are the main challenges looking ahead?
Ipas has robust programmes in Latin America, and we have definitely seen progress on legislation that increases women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortions, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City. Still, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, more than 97 per cent of women of childbearing age in the region live in countries where abortion is restricted or completely banned. A woman who lives in restrictive settings and wants an abortion will have to do so under illegal conditions and at great risk to not just her health, but also her security. Women who have abortions are vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and even jail time.
We also see that restrictive abortion laws are damaging the provider-patient confidentiality relationship. A study by Ipas and the Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute found that an alarming number of medical staff across Latin America are reporting women and girls to the police for having abortions. Many countries now require, protect or encourage medical providers to breach their confidentiality duties when they treat women seeking post-abortion care.
- Are we facing a democratic regression at the global level? Do you think women are being targeted?
We are indeed facing a democratic regression, and I do think women are being targeted, both which are incredibly alarming. With the United States leading, we’re seeing the rapid degradation of the political and legal infrastructure that is designed to promote and protect the interests of citizens. For example, you see this in attacks against the Istanbul Convention, which is intended combat violence against women. You would think this would be uncontroversial. Yet, there are right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) objecting to the Convention, claiming that it takes away parental rights and that it promotes gender as social construct, and not as a binary biological truth, as they see it. This is also happening in international spaces. This year at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, the US State Departmentappointed two extremists to represent it. One was an executive leader of a known LGBTI-hate group, and the other was from an organisation that has advocated for the repeal of legislation that prevents violence against women. And at the country level, for example in Brazil, conservative leaders are downgrading the power of ministries that promote equal rights for women and black communities.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Women are responding forcefully. Poland provides an amazing example of women organising and effecting change. In late 2016 thousands of women and men crowded the major cities of Warsaw and Gdansk to join the ‘Black Monday’ march, to protest against a proposed law banning abortions. The full ban wasn’t enacted, which was a huge victory. And of course, the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement are incredible, and global.
- Not many people in Latin America have ever heard of the Alliance Defending Freedom. How is this organisation surreptitiously changing the political conversation in the region?
ADF is a legal organisation. It was founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians. It was designed to be the conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which they saw as out to squash their religious liberties. They are huge, and have a global reach, which they say is dedicated to transforming the legal system through Christian witness. To that end they litigate and legislate on issues linked to the freedoms of expression and religion.
I wouldn’t say that their actions are surreptitious; they’re not deliberately trying to fly under the radar. They are intervening in spaces that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage, such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But in recent years they have definitely increased their activism both at the regional and country level in Latin America. In terms of the conversation, what they are doing is reframing rights issues to use religion as a sword, rather than a shield. Right now they are litigating, in the United States Supreme Court, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. As my colleague Cole Parke has explained, they are corrupting religious freedom. They are claiming it is legal to discriminate against a gay couple because of religious beliefs: that religion trumps all other rights. They are doing the same with conscientious objection: they have supported a midwife in Sweden who has refused to provide abortion as required by law. The list goes on.
- What strategies have anti-rights groups used, and what accounts for their success in international forums?
As I have explained in a recent op-ed, in international forums these groups express concern for the wellbeing of children, who they claim are being indoctrinated by permissive governments in the immoral principles of ‘gender ideology’. Of course there is no such thing as a gender ideology, and much less governments forcing children to learn inappropriate material. The wellbeing of children is being used as a cover to disable efforts to enforce rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTI people.
The 2013 General Assembly of the OAS, held in Guatemala, witnessed the first coordinated movement agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights. This was, not coincidentally, also the year when the OAS approved the Inter-American Convention against all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which included protections for LGBTI people.
At the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Paraguay, these groups advanced further and instead of only being reactive, began proposing human rights resolutions in an attempt to create new policies that they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact an attempt to take rights away from specific groups. For instance, they proposed a ‘family policy’ that would protect life from conception, in order to prevent access to abortion.
From then on, their profile increased with each subsequent assembly, in the same measure that their civility declined. At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, they even harassed and intimidated trans women attending the event as they entered women’s restrooms. As a result, the annual assembly of the OAS, the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere, turned into a vulgar display of transphobic hate.
- Should progressive civil society be concerned with the advances made by these groups in global and regional forums? What should we be doing about it?
Progressive civil society should definitely be concerned. Constant vigilance is needed. There are many ways to respond, but being informed, sharing information and building coalitions is key. I would also recommend that progressive movements think broadly about their issues. Consider how groups like ADF have managed to attack several rights, including abortion, LGBTI and youth rights, using one frame, religion. We need to be equally broad, but anchored, I would argue, in secularism, science and human rights. We started the conversation talking about democracy, and this is where we should end. We need to show how threats to specific rights for women and LGBTI people are threats to democracy. Any retrogression is unacceptable.
ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Diana Cariboni, an Argentine journalist and writer based in Uruguay, winner of the 2018 National Written Press Award and author of several pieces of investigative journalism on anti-rights groups in Latin America.
Would you tell us about your experience at the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family?
In 2018 I covered the conference of this regional group – actually an Ibero-American one, since it has members throughout Latin America and also in Spain. It is a large group that seeks to become a movement. It is one of many, because there are several others, which also overlap, since members of the Ibero-American Congress are also part of other movements, interact with each other within these movements and serve on the boards of various organisations.
I started investigating this group because it was going to meet here in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in late 2018, and its arrival was preceded by some incidents that caught my attention. The most important actors that I managed to identify within this movement were, in the first place, a huge number of representatives of evangelical churches and, within evangelism, of neo-Pentecostalism, although there were Baptist churches and non-Pentecostal evangelical churches as well.
In addition to these churches, the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform was also represented. This network emerged in Peru in 2016 and includes a series of evangelical Christian personalities. Some of them are church preachers and some are also political actors; for example, there are a large number of representatives with seats in the Peruvian Congress. In fact, legislators make up an important segment of the Ibero-American Congress. In many countries, there are congresspeople who are church pastors or members of religious congregations: that is the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. These people are trying to coordinate a regional legislative movement. The Ibero-American Congress has been active in the legislative arena and has coordinated and issued statements on certain issues for some time now.
Mexico is an important focus because the founder of the Ibero-American Congress, Aaron Lara Sánchez, is Mexican. The movement has established communications media such as Evangélico Digital, which is part of a group of digital media that originated in Spain. It has also created or seeks to create some sort of think tank, because they want to coat all of it with a scientific varnish, so doctors, lawyers and biology and genetics experts take part in their conferences. They all promote the religious perspective that a family can only be made up of a man and a woman, that only two sexes, male and female, exist, and that the human person emerges at the time of conception; hence their opposition to abortion. They are putting together a pseudo-scientific discourse to substantiate these arguments despite the fact that scientific research indicates otherwise. Their objective is to put forward a discourse that is not viewed as belonging to the Middle Ages; that is why they seek some convergence with the common sense of the 21st century and speak of science and the secular state, even if only as a very superficial varnish. On the other hand, the Don’t Mess with My Kids discourse fits well with prevailing common sense, because it contains a very strong appeal to families and tells parents that they have the right to decide what education their children receive in school.
Would you characterise these groups as anti-rights?
Indeed, because their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender. In fact, I interviewed the founder of the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform, Cristian Rosas, who told me: “We started with sex education because it was what mobilised people the most, because it refers to their children, but what we really want is to eliminate gender, the word ‘gender’, altogether, in Peru and all over the world.” The thing is, behind that word, gender, is the crucial issue of the recognition of identities and the search for equality: women’s struggles to end discrimination and subordination, and the struggles of LGBTQI communities to enjoy the same rights and guarantees accorded to the rest of the population. They say that these struggles are unnecessary because our constitutions already state that we are all equal before the law, so why establish special laws or statutes for LGBTQI people? What they are overlooking is that LGBTQI people, and particularly people such as trans individuals, cannot effectively access those rights or even the conditions for a dignified existence. They insist on ignoring this, and instead argue that what LGBTQI people are striving for is for the state to fund their lifestyles.
Uruguay offers a recent example of an anti-rights policy promoted by these sectors. Three Uruguayan members of the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family – an alternate Catholic legislator of the National Party, an evangelical neo-Pentecostal representative, also of the National Party, and the leader of the biggest evangelical church in Uruguay, which is also neo-Pentecostal – carried forward a campaign to repeal the Integral Law for Trans People. The signature collection campaign was announced during the congress in Punta del Este that I attended.
Who were the participants in that conference? From your description, it sounds more a reunion of movement leaders than a mass meeting.
It was not the parishioners at large who gathered on this occasion, but rather pastors, preachers, politicians, opinion leaders and influencers seeking to take advantage of the language and codes used by a large section of the population, and especially by young people, to communicate. But still, it was a meeting of about 400 people.
This event was closed; the press was not allowed in. So I signed up as a participant, paid the US$150 registration fee and went in without letting the organisers know that I was covering the event as a journalist. In addition to paying the fee, I had to remain in Punta del Este for three days, stay in a hotel and be in the company of these people all day long. At times it became a bit suffocating because the way they carry out their activities is not the same as in a regular congress or conference, where you listen to panel presentations, take notes and sit in an auditorium next to other people who are doing more or less the same things. In this case, every session, including panels, integrated religious prayers – evangelical-style. This is nothing like Catholic mass, which is highly choreographed, and where the priest takes the lead, everyone knows more or less what he is going to say and parishioners respond with certain phrases at pre-established times, sit, stand and little else. The evangelical experience is very different: people talk, scream, raise their arms, move, touch. The pastor gives them instructions, but still, it is all way more participatory. I found it difficult to remain unnoticed, but I made it through.
I also managed to get a good record of what was happening, which was not really allowed. There was a lot of surveillance and I would have been thrown out had I been noticed. They realised close to the end: at the last minute they decided to organise a press conference and there was practically no media other than their own. I didn't know whether I should attend, but in the end I decided to, because I had already attended all the sessions after all. There was also a journalist from the weekly Búsqueda who attended the press conference. I was allowed to conduct interviews and was told that I could only publish anything related to the press conference, but not anything I had heard during the congress. Of course, there was nothing they could do to stop me from publishing anything, and my article ‘Gender is the new demon’ (‘El género es el nuevo demonio’) was published in Noticias shortly thereafter.
Being there helped me understand a few things. There are certainly very powerful religious and political interests behind anti-rights campaigns. But there are also genuine religious expressions, different approaches to life: some ultraconservative sectors genuinely reject 21st century life. What I observed during this congress is the extreme estrangement that some people experience regarding our contemporary world, a reality that can hardly be reversed, but that they experience as completely alien to them: the reality of equal marriage, diverse interpersonal and sexual relationships, sexual education, pleasure and drugs, free choice and abortion. We need to recognise this: there are segments of our societies that do not feel part of this 21st century world and thus react to these advances, which they interpret as degradation and corruption.
These groups have a nationalist discourse identifying nation-states and peoples as subject to foreign dictates that are considered to be evil – and are even seen as messages from the devil. Evil is embodied in a series of institutions that they describe as imperialistic: the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the inter-American human rights system, international financial organisations, the World Health Organization.
Isn't it strange for these groups to appeal to nationalism when they organise themselves in transnational networks and are active in the international arena?
Within the framework of this cultural battle that is being fought at the international level, what these groups do not see is that they themselves are actors in the international arena, even if only to weaken the scope of international law. They aim at the bodies that oversee treaties and conventions, such as the American Convention on Human Rights or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. They say that these are just expert committees whose recommendations do not need to be taken into account by states when they contravene domestic laws.
A recent discussion about this arose around the opinion issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to a consultation from Costa Rica regarding gender identity and equal marriage. Costa Rica asked the Court if it was obliged under the American Convention on Human Rights to recognise the gender identity of individuals and the economic rights of same-sex couples. In response, the Inter-American Court told Costa Rica, and therefore the entire continent, that these rights are protected by the Convention. A very strong discussion ensued, because for anti-rights groups this was a case of an international body acting above states, constitutions and national laws.
You mentioned that many politicians from different countries participated in the Ibero-American Congress. Do you think that these groups want to rule and are they getting ready to get to power? If so, what is their strategy to achieve it?
Above all, I do believe that they have the will to rule, which has a lot to do with the way the neo-Pentecostal movement that emerged in the USA and then expanded throughout the continent eventually evolved. The argument is simple: if they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are being called to have an impact, so they have to seek power because they are the ones chosen to exercise it.
As for strategies, they vary. Pragmatism prevails, so the strategy depends a lot on context. In some cases, they create their own parties – religious, evangelical or ultraconservative – by which they feel represented. In other cases, they prefer to insert their candidates into various party tickets. Currently in Argentina, for example, there are candidates of this sort in practically all parties, except for the most radical left. They are present in both the ruling party and the main opposition coalition. In addition, there is a recently formed small party, the NOS Front, founded on the explicit rejection of ‘gender ideology’ in the context of the legislative debate over legal abortion – but it didn’t get many votes in the recent primaries, and I don’t think it will achieve too much in the upcoming elections. On the other hand, many candidates that are running on various lists will be successful, both at the federal and provincial levels.
Another complementary strategy is to enter governments at lower levels, especially in countries with federal structures, where they can access management positions in the areas of health, education or justice; hence their strategy of training experts – lawyers, jurists, bioethics experts – who can take positions in various areas of public administration. I am seeing that a lot in Argentina.
In the case of Uruguay, these sectors are quite concentrated within a segment of the National Party, which already has some evangelical and neo-Pentecostal legislators; it is highly likely that there will be more after the next elections. I think an evangelical caucus will very likely emerge out of the October 2019 elections in Uruguay. There are some similar candidates in the other parties, although they are much less visible.
Additionally, a new phenomenon has emerged in Uruguay, in the form of the Cabildo Abierto party, led by a former army chief, which is the first to declare itself an anti-gender ideology party. This is a new phenomenon because the leaders and main figures of the National Party, the one that has so far given space to most of these candidates, do not support these positions. Although it is a new and small party, polls are forecasting that Cabildo Abierto will get between seven and 10 per cent of vote, which means it will possibly get some legislators elected, who will go on to vote as a block.
Do you find these developments worrying in a country such as Uruguay, often described as the most secular in Latin America?
What happens is that confessional vote is not automatic. In Argentina, evangelical parishioners are an important percentage of the population, which is also growing, but for the time being there is hardly any evangelical legislator in the National Congress. Something similar could be said about most countries: people who declare they belong to a certain religious group do not necessarily vote for candidates of the same religion. In other words, the faith-based vote, which is what these sectors intend to promote, is not necessarily succeeding in every country. It has made substantial progress in Brazil, but this progress has taken decades, in addition to being related to peculiarities in the Brazilian open-list electoral system, which allows for such candidacies to spread among various parties, including the Workers’ Party when it was in power. This growth was reflected in the substantial support provided by evangelical sectors to President Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy, whose victory also nurtured the evangelical caucus.
A number of factors affect how people vote at any given time; when voting, people are not necessarily guided by candidates’ religious creed. But this could change in the upcoming elections. Both Argentina and Uruguay hold elections in October, on the same day; in Bolivia elections will be held a week earlier; and also in October there will be regional elections in Colombia, with many such candidates in various parties. We will soon get a better idea of how the faith-based vote evolves in each country. We need to watch it closely in order to find out if it is a linear phenomenon on the rise, a process including progress and reversals, or a phenomenon that is finding its limits.
BOTSWANA: ‘Anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Dumiso Gatsha, a young LGBT rights activist and founder of Success Capital Organisation, a youth-led civil society organisation (CSO) that supports civic action and promotes the rights of LGBTQI people.
How significant was the June 2019court decision that decriminalised homosexuality in Botswana?
The High Court ruled that colonial-era laws criminalising same-sex relations are unconstitutional. The judges said penalising people for who they are is disrespectful, and the law should not regulate private acts between consenting adults. One of the contested sections of the penal code, Section 164, is about ‘unnatural offences’, defined as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which essentially applied to gay sex, although it was up to the courts to define what unnatural acts meant, and it could theoretically also apply to heterosexual activities seen as ‘unnatural’.
This ruling is very significant on two fronts. The first is that this decision eliminates the risk of persecution altogether. Although the prohibition was not necessarily implemented by law enforcement agencies, it could have been, as it added elements of uncertainty and arbitrary treatment. The second is that it essentially provides an avenue for building protections and safeguards in health, employment, business, governance, service delivery and, more importantly, eliminating systemic stigma and discrimination.
Was civil society in Botswana instrumental in bringing about this decision?
Yes. Civil society, and LGBT civil society more specifically, has been very active since the 1990s. But when I started out there were still few activists that were well known. I came to Botswana in 2012 and there were only one or two notable activists, while now, only seven years later, there are five new LGBT-led organisations. A lot of them work on HIV/AIDS response, because a lot of funding goes to this kind of work.
Litigation for decriminalisation was led by civil society, on behalf of a young gay man. Procedurally, only an individual can bring such a challenge to the courts, not an organisation. The most progressive of recent court cases, in terms of gender marker changes, were led by people. Civil society partnerships helped ensure financial and technical assistance.
However, it is very difficult to bring the rest of the community along with these advances: yes, you achieve decriminalisation, but decriminalisation does not mean protection or mean it will be any easier for people to navigate difficult conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with family members or educators, or in the workplace.
Has the court decision prompted any backlash against LGBT rights?
I think society is divided, and attitudes may take longer than laws to change. In this context, a new opposition populist party has used this issue as a populist tool. The ruling political party initially said that it would abide by the court decision and it backed non-discrimination. The current president had previously released a statement commemorating 16 days against gender-based violence and spoke about discrimination experienced by people in same-sex relationships. This was the first time a sitting head of state publicly recognised and acknowledged the gay community affirmatively in an African country that criminalised same-sex intercourse. Previous administrations had maintained a position of not persecuting people. In that sense, the state was always perceived as being a bit more progressive than the social majority or the rest of Africa. I think the state has long resorted to silent diplomacy on issues considered ‘progressive’.
What changed after the High Court ruling, and lead to the state deciding to appeal, was that the new opposition party saw an opportunity to use the ruling to seek votes. They blamed the current president for singlehandedly decriminalising same-sex intercourse. Given the intolerance in public opinion, it was an opportunity to appeal to the majority. This turned into a political issue rather than one of rights, particularly because this new political party is backed by a former president. This was the first time ever in Botswana’s living history that LGBT issues were used within an intentionally populist narrative.
This did not happen in isolation. Since the court ruling, religious institutions, mostly evangelical groups, became more vocal in their intolerance of LGBT people. It was surprising to us. We didn’t quite expect this. Public statements were released, including some stating that they would be appealing against the court ruling. They perceived this court ruling as an avenue for same-sex marriage and adoption of children by LGBT people.
Why did this take you by surprise? Weren’t anti-rights groups present in the public sphere before?
Regarding the court case, which took almost two years, evangelical groups and other religious actors remained silent for the most part. They wouldn’t really talk about it. It didn’t seem to be an issue for them at all. They didn’t bother building a whole narrative around or against it. That is why it was surprising that when the court decision was made public, all this opposition materialised. Some churches that had never released public statements on anything are now doing so. It isn’t just evangelical churches, although they have been probably the ones taking the lead. Catholic and Methodist churches have become quite intolerant, and vocally intolerant, as well.
While some civil society actors, including human rights groups, that we thought would be supportive, remained quite passive, anti-human rights groups have been increasingly active, using LGBT rights as a populist tool, by taking advantage of the dynamics regarding ‘immorality’ that prevail among the public – in other words, of the fact that many people are simply anti-LGBT by default, with no critical thinking.
I think that populist anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains. This is the Trump era, with its atmosphere of nationalism and regressive thinking. Regarding women’s sexual and reproductive rights and LGBT rights, US right-wing organisations are exporting their ideas to other parts of the world, including Africa. Fortunately, however, Botswana has historically been a peaceful society where it has not been easy for populist discourse to grow, and we are not seeing the growth of the same political populist narrative that has gained ground in other African countries or, for instance, in Eastern Europe. Botswana’s political landscape does not include extremist parties, either on the left or right. Major parties are all in support of LGBT rights and their leaders are quite progressive. There was an assumption that the negative political use of LGBT issues would work, but it is not clear that it has. However, society itself isn’t very accepting, and religious institutions are indeed perpetuating homophobia and intolerance.
What’s next for LGBT civil society in Botswana, after achieving decriminalisation?
Even if the High Court ruling survives the appeals and any other further legal challenges, a gap will remain. There have been some fragments of civic action aimed at educating people on LGBT issues. There is an urgent need to work on changing the hearts and minds of people. More importantly, there is a lot of work needed in moving LGBT people from surviving to thriving, especially in issues of efficacy, agency and having an influence within their communities. We focus on the individual and their access to rights, because rights are not really effective if they cannot be exercised at key touch points of service delivery, such as in a police station or a clinic. The community needs healing, at individual and collective levels. There has been a lot of pain and harm, even within activism.
What challenges do LGBT civil society face in doing this work, and what kind of support does it need?
A lot of advocacy strategies and narratives are pre-determined and attached to funding. There is a lot of gatekeeping in terms of the narratives that are considered relevant and valid, and therefore granted access to funding and to policy-makers. The main narrative currently appears to be around public health, and it is very difficult for new organisations to establish new narratives and still gain access to funding. If you are not operating under the umbrella of a much larger body, it is difficult to scale up advocacy work. This structure of opportunities has a strong impact on how creative and collaborative civil society can be while remaining sustainable.
I think this has to stop. We need to move towards a community-led narrative. This is how we will get the best results in terms of transforming people’s hearts and minds. In that regard, there is a need to strengthen the intellectual body of knowledge of LGBT communities and decolonise our institutions, because a lot of our conversations are in fact based on Western narratives. We also need to rethink the narratives used for campaigning. The narratives that have been used so far are based on the assumption that the human rights-based approach works, without any reflection on the need to adapt the language in a way that resonates with people and makes issues easier for people to digest.
In sum, I would say it is very important to diversify both the forms of advocacy that are undertaken and the ways that they are being supported.
Civic space in Botswana is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
CHILD RIGHTS: ‘Anti-child rights groups are making up stories to convince the public’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks to Ilaria Paolazzi of Child Rights Connect and Mieke Schuurman of Eurochild about child rights and attacks by anti-rights groups.
Can you tell us a little about your organisations and the work you do?
Ilaria: Child Rights Connect is the largest Geneva-based network of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on child rights. We have more than 90 members that are very diverse, including national, regional and international CSOs. Child Rights Connect is the expert organisation on the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child and the platform for joint civil society advocacy at the UN level. I’ve worked with Child Rights Connect for six years, and we are currently strengthening our coordination efforts with our members in the regions, for example in Europe with Eurochild.
Mieke: Eurochild is a regional member of Child Rights Connect. We are a European network of children’s organisations with almost 200 members across Europe, including all the European Union (EU) member states but also in many other European countries. I’m responsible for our work on child rights and child participation. We campaign for children’s rights to be implemented at the European level and focus in particular on vulnerable children in Europe, with three key priorities: combating child poverty and the social exclusion of children; the de-institutionalisation of children – making sure that children don’t grow up in institutions; and making sure that child rights are included in all EU policies, legislation and programmes. We do this by working very closely with our members and directly with children. We advocate towards the EU and actively engage for child rights beyond EU countries, including with the Council of Europe.
What are the main sources of attacks on child rights, and what role are anti-rights groups playing?
Ilaria: Attacks and restrictions on child rights are coming mainly from non-state groups, but also from some states. They are coming under the banner of advocacy for the protection of the family and traditional values.
Mieke:Our members have some serious concerns about anti-child rights movements in several countries in Europe. Particularly in countries such as Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia, there are anti-child rights movements, and these movements are gaining a lot of support. They use social media a lot, and use ‘fake news’ to be able to get their messages across, very much focusing on the cause of preserving the traditional family. Their messages are that child rights organisations are taking children away from their families, and this should not be accepted.
The campaign in Bulgaria went so far that in the end the prime minister there decided to stop the draft of the new strategy for the child, which would have introduced for the first time a holistic approach for family policy, oriented not only towards vulnerable children but also towards family support, including non-violent parenting. The anti-child rights movement strongly campaigned against the proposed new strategy as an ‘unallowable intervention into the family’, raising public support through propaganda and disinformation, and eventually the government gave in. In their campaign, they even used the logos of children’s civil society and of the child helpline in Bulgaria, spreading disinformation on their work as ‘paid from external sources in terms of selling Bulgarian children abroad’. Across the EU there is a free single number that children can call if they need support and help; they campaigned against this, on the basis that if children need help they can go to their parents and so they have no need to call a child helpline.
As a result of these movements, not only has development in child rights policies been stopped, but help and support to the most vulnerable children is being threatened.
They create a lot of fear and uncertainty among families. Research has demonstrated that the key supporters of these movements are conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants, but there is also a lot of support from Russia, and from Belarus and Ukraine, and also partly from the USA. Funding is coming from these countries to support anti-child rights movements.
It’s very hard for our members to campaign against it, because apparently these anti-child rights movements get something like 187,000 supporters on Facebook. We can question whether these are real supporters or fake ones, but it has the effect of mobilising a lot of uncertainty and uproar against children’s rights.
Ilaria:There is currently a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN body responsible for monitoring the Convention on the Rights of the Child, who is Bulgarian and has been under direct attack from anti-rights movements in Bulgaria. These movements are generally very well informed and aware of what is happening at the international level and of the functioning of the Committee and they never miss opportunities to attack.
In 2014, the FamilyPolicy.ru group issued a 97-page report, Ultra Vires Acts by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, that aimed to delegitimise and dismantle the mandate of the Committee, calling into question its core functions by saying, for example, that the observations and general comments it issues should only be of a general nature and not go into details. It also included a specific call on states to denounce the Convention and refuse to ratify its third optional protocol on a communications procedure. This was quite a direct and unprecedented attack.
What do you think is new about these attacks, and where do they derive their power from?
Mieke:I believe these groups have always existed. They have always supported the family and the strength of the family, and gone against the rights of children, believing that parents can decide for children what to do and what not to do.
Maybe they have been able to increase their supporters very easily because of the opportunities given by social media. Also governments are not really doing anything against them. Civil society is not really being supported by governments. Governments are not making statements that support children’s rights or human rights. Some of our members are saying this is really what’s lacking now.
Ilaria:They also seem to have resources – much more than child rights organisations – and therefore the means to mobilise.
Mieke: That’s true. These anti-rights movements have a lot of funds. At the same time, the space for CSOs working on democracy and child rights is shrinking, which is particularly visible in terms of access to funding.
Ilaria:Another factor that is pushing them to become more active is the advance of certain topics within the child rights discourse that weren’t so prominent before, such as the issues related to gender identities, LGBTQI children and children growing up in LGBTQI families. While the child rights movement has yet to properly integrate a gender perspective into its work, children themselves are raising the issue in front of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in front of the international community. But it’s something that’s adding onto the sensitive discussions around sexual and reproductive rights.
Another emerging issue is the role that children are taking as environmental human rights defenders. While many stakeholders are opening their minds about children’s right to be heard and the importance of having space where children can exercise their civil and political rights, there has been a lot of hate speech against those children speaking out online and offline. This reflects the still pervasive vision of children as objects and not subject of rights.
Mieke: What they are saying about LGBTQI rights is that people want to take away children to give them to gay foster families. They are opposed to sex education in schools.
We increasingly get reports that when children speak in public at the local level, such as in city councils, child rights defenders often get negative reactions and are told to shut up. Children themselves are experiencing these negative attitudes, which is difficult for them to deal with.
How is civil society, including your membership, responding to these challenges?
Mieke: Our members in Bulgaria are quite active, and they are now very active on Facebook, trying to get as many supporters as possible, but still the group is smaller than the groups for supporters of anti-child rights movements. Anti-child rights movements are making up stories to convince the public that child rights are bad for children, and so we also need to share our stories about what we are doing and why child rights are important for children. Maybe in responding we need to use less the language of rights of children and talk more about the wellbeing of children and the need for children to grow up in safe families.
Basically our members are trying to share their stories on social media and on television to try to get the mainstream public convinced about the importance of child rights. They say we shouldn’t engage with the extremists because we won’t be able to convince them, but we should instead target the public who might not have an opinion or who might not know yet what they agree with because they need to have the right information and need to know the other stories about child rights.
Ilaria:As the international level we continue to try to draw the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s attention to national-level contexts and challenges so that it can take these into account when making recommendations to states. For example, we made a reference to the Bulgarian and European context in our public statement to the Committee’s opening session in May 2019.
We are also always alerted about initiatives brought by anti-child rights movements on the protection of the family to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where there is always a danger around the corner. Here we collaborate and coordinate with CSOs beyond our membership and that are working on different topics, such as the human rights of older persons, in order to be aware of, and respond collectively, to such initiatives.
We did a lot of work in 2014 when the UNHRC adopted a resolution on the protection of the family and organised a subsequent panel. Many initiatives around this sought to introduce the idea that the family, understood as the nuclear family, has rights as a unit, without acknowledging the human rights of individual family members such as children, the different forms a family can take, and the responsibility of states to protect the rights of individuals and intervene, when appropriate. Child Rights Connect coordinated advocacy to offer states an alternative, more consensual angle, which was effective for finding constructive compromises during the negotiation of the resolution and also for reaffirming children’s rights during the discussions on protection of the family.
In 2017, we did the same in the context of a seminar on the protection of the family and disability organised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This year luckily nothing has happened, but we are always monitoring the situation and this is ongoing work, because child rights organisations working on specific issues might not be aware of these dangers.
We are also following and being alert about the discussions around alternative care of children with disabilities. In this context, some have been raising the issue of whether a right to a family exists or should exist. While we acknowledge the key role that families play for children, we think this is very dangerous for child rights in general, as it is not in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and opens up discussions around the rights of the family. So we are trying to empower everyone to understand the international law and the implications on child rights.
From 2017 we started to prioritise work on civil society space for children and children human rights defenders. What we have seen was that in moving beyond Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the right to be heard, which was the main basis for claiming child participation rights until now, the human rights defenders framework and UNHRC resolutions on civil society space are helping us to talk about children’s civic and political rights. This is still quite an underestimated issue for many, and not only states, but also the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, academia and child rights CSOs that are traditionally focusing on the economic, social and cultural rights of children.
When it comes to the fundamental freedoms of children, there is not a specialised CSO advancing the topic at all levels, and international human rights CSOs working on civil and political rights in general do not integrate a child rights-based approach in their work. There is still a big gap out there that Child Rights Connect is trying to fill through the angle of children human rights defenders.
What further responses are needed?
Mieke:I think the challenges are to make sure we get enough allies among civil society, in other fields, such as women’s rights organisations and disability organisations.
It’s also a question of resources, because if you continually have to be on social media to respond or share your stories, it takes a lot of time and human resources to do that work and you need funding to do this, so that’s also a big challenge. The need for measures to straighten media literacy is also crucial. We really need to find foundations and organisations that are able to support us and fund our work.
And then there is the challenge of getting states to speak up. Now we are trying to get the EU on board, to have a louder voice and tell states that they should support civil society in campaigning for children’s rights.
Ilaria:I think we have started, but we need to do more to connect children’s rights to human rights and work more closely with human rights CSOs and actors. I think the collaboration we’ve had with CIVICUS is emblematic. The Committee on the Right of the Child’s Day of General Discussion, held every two years in Geneva, helps. The 2018 Day on the theme of ‘protecting and empowering children as human rights defenders’ was an opportunity to strengthen the collaboration not only with CIVICUS but also with Amnesty International, International Service for Human Rights and other human rights CSOs.
We need to continue to make everyone understand what it means to apply a child rights-based approach. There are still too many who approach children as a solely vulnerable group or child rights as a theme and not as something that relates to everything, or that is impacted on by all human rights work.
Our work on children human rights defenders is helping this by making children be recognised as civil society actors and making all under-18 human rights defenders be recognised as children. However, we need to do more to clarify how to strike the balance between the protection and empowerment of children who act as defenders.
We keep hearing that children shouldn’t be exposed to risk by being called ‘defenders’ because it is a sensitive terminology, and we keep explaining that of course this must be taken into account for specific contexts, but it’s not an excuse for overlooking children’s civil and political rights. So we need to be sure we are taking criticisms in the right way, and addressing them appropriately.
Going back to the family rights issue, I think there is a need to also stress and clarify the positive role of families within the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and also say loudly that it’s not that human rights organisations are against families, which is one of the main claims made by anti-rights groups, and be clear that the existing human rights framework does give them certain rights, along with responsibilities and duties. One of our members had encouraged the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold a Day of General Discussion on the role of parents and families in the realisation of children’s rights, with the objective of clarifying how states can best support parents and families in all their forms in order to ensure a healthy and nurturing family environment for children, but this wasn’t yet followed up by the Committee. But we are still exploring and working on this idea to help advance a positive discourse that counters anti-rights attacks.
What support, including from other parts of civil society, would most help make a difference to child rights?
Ilaria:I would say what would help us the most would be to mainstream effectively the protection, promotion and fulfilment of child rights in general. We welcome very much the roundtables between the OHCHR civic space unit and Geneva-based CSOs that CIVICUS is starting to organise. We participated recently and are really keen to use this to advance the mainstreaming of child rights within the UN human rights system, which is a big challenge.
Children and child rights are not yet taken seriously. We are really far from being there, and we are fighting constantly at all levels to be heard and for children’s views to be considered, because in many cases children are just given the space to talk for the sake of giving them a face and then nothing happens with the recommendations and the things they share. There is still a lot to do here and this should be a multi-stakeholder joint effort.
CSOs call for the Council’s urgent attention to Ghana's anti-gay draft bill
Statement at the 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
General Debate – Item 4
In the spirit of Agenda Item 4, we would like to call the attention of the Council to the Human Rights situation of LGBTI persons in Ghana in light of the recent Anti-LGBTI draft bill being discussed in the country. As expressed jointly by eleven Special Procedures of this Council, the draft legislation is “a recipe for violence”1.
The bill being discussed not only attempts to criminalise same-sex conduct, but also promotes harmful practices such as unnecessary medical interventions on intersex children2 and so-called conversion therapies. This bill also enables the state to prevent human rights defenders from organising themselves to defend LGBTI people, and absolutely prohibits public debates that advance the protection or promotion of the rights of LGBTI persons. Ultimately, this bill legitimises state and societal violence.
The provisions contained in the draft legislation not only criminalise LGBTI persons but anyone who supports their human rights, shows sympathy to them or is even remotely associated with them3.
Human rights defenders or anyone registering, operating or participating in an activity to support an organisation working on LGBTI people’s rights could face up to 10 years of imprisonment. The Bill also criminalises any production and dissemination of so-called LGBTI “propaganda” with imprisonment between 5 to 10 years.4
The discussion of such draft legislation has already significantly and alarmingly promoted a rise in discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons in Ghana.
The adoption of this bill has major implications on the already marginalised and vulnerable LGBTI community. It will exacerbate existing economic, legal, societal and public health inequalities which will make it more difficult for the community to exist safely in society. Adopting such a bill would be a direct infringement to core international human rights as dignity, equality and non-discrimination, the rights to freedom of expression, association and privacy, and the absolute prohibition of torture.
We urge the Ghanaian Government to take all measures to protect LGBTI persons from violence and discrimination and refrain from adopting any legislation that will violate the human rights of this community and those who defend their rights. We also call on this Council, UN Member States, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and all relevant stakeholders to remain seised of this matter.
List of organisations co-sponsoring this statement:
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Human Rights Watch
- International Commission of Jurists
- International Lesbian and Gay Association
- International Service for Human Rights
- International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
- OutRight Action International
List of organisations supporting this statement:
- LGBT+ Rights Ghana
- Pan Africa ILGA
- Solace Initiative
1OHCHR: Ghana: Anti-LGBTI draft bill a “recipe for violence” – UN experts.
2OHCHR. Communication OL GHA 03/2021.
3OHCHR: Ghana: Anti-LGBTI draft bill a “recipe for violence” – UN experts.
4Amnesty International: Ghana: Anti-LGBTI Bill Stirs Up Hatred, Persecution And Discrimination.
Civic space in Ghana is rated as narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor
HIV/AIDS: ‘We need a global civil society movement that stands together for all rights’
CIVICUS speaks toAlessandra Nilo, co-founder and Executive Director of GESTOS – HIV and AIDS, Communication and Gender, a civil society organisation (CSO) created in 1993 in Recife, Brazil. She is a member of the NGO Delegation to the Programme Coordinating Board of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), an institution that uniquely involves civil society in its governance board. Here, Alessandra discusses civil society’s important role in UNAIDS, her work on HIV/AIDS in the deteriorating political climate of Brazil and the growing challenge posed by anti-rights groups that oppose action on HIV/AIDS and human rights.
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work on issues of HIV/AIDS?
I am a journalist, specialised in health and with a postgraduate qualification in diplomacy. I was also involved in student movements and workers’ and political movements. In 1993, a group of us created GESTOS. At that time, we didn’t know much about the epidemic. I lost a friend, whose family locked him in his house and wouldn’t allow us to talk to him. That was why GESTOS was born, to address the issues of people living with HIV/AIDS.
We knew that having an organisation to help people was not enough. We needed to exercise accountability. We needed to improve policies. We were pioneers because at that time we knew that gender was an important dimension, and also that without communication, we could not move forward, because it was important to involve the public and mobilise them for our cause. This is why we were named GESTOS – Seropositivity, Communication and Gender.
We started to engage with the national councils in Brazil. These are bodies established by the 1988 Federal Constitution, where government, civil society and interested parties sit together to define public policies. These were spaces where we could practise direct democracy and have direct participation. Through participation GESTOS became very close to the ministries of health and gender and we began to engage in social networks of the Latin American region.
What have been some of the impacts of the HIV/AIDS movement, in Brazil and globally?
In general Brazil’s HIV/AIDS movement is very strong. We have helped people take action to define their own responses to HIV/AIDS. Worldwide, the HIV/AIDS movement has been responsible for many breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS policies, and this happened in Brazil.
We were the first movement to start pushing that treatment was a right, rather than a commodity delivered by governments depending on whether they wanted to or had capacity. We were responsible for big discussions around sexuality that contributed to the sexual and reproductive rights movement. We built strong alliances with the feminist movement. We were the first movements to include people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers in a global resolution at the United Nations (UN). We also engaged in debates that led to the Sustainable Development Goals. The fact that in the Agenda 2030 resolution there is a mention of people living with HIV/AIDS is because GESTOS was there as part of the Brazilian delegation and Brazil proposed this at the last minute of negotiations in New York.
The bottom line is that people living with HIV/AIDS proved at local, national and international levels to have a strong capacity to advocate for amplifying the spaces and formal sites and mechanisms for civil society participation in general.
How did civil society’s role in UNAIDS develop?
UNAIDS created the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), UNAIDS’ governing body, in 1995 – it started operating in 1996 – and it is super innovative because it is the only governing body in the UN system that includes formal participation by civil society. It has 22 voting Member States, 11 co-sponsors, who are other UN bodies, and five civil society delegates plus five alternates, which means 10 people from civil society are involved. We have one member and one alternate per region, from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Asia and Europe.
The PCB is the place where the main global policies on HIV/AIDS have been discussed and formed, and these have informed other UN debates. More than that, it has informed and inspired the ways UN member states implement HIV/AIDS policies at national levels.
The rationale for civil society’s involvement lies in the fact that the HIV/AIDS movement was really based on participation. Since the beginning, people living with HIV and key populations pushed and insisted that politicians, scientists and affected people should come together and figure out how to create solutions together. We built this social movement where it was almost impossible to move forward any discussion without involving us. We were pressing since the beginning to have meaningful participation.
Because of this, when the PCB was formed, civil society was considered a very important player that had to participate. This was very innovative at that time and continues to be innovative today.
How does civil society’s involvement work in practice? How are the delegates selected and how do they connect with wider civil society?
The PCB NGO Delegation members have mandates for two years and depending on the performance of a delegate, the group can expand this mandate for one more year. Delegates are selected by current NGO PCB members. We put forward a public call, in response to which interested applicants make a submission. Shortlisted applicants are then invited to an interview panel. The panel, which consists of NGO delegates, as well as an external civil society partner or a former NGO delegate, makes a recommendation. Final deliberation and decision are done by the full Delegation.
We have a number of requirements for these candidates. One is that they should have the capacity to represent and communicate with their constituencies. It is essential to have the capacity for broader communication.
We have a very transparent process. We have a website where we publicise the calls, but also use social media to publicise the opportunity. We have a list of advisory groups, CSOs and activists who are always interested in issues of the UNAIDS PCB, and we communicate with them and involve them in preparations before, between and after the biannual PCB meetings. In recent years, we have been trying to reach out to other spheres, including groups working on issues such as sustainable development and financing for development.
Since 2008, there has also been an independent Communication and Consultation Facility (CCF) to support the NGO Delegation by providing technical, administrative and programme support. Since 2013, the CCF’s host organisation has been the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV, based in Thailand. The CCF is the backbone of the NGO Delegation. It is hard to imagine how the Delegation would function effectively without it. A key objective of the CCF is to facilitate communication among the delegates and consultation with wider civil society.
What have the impacts and challenges been?
The NGO Delegation has no right to vote, but can participate in every other aspect of PCB activities. There is a very fine line between participating in deliberations and taking part in decision-making, because traditionally the PCB does not hold votes but decides by consensus. There have been so many examples where the NGO Delegation has been able to table decision points during meetings for critical agenda items, and had its points approved. Most decisions that have come out of the PCB came in one way or another after strong civil society participation.
Civil society and communities are really strong players and our voice is considered in a very respectful manner. It has been proven that with civil society participation, policies, programmes and services are designed much more efficiently and with much higher chances of working and benefiting people.
In terms of the process, since 2012, the NGO Delegation has been trying to create connections with other groups working with the UN to show them how the experience of the UNAIDS PCB accepting us and having us as formal members can be transposed to other UN bodies. We think this would be a great achievement for civil society in general. We tried to push this while the UN was having a conversation about restructuring and reforms. We talked with so many people, but it seems there is not an appetite for the UN to become more democratic in terms of the participation of civil society in formal decision-making bodies.
To have formal spaces for civil society is important, but it is not enough. There is absolutely a need to be able to inform decisions and participate in the decision-making processes of the UN at this time when, at the national and international levels, we are every day being pushed farther away from spaces for participation because of the advancement of reactionary political forces.
Although our PCB NGO Delegation succeeded, gaining formal space to participate was challenging. This is why we value it so much. If you think about the face of our movement you see people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, LGBTQI people and women, people who have always led our movement but who have been marginalised in society. And even nowadays, stigma and discrimination continue to prevent us from reaching and accessing some places. While the HIV/AIDS movement has been successful in gaining public attention and claiming spaces, it has been very hard to do so, because stigma, prejudice and discrimination continue to fuel this epidemic.
With all these populist movements nowadays, the communities impacted on and affected by HIV/AIDS are not only the most marginalised but also the most criminalised. Criminalisation really impacts on the kind of organising we can do. In many countries in Africa and Asia, homosexuality, sex work and drug use are criminalised. There are real legal barriers for our communities that really impact on participation and engagement.
How is the restricted space for civil society in many contexts impacting on your work?
In the past decades we were fighting to improve the work that we were doing, but now we are working toward maintaining the rights we have, to resist, to recover from losses, and this is a very different game. In general, there is this trend of the space for civil society being increasingly restricted, and it is even more so for the HIV/AIDS movement because the forces opposing us are reactionary.
We are seeing different experiences in different countries. And, including in countries that were known as democratic, we have seen civil society dismantled, and colleagues in civil society forced to flee their places in order to keep some movements alive.
Besides this, in general, governments have used economic crises to justify cuts in programmes that used to have civil society participation. One very efficient way of diminishing civil society’s capacity is to cut funds, and this has happened to the HIV/AIDS movement. Until recently, we had countries investing in HIV/AIDS response, and that included investing in communities and civil society. This was working in a very progressive way, but now we have seen that resources for civil society, particularly international resources in middle-income countries, have decreased, and this has impacted negatively on our capacity to continue responding to HIV/AIDS and influencing governments.
In recent years we have seen the rise of fundamentalism and nationalism and a rejection of multilateralism in general. This has completely jeopardised the progress made in previous years in human, economic and environmental rights. Even in contexts where states had no interest in supporting civil society participation, we used to have an organisation such as UNAIDS and other international entities that could fund international networks and those networks could support national work, or could directly fund communities on the ground. This is not the case any longer. Formal space is being diminished, resources have been reduced and the groups that organise to provide support face increasing demands, because when democratic spaces shrink, public services and policies that benefit everyone in society usually suffer. And then the demand on us increases further. This equation simply does not work.
At the UNAIDS PCB itself, we see a political trend of some Member States becoming more aggressive towards CSOs, and some conservative governments questioning our model of participation. PCB meetings have seen attempts to challenge the existence of the NGO Delegation. In 2013 this was brought up by a couple of Member States that questioned the Delegation’s standing to participate in the meeting. In December 2018, a Member State questioned the recruitment process of the NGO delegates. I think the threat of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution that established the PCB being revised is always there, especially in the current climate of declining democracy in various parts of the world. If that resolution is revised, then anything can be revised.
What challenges do you now face under an extreme right-wing president In Brazil?
In Brazil, the federal government is really going after LGBTQI people, the indigenous population, people who use drugs, black people. In June the Senate approved a law to make the policy on drugs even more restrictive, going in the opposite direction to many other countries. LGBTQI people are much more scared of being visible now. Also in May, the new government issued a decree to basically shut down all civil society participation in national councils. All councils created by law will continue to function but their composition will be revised, and all councils created by decree were immediately cancelled.
The government spread confusion about civil society in relation to the Amazon Fund, which is a big international fund to which CSOs can apply to fight climate change. The government lied by stating that the fund was being misused, while what they really want is not to let civil society get funding.
Also, as soon as it took power, the government cut several contracts with CSOs. At this moment we do not know that will happen with women’s rights and human rights policies. All progressive agendas are being cut by 65 per cent, 85 per cent, 95 per cent. Can you imagine that the Environment Ministry’s fund for climate change was cut by 95 per cent? As well as being a fundamentalist and economically ultraliberal, the new President doesn’t believe in climate change, the Minister of International Affairs stated that "globalism is a cultural Marxist conspiracy" and they want to solve the violence problem by releasing weapons for the entire population. How do you deal with people like that?
Given challenges, what is needed to improve the impact of the NGO Delegation?
UNAIDS and Member States should improve the level of investment in the NGO Delegation. Because our delegation operates very differently from government delegations, we lack the resources we need to amplify our voices and our advocacy work. The reason why we have not done more structured advocacy work in other areas of the UN is that we never have funds for that.
We also need more support in terms of communications, because we would like to do more campaigns around the results of our work and publicise key debates happening at the PCB, including intensifying our communication about the unique role of the PCB and civil society’s role within it.
More generally, how can the challenges that HIV/AIDS-related civil society is facing be addressed?
We need to improve our capacity to communicate and amplify our voice. If we could do that, people would pay more attention and value more what we do. It would be helpful if people could understand that the HIV/AIDS movement is an important part of the development agenda.
We need to reshape the entire conversation about international cooperation and decision-making in terms of the allocation of funds for communities and civil society. Decisions not to support countries because of their income levels are flawed. Brazil, for example, is defined as a middle-income country; as a result, over the past 10 years or so international cooperation agencies have withdrawn from Brazil. As a consequence of the low capacity to respond to right-wing fundamentalism, repressive forces have flourished. We need to go back to the basics, to our peers, to frontline groups, to political education. Conservative forces were just hidden and waiting for the moment to rise again. And they did so with discourse filled with falsities, for instance claiming to oppose corruption, an issue that has dominated in Brazil in the past years.
In countries with repressive right-wing leaders – such as Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines – civil society is doing its best to respond on several fronts despite lack of funding. Luckily for humanity, some people are born activists and do this work whether there is money or not. But I truly believe that, in order to keep our movement sustainable, we have to engage more deeply in global discussions about how to fund an independent civil society, one that does not rely upon states to raise funds and therefore remains independent of government decisions.
Given the impossibility of engaging with the federal government, another response in Brazil is to engage more with sub-national authorities and parliament. More connections are needed at the sub-national level, where it is possible to identify many people who support our causes.
Another idea is to make more use of litigation: to use legal frameworks to maintain the agenda. But, again, we need funds to do that.
For the UN, we need to be mindful about institutional reforms that are taking place and be vigilant. We need innovative mechanisms and funds that can help make the UN more independent of Member States, and to increase civil society capacity to play a bigger part. There should not be such distance between the international and national levels. People on the ground can benefit from discussions at the global level, and international discussions should be informed by the desires of people on the ground. People on the ground need to know why multilateralism is important, what the UN is, what UNAIDS is, why they matter. But it is hard when international cooperation funds keep shrinking and most organisations are relegated to providing services rather than advocating for rights, developing capacity and enabling new activists.
The issue of restricted space for civil society connects us all, independently of our field of action. Therefore it is crucial to have cross-movement dialogues and open conversations, because this is where we can build resilience and solidarity and support each other. We need different sectors to come together to keep growing and not to be intimidated into silence by forces that are sometimes literally killing us. We cannot be isolated in our own agendas. We really need a global civil society movement that stands together for all rights.
We are in a very delicate movement for democracy where social media and education play a crucial role. Communication is also a major issue for social movements. At this point in history we should be able to communicate better. What is our role? What is our success story in terms of supporting and strengthening democracy? Well, if you look at history, you will see that our role is essential and that most existing rights resulted from civil society demands and victories. Because without meaningful community and civil society participation there is no sustainable development, there is no democracy, and it is unlikely that public policies can be translated into services and programmes that really serve the needs of people.
Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
LATVIA: ‘Faced with hatred, we focus on delivering a human rights message’
As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Kaspars Zālītis about the challenges faced by LGBTI people in Latvia, and the actions undertaken by civil society to broaden civic space for sexual minorities and therefore to make democracy truly inclusive. Kaspars is the director ofMozaika - Association of LGBT and their friends, currently the only LGBTI rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Latvia. Established in 2006, Mozaika promotes gender equality and anti-discrimination; raises awareness of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions of identity;promotes an understanding of diverse family models and their legal recognition; and advocates for the harmonisation ofLatvian laws with international standards.
1. What is the current situation of LGBTI rights in Latvia?
On the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, which measures each country’s respect for LGBTI rights, Latvia ranks 40th within Europe, and last of all European Union (EU) member countries. In turn, the CIVICUS Monitor has reported several restrictions of civic space in Latvia. CSOs working on controversial topics are being targeted, and civil society has found it increasingly difficult to gain access to policy-makers. Mozaika has tried to lobby politicians and policy-makers for years, but they often prefer to meet in private rather than attract any attention that can lead to attacks from right-wing activists and politicians.
The political climate is hostile for sexual diversity and for diversity as a whole. ‘Moral upbringing’ amendments introduced into the Education Law in 2015 - which mandate schools to promote ‘family values’ and marriage as part of education - have been implemented through the publication of guidelines that have caused fear among teachers of negative reactions if they touch on any LGBTI issues, and sexual and reproductive rights issues more generally. In 2016, a schoolteacher whose students had requested her to start a Gay-Straight Alliance was asked to refrain from doing so, and another teacher faced calls that he should close all his social media accounts so that students wouldn’t see his ‘LGBT-friendly’ attitudes - in other words, he was asked to hide his sexual orientation. Legislators bashed him on social media and insinuated that he was ‘recruiting’ children.
In March 2018, parliament was quick to dismiss a Cohabitation Bill that would have granted basic rights to non-married couples, including same-sex ones. It did so on the grounds that couples could access these rights by getting married, even though the Latvian Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage. The initiative had started three years earlier through an online petition that gathered 10,000 signatures, which was why parliament had to consider it.
2. What is the role of religious groups in this?
Indeed. The Catholic Church has a lot of influence, and it is taking the lead in fighting the LGBTI community and pushing back against women’s rights. For instance, there has been a lot of disagreement over the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, and parliamentary debate on the issue has been postponed until after parliamentary elections are held in October 2018.
Church leaders and many public officials oppose ratification of the Istanbul Convention because one of its non-discrimination clauses concerns sexual orientation and gender identity. The Catholic Archbishop is rallying against it and has gathered considerable support among political parties and parliamentarians. He has managed to convince them that ratification is part of the secret agenda of so-called ‘genderists’ – an expression that originated in Russia, a country with a very strong cultural influence in Latvia. Church officials, right-wing activists and politicians and anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion groups depict the Convention as contrary to Latvian traditional values and as being aimed at over-sexualising and ‘converting’ children. These arguments are gaining ground among the public.
This rhetoric is not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic church: the Lutheran church, which is the largest Protestant church in Latvia, is also taking a lead in fighting us and the Istanbul Convention. This is quite strange, because Lutherans, prevalent in Nordic countries, tend to be more liberal. But in Latvia they even voted against having female priests, following the lead of the Catholic church. Additionally, new religious organisations with direct links with US evangelical groups are emerging. Some of their leaders have been trained in the USA and are quite good at influencing people.
Although religious leaders and organisations don’t have a direct and institutionalised role in policy-making, given that the Latvian Constitution establishes a separation between church and state, in practice they have a lot of influence. Church-state separation notwithstanding, the state has a religious advisory council, as does the City Council. It is not uncommon for the Catholic Archbishop to meet with the ruling coalition’s leading party, and for the party’s leader to then say that he has ‘consulted’ with the Catholic church and has decided to vote in one way or another. You can see a direct link because all this happens in public.
We, on the contrary, don’t have access to leading politicians because they are not willing to risk their reputations by meeting us in public. At the most, we can expect to have a private meeting here and there. This has a lot of impact on us, especially as we see the religious right rise all over Europe. Religious organisations and right-wing parties are increasingly organised and coordinated to fight against gender equality and LGBTI rights at the European level, and they are getting a major influx of resources from the USA. They have way more resources than we do, and their message also resonates better with the latent homophobia in Latvian society, which is becoming increasingly vocal. And after the Brexit vote and the Trump victory, they are emboldened. The latest developments in Hungary and Poland are also proof to them that they may be closer to winning.
3. Has this discourse penetrated the media?
Most definitely. Our media landscape is quite pluralistic, and the state channel and public broadcaster at least try to provide balanced coverage. But some media outlets are outright hostile towards LGBTI groups, and one of them, a Russian outlet with a major agenda against the rights of women, migrants, refugees and LGBTI people, is clearly leading a crusade against us.
Vilification of women’s and LGBTI rights groups is also increasingly taking place online. We are now constantly harassed on Facebook. At some point we realised these were not the usual people who used to attack us and we did some research to find out where the attacks were coming from, and found links to evangelical churches.
Since January 2018, Mozaika has reported over 200 posts that are openly homophobic to social media administrators, and most of them have been taken down and their authors temporarily or permanently blocked. This caused all Mozaika activists to be blocked from accessing certain groups and pages, and we have evidence that a number of secret Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups have been created to follow our activities.
4. Can you tell us more about the significance of Pride in Latvia and the Baltic Pride that was recently held in the capital, Riga?
Pride in Latvia is the most visible LGBTI event in the country. It draws widespread social and media attention to our cause, but it also attracts a large number of expressions of hatred and brings to the surface negative attitudes towards the LGBTI community. Pride in Latvia grew from 70 participants who faced 3,000 protesters in 2005, to 5,000 participants at EuroPride 2015, which was held in Riga, and 8,000 in the recent Baltic Pride. In between, it was banned by Riga City Council three times.
Mozaika applied for permission to hold Baltic Pride in February 2018. Latvian laws state that applications must be submitted no earlier than four months prior to the event and that if there is more than one application for an event to be held at the same time, priority will be given to the first applicant. Mozaika’s representative arrived at Riga City Council an hour before opening to make sure that Baltic Pride was the first applicant, and just seconds after he entered the building Antiglobalists, an anti-rights organisation, arrived to submit another request for an event that would take place at the exact same time and venue, but under the name “Promotion of paedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia and other perversions.” They wanted to make the statement that if ‘homosexuals’ can promote their ‘perversions’, then they should also be allowed to promote any other perversion they could think of.
Since it became known in late 2017 that Riga would host Baltic Pride, both Mozaika and Baltic Pride became targets. The leader of the Latvian Green Party-Riga Unit started a //medium.com/@juriskaza/latvian-science-fund-head-asks-to-ban-riga-pride-event-87173b6e2cbe">personal campaign against so-called ‘genderists’. He insisted that Baltic Pride should be banned and set up a Facebook page to ‘inspire’ activists for ‘traditional values’. Starting in January, Baltic Pride organisers received over a hundred personal attacks, warnings or threats. We were insulted, called sick and branded perverts on our Facebook pages on a daily basis. Hate campaigns were launched to convey the idea that Pride is a ‘sex festival’. Countless posts were made showing rainbows and guns, to create fear among potential participants and the LGBTI community and dissuade them from attending. Antiglobalists, Tautas tiesību kustība (National Rights Movement) and activists inspired by right-wing politicians also constantly posted statements to encourage others to stand against Baltic Pride. Sometimes they provided details about our activities, forcing us to restrict them to registered participants to ensure safety. We also had to take unprecedented security measures for Pride events.
Fortunately, we could find common ground and work closely with the police. Counter-protesters attack and humiliate the police, but we treat them with respect. No public official or security officer supporting us would ever say so publicly, but we have been able to work together behind closed doors. In the end, Baltic Pride was a great success. We would have considered it a success if 2,000 people had attended, but over 8,000 did. There were no major incidents, although at some point eggs and smoke bombs were thrown at participants.
5. How do you counter the anti-rights message?
We focus on delivering a human rights message. We never blame the church or call anyone by name - we don’t talk about them. We counter argument with argument, and fiction with facts. If they say that perverts will march, we state the fact that 70 per cent of those ‘perverts’ are straight people with children. Against arguments that ‘naked people’ will march, we simply say we don’t know what Pride they are referring to because we have never had people marching naked in Latvia. When we are called perverts, we thank them for their opinion but insist that we want to have a conversation within a human rights framework. That is, we don’t want to limit anyone’s rights and we want to be able to exercise ours. Compromising and always staying within the confines of a positive message may be personally difficult for many activists, but that is what we are going for, no matter what we hear. We might explode afterwards, but while we meet we listen and stay calm.
I always meet the Catholic Archbishop at state visits or embassy receptions and we have polite exchanges. I’ve told him I’m non-believer but I know that the message of Jesus is all about love and respect and I don’t see that coming from him – that’s when he leaves the conversation. Within Mozaika there are also religious people, and we have invited churches to have an open and public dialogue, but so far, they have always refused.
6. What is civil society in Latvia doing to overcome these challenges?
Civil society uses all the available mechanisms to highlight rights violations in the international arena, including at the EU level, and to try and influence decision-makers and politicians. However, our Minister of Justice, who is openly homophobic and transphobic, ‘does not see’ any restrictions. While we were organising our Pride event, the government was putting a lot of effort into organising celebrations for the centennial of the Latvian state, and often blamed critical CSOs for shaming the country abroad as such an important date approached.
In this context, Mozaika planned several actions, including a social media campaign (‘I support freedom’) in which public personalities publicly expressed their support for LGBTI rights, and human rights more generally, and demanded that our government ensure that Baltic Pride could take place safely. We aimed to bring in people who are not typically seen as supporters of human rights and LGBTI rights, and then amplify their voices as allies of the LGBTI community. Ultimately, what we wanted to show is that the LGBTI community and its supporters were a lot more numerous and diverse than the handful of activists and the few hundred people who normally show up to our events. We also undertook efforts targeted at international organisations and foreign governments and activists. We asked them to encourage people to participate in Baltic Pride and demand that the authorities guarantee their safety.
Of course, we continue to monitor, document and report online and offline abuses against LGBTI people, activists and organisations. We take down hate comments and instruct the community to report any attacks that they experience on social media to us so we can work to take down the posts. If prominent hate expressions get out there, we try to respond to them with a counter-message. But we have limited resources, so sometimes we leave them for liberal commentators to deal with, and we focus on using social media to counter the most blatant expressions of hatred, particularly if someone is attacked physically.
Finally, we are trying to place LGBTI issues and broader diversity issues on the agenda of the campaign for the upcoming October 2018 parliamentary election. We are promoting public debate on these issues, presenting political parties with examples of the rights restrictions that LGBTI people face on a daily basis and asking them to provide policy solutions to create a safe environment for LGBTI people and other minorities. We will consider it a success if three or four political parties include LGBTI issues or other diversity issues on their agenda.
7. What are your needs and what can donors do to help?
The one thing we have wanted to do for a long time is a long-term communications campaign – not the kind that individual CSOs put together on their own, but a broader one coordinated by various CSO leaders and activists who provide the substance and set the tone, and that is executed and managed by a professional communications team. The problem is that all CSOs live from project to project and are barely sustainable. Mozaika is able to function thanks to the work of volunteers. So what we need most is resources to ensure sustainability. This includes building capacity, but this has to be done on the basis of the expertise that we already have. We have attended countless training events and seminars, and are tired of going to international meetings just to be told ‘this is the right way to do it’. We need customised approaches to find practical solutions to our specific problems. There is a lot for us to learn from France, Germany, or the USA, but lessons must be customised and they should come alongside the resources to ensure sustainability.
Civic space in Latvia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
LES GROUPES ANTI-DROITS DE L'HOMME: "Ils ne pensent pas que les droits de l'homme sont universels ou ils ne considèrent pas toutes les personnes comme des êtres humains égaux "
Dans le cadre de notre rapport thématique de 2019, nous interrogeons des militants de la société civile, des dirigeants et des experts sur leur expérience des réactions hostiles de la part des groupes anti-droits humains. CIVICUS parle de la montée de l'extrémisme des groupes d'extrême droite et du fondamentalisme religieux en Europe de l'Est avec Gordan Bosanac, co-auteur d'une étude de cas sur l'Europe de l'Est pour le rapport du Global Philanthropy Project: « Conservatisme religieux sur la scène mondiale : Menaces et défis pour les droits LGBTI ».
Vous avez travaillé sur diverses questions, du racisme et de la xénophobie au conservatisme religieux et aux droits LGBTQI. Pensez-vous que la montée du nationalisme et attaques contre les droits des migrants et les droits sexuels et reproductifs font tous partie de la même tendance ?
Tout cela fait indéniablement partie du même phénomène. La grande majorité des organisations qui se mobilisent contre les droits des femmes rejettent également les personnes LGBTQI et les migrants et réfugiés. Ils font tous partie du même mouvement mondial qui rejette les idées démocratiques libérales, et ils se mobilisent tous contre les minorités ou les groupes vulnérables.
Il s'agit d'un ensemble très hétérogène de groupes et d'organisations. Leur dénominateur commun est ce contre quoi ils luttent : la démocratie libérale. Les groupes néonazis, misogynes, anti-LGBTQI et anti-migrants ont des objectifs différents, mais ils partagent le même programme et y collaborent. Beaucoup de ces groupes se réunissent au Congrès mondial des familles, où vous trouverez beaucoup de discours de haine contre la communauté LGBTQI, contre les femmes et contre les migrants. Ils partagent la même philosophie.
Pour moi, ces groupes sont exactement l'inverse du mouvement des droits de l'homme, où certaines organisations se concentrent sur les droits des femmes, d'autres sur les droits des LGBTQI, d'autres encore sur les migrants ou les peuples indigènes, ou sur les droits sociaux, culturels ou environnementaux, mais nous avons tous une philosophie fondée sur une vision positive des droits humains. Nous faisons tous partie du mouvement des droits de la personne. C'est exactement le contraire pour eux : ils partagent tous une vision négative des droits de l'homme, ils ne pensent pas qu'ils sont universels, ou ils ne considèrent pas tous les gens comme des êtres humains égaux. Quoi qu'il en soit, ils se mobilisent contre les droits de l'homme.
Quand et pourquoi des groupes fondamentalistes chrétiens sont-ils apparus en Europe de l'Est ?
L'une de mes collègues dit que ces groupes existent depuis longtemps. Elle enquête actuellement sur la troisième génération de ces groupes et affirme qu'ils ont vu le jour dans les années 1970, lorsqu'ils se sont mobilisés pour la première fois autour des idées néonazies et contre les droits des femmes. Le tournant le plus récent en Europe de l'Est s'est produit au début des années 2010. Dans de nombreux cas, il s'agit d'une réaction contre les débats politiques nationaux sur les LGBTQI et les droits reproductifs. La Croatie, d'où je viens, était l'une des exceptions en ce sens que ces groupes ne se sont pas mobilisés en réaction aux avancées politiques des groupes de défense des droits des femmes et des LGBTQI, mais plutôt par anticipation et à titre de mesure préventive contre les processus qui progressaient au niveau international, et en particulier contre le mariage homosexuel.
L'expérience croate s'est déroulée en trois phases. A partir des années 1990, un mouvement anti-avortement s'est développé, dirigé par des prêtres catholiques charismatiques. Après la chute du communisme, l'avortement a été présenté comme étant contraire à la foi religieuse, aux valeurs familiales et à l'identité nationale. L'Église catholique a créé des " centres familiaux " qui offrent des services de soutien aux familles. Depuis le début des années 2000, des organisations indépendantes de la société civile (OSC) formées par des citoyens religieux " concernés " sont apparues. Leur naissance est liée à l'introduction de l'éducation sexuelle dans les programmes scolaires publics. Une troisième phase a commencé vers 2010, avec la montée en puissance d'OSC fondamentalistes liées au niveau national et international, indépendantes de la structure de l'Eglise. Par exemple, les nouveaux groupes avaient des liens avec les mouvements polonais ultraconservateurs "Tradition, Famille, Propriété" et "Ordo Iuris". L'Église catholique est restée à l'arrière-plan et le rôle des porte-paroles anti-droits a été relégué aux citoyens religieux " concernés ".
En Croatie, les fondamentalistes ont fait bon usage des référendums nationaux organisés à l'initiative des citoyens. En 2013, ils ont rejeté l'égalité en matière de mariage, en grande partie grâce à des lois électorales qui n'exigent pas une participation électorale minimale aux référendums nationaux; la faible participation d'environ 38 %, suffisant à permettre un changement constitutionnel. En revanche, des référendums similaires ont échoué en Roumanie et en Slovaquie grâce à l'exigence d'une participation minimale de 50 %.
Les groupes de défense des droits de l'homme semblent avoir fait beaucoup de progrès en Europe de l'Est depuis le début des années 2010. Pourquoi ?
Nous avons commencé à suivre de près ces groupes en Croatie au moment du référendum, et ce que nous avons vu, c'est que leur progression a été liée à la redéfinition de leurs stratégies. Ils étaient démodés, peu attrayants pour leurs publics potentiels et peu habiles dans l'utilisation des instruments de la démocratie directe. A partir de 2010, ils ont changé de stratégie. Le mouvement de lutte contre les droits de l'homme a connu un renouveau rapide, et ses nouveaux dirigeants étaient très jeunes, éloquents et conscients du potentiel des instruments démocratiques. Dans leurs apparitions publiques, ils ont commencé à minimiser la religion, passant du symbolisme religieux à des visuels contemporains, colorés et joyeux. Ils ont commencé à organiser des mobilisations de masse telles que les marches contre l'avortement "Walk for Life", ainsi que des actions de rue à petite échelle, comme la prière contre l'avortement devant les hôpitaux ou la mise en scène de performances. Ironiquement, ils ont appris en observant de près ce que les OSC progressistes en matière de droits de la personne avaient fait : tout ce qu'elles faisaient avec succès, ils l'ont copié. Ils ont également relancé et amélioré les méthodes traditionnelles de pétition, en allant en ligne avec des plateformes telles que CitizenGo.
Sur le plan international, les groupes de lutte contre les droits ont commencé à prendre forme au milieu des années 1990 en réaction à la quatrième Conférence mondiale des Nations Unies sur les femmes, tenue en 1995 à Beijing. C'est alors qu'un consensus s'est formé autour des droits des femmes en tant que droits humains, et que le genre est apparu à l'ordre du jour. Les groupes religieux se sont sentis vaincus à Pékin. Beaucoup d'universitaires qui ont étudié ce processus ont conclu que l'Église catholique était alors irritée parce qu'elle avait perdu une grande bataille. Ils ont subi plusieurs défaites dans les années qui ont suivi, ce qui les a rendus encore plus furieux. En 2004, la candidature de Rocco Buttiglione, candidat italien à la Commission européenne, a été retirée sous la pression du Parlement européen en raison de ses positions sexistes et homophobes. Les fondamentalistes chrétiens ont également été furieux lorsque des discussions animées ont eu lieu sur la possibilité que les "racines chrétiennes" de l'Europe soient mentionnées dans la Constitution européenne. Tout cela a mis le Vatican très en colère. Il y a eu quelques moments symboliques qui les ont rendus furieux et les ont poussés à lutter plus fermement contre les idées libérales.
En réaction à cela, ils se sont modernisés, ce qui leur a permis d'avoir des liens de plus en plus étroits avec des groupes évangéliques fondamentalistes basés aux États-Unis, ayant une longue expérience dans l'élaboration de politiques à l'intérieur et en dehors des États-Unis.
Pensez-vous qu'il s'agit surtout d'un processus du sommet vers la base, ou ces groupes ont-ils véritablement atteint la base ?
En Europe de l'Est, il s'agit surtout d'un processus descendant, peut-être lié au fait que la plupart de ces groupes sont catholiques chrétiens, et non évangéliques. Ces idées viennent de très haut. Elles sont produites et diffusées par le Vatican depuis des décennies. Ces groupes ne sont pas spontanés et sont très bien organisés. Leurs stratégies ne se sont pas répandues par imitation, mais plutôt parce qu'elles sont toutes dictées par le sommet.
Cela ne veut pas dire qu'ils n'ont pas pu faire appel aux citoyens ; au contraire, ils l'ont fait avec beaucoup de succès, encore plus que les groupes anti-droits humains. C'est parce qu'ils utilisent un langage très simple et jouent sur les peurs et les insécurités des gens. Ils construisent leur popularité sur les préjugés et les craintes des autres qui sont différents. La peur semble être un moyen facile de mobiliser les gens, mais les gens de gauche ne veulent pas l'utiliser parce qu'ils estiment qu'il n'est pas juste de manipuler les gens. Les groupes de défense des droits, par contre, n'ont aucun problème à faire peur aux gens. Lorsqu'ils sont apparus pour la première fois en Croatie, ces groupes ont obtenu un énorme soutien parce qu'ils ont suscité la peur et se sont ensuite présentés comme les protecteurs et les sauveurs des citoyens contre ce monstre fictif qu'ils avaient créé.
Quelles sont les principales stratégies que ces groupes ont utilisées pour se développer ?
Premièrement, ils partagent un discours unifié qui s'articule autour du rejet de ce qu'ils appellent "l'idéologie du genre", qui n'est qu'un signifiant vide pour désigner toute menace qu'ils perçoivent dans un contexte particulier. Ils se déclarent les protecteurs de la famille et de l'ordre naturel et utilisent des stratégies de diffamation et un discours pseudo-scientifique contre les droits des femmes et des personnes LGBTQI. Une rhétorique nationaliste est également omniprésente dans les pays d'Europe de l'Est.
Deuxièmement, ils ont coopté le discours sur les droits de l'homme et adopté les pratiques d'organisation civique du mouvement des droits de l'homme. Ils profitent non seulement de l'accès direct aux citoyens qui vont à l'église, mais ils mobilisent aussi la base à travers des conférences, des formations, des camps de jeunes et les réseaux sociaux. Ils bénéficient également d'un financement suffisant pour emmener les gens en bus aux rassemblements importants comme les marches « Walk for Life », payer les dépenses de nombreux bénévoles et couvrir le coût de la publicité dispendieuse.
Troisièmement, ils ont utilisé avec succès des mécanismes référendaires à l'initiative des citoyens. En Croatie et en Slovénie, ils ont recueilli le nombre requis de signatures pour lancer des référendums nationaux contre le mariage homosexuel, qu'ils ont remportés. En Roumanie et en Slovaquie, à leur tour, ils ont réussi à recueillir les signatures mais n'ont pas réussi à satisfaire à l'exigence minimale de participation. Le taux de participation à tous ces référendums a varié de 20 % en Roumanie à 38 % en Croatie, ce qui montre que les fondamentalistes ne bénéficient d'aucun soutien majoritaire, mais qu'ils utilisent toujours intelligemment les mécanismes démocratiques pour faire avancer leur programme.
Quatrièmement, ils ont recours aux poursuites judiciaires à la fois pour influencer et modifier la législation et pour arrêter les militants des droits humains et les journalistes qui critiquent leur travail. Afin de les faire taire, ils les poursuivent en justice pour diffamation et 'discours de haine contre les chrétiens'. Bien que ces affaires soient généralement rejetées, elles les aident à se positionner en tant que victimes en raison de leurs croyances religieuses.
Cinquièmement, ils bénéficient non seulement d'une bonne couverture de leurs événements dans les médias grand public, mais ils ont aussi leurs propres médias, principalement des portails d'information en ligne, dans lesquels ils publient de fausses nouvelles qui diffament leurs adversaires, qu'ils diffusent ensuite sur les réseaux sociaux. Ils accueillent et couvrent également des événements conservateurs mettant en vedette des " experts internationaux " qui sont présentés comme les plus hautes autorités sur des questions telles que la sexualité et les droits de l'enfant.
Sixièmement, ils s'appuient sur une collaboration transnationale à travers l'Europe et avec des groupes basés aux États-Unis.
Septièmement, ils ciblent le système scolaire, par exemple avec des programmes extrascolaires destinés à influencer les enfants âgés de 4 à 14 ans, lorsqu'ils sont les plus vulnérables et les plus facilement convertibles.
Enfin, ils travaillent non seulement par l'intermédiaire d'OSC, mais aussi de partis politiques. De cette façon, ils sont également présents aux élections et, dans certains cas, ils acquièrent un pouvoir significatif. C'est le cas du parti d'extrême droite polonais Droit et Justice, qui a pleinement intégré ces groupes dans ses activités. Dans d'autres cas, ils créent leur propre parti politique. C'est ce qui s'est passé en Croatie, où la principale OSC fondamentaliste, "Au nom de la famille", a créé un parti politique appelé "Project Homeland". Le cas de la Roumanie est particulièrement préoccupant à cet égard, car il montre comment les positions fondamentalistes chrétiennes sur les droits LGBTQI peuvent être intégrées dans l'ensemble du spectre politique et religieux.
En d'autres termes, ces groupes sont présents dans divers espaces, pas seulement au sein de la société civile. Et ils ciblent les principaux partis conservateurs, notamment ceux qui sont membres du Parti populaire européen, le groupe de centre-droit du Parlement européen. Ils essaient de déplacer les partis de centre-droit et conservateurs vers l'extrême droite. C'est leur combat crucial parce que cela peut les mener au pouvoir. Il est de la responsabilité des partis conservateurs du monde entier de résister à ces attaques, et il est dans l'intérêt des groupes progressistes de les protéger également, car s'ils perdent, nous perdons tous.
Pensez-vous qu'il y a quelque chose que la société civile progressiste puisse faire pour arrêter les groupes anti-droits ?
Je ne suis pas très optimiste parce que nous les combattons depuis plusieurs années et c'est très difficile, d'autant plus que la mouvance mondiale est aussi en train de changer : il y a une tendance générale à droite qui semble très difficile à contrer.
Cependant, il y a encore plusieurs choses à faire. La première chose à faire serait de faire la lumière sur ces groupes, de dire aux gens qui ils sont vraiment. Nous devons les exposer pour ce qu'ils sont- les fondamentalistes religieux, les néonazis et ainsi de suite - parce qu'ils cachent leur vrai visage. Selon le contexte local, ils ne sont parfois même pas fiers d'admettre qu'ils sont liés à l'Église. Une fois que ces liens sont mis en évidence, de nombreuses personnes deviennent méfiantes à leur égard. Il faudrait aussi espérer qu'il y ait du bon sens, que les circuits d'argent sale soient dévoilés et que les gens réagissent, ce qui arrive parfois, mais pas toujours.
Le rôle principal devrait être joué par les croyants qui refusent d'accepter l'utilisation abusive de la religion à des fins extrémistes. Les croyants sont les porte-paroles les plus authentiques contre le fondamentalisme et leur voix peut être beaucoup plus forte que celle des laïcs mobilisés ou de l'opposition politique. Toutefois, l'absence de tels groupes au niveau local, en raison des pressions exercées par les autorités religieuses locales, peut être un problème. Le pape François a sérieusement affaibli les groupes fondamentalistes et il est un excellent exemple de la manière dont les chefs religieux peuvent combattre l'extrémisme religieux et le fondamentalisme.
Il est également productif d'utiliser l'humour contre eux. Ils ne savent pas vraiment plaisanter ; les situations sarcastiques et humoristiques les déconcertent. Cela peut susciter des soupçons chez de nombreuses personnes. Mais nous devons veiller à ne pas en faire des victimes, car ce sont des experts en matière d'auto-victimisation et ils sauront comment s'en servir contre nous.
Enfin, permettez-moi de le redire parce que c'est fondamental. Cela peut sembler contre-intuitif, mais il est très important de donner aux partis conservateurs du monde entier les moyens de tenir bon et de résister aux tentatives de détournement d'extrême droite. Les progressistes doivent protéger les partis conservateurs contre les attaques d'extrémistes, sinon ils deviendront des véhicules de l'extrême droite pour accéder au pouvoir, et il sera alors trop tard.
L'espace civique en Croatie est classé comme " rétréci " par le Monitor CIVICUS.
Suivez @GordanBosanac sur Twitter.
LGBTQI RIGHTS: ‘There is an ongoing desire among many to more closely regulate morality’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to T King Oey, an Indonesian capacity development expert and a founder and board member ofArus Pelangi, the Indonesian Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Communities.
How does your network work, and what are the challenges you are addressing?
Our organisation, Arus Pelangi, which means the Flow of the Rainbow, was established in 2006. This was during the Reformasi era that followed the ousting of President Suharto in 1998 after three decades in power. After this there was much more freedom and many repressive laws were revised. At this time LGBTQI people felt we should come together to stand for our rights. Before then the only context in which people talked about LGBTQI people was in relation to the mitigation of HIV/AIDS. So we decided to form an organisation purely to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI people.
Arus Pelangi is a coalition of national and local groups of LGBTQI people. We network a lot with other human rights organisations, including those working on other aspects of diversity and legal reform. We have also been instrumental in the formation of a network across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries – the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. It is based in the Philippines and Arus Pelangi is an important member. At the same time we are reaching out to local communities around the huge country of Indonesia. There are still capacity challenges in enabling far-distant communities to make their voices heard.
What challenges have you faced in recent years?
The space for democracy in Indonesia is becoming more restricted, and it is harder for us to be visible. When we started in 2006 we saw it as strategic to raise our visibility as much as possible, so people could see and understand LGBTQI people and know who we are. So we took part in demonstrations, held flash mobs, held public discussions, made media appearances – anything to make us visible as a group.
From the very beginning there were all kinds of groups attacking us. But things got much worse in 2016, when all of a sudden there was this massive wave of attacks. Persecutions also began from 2016 onwards. The trigger was a pronouncement by the Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Muhammad Nasir, that LGBTQI people should be banned from university campuses. Suddenly everyone joined in, saying that LGBTQI people should be banned from everywhere, that we should be criminalised.
These attacks came especially from hardline religious groups. These groups had always advocated for criminalisation, but suddenly they had momentum because of what the minister had said.
From then on it was no longer possible to be visible as an organisation, and to some degree even as individuals.
How have extremist groups been able to organise, and how have they mobilised support?
The Reformasi era created all kinds of freedoms for people to organise themselves, but the fundamentalists had the same freedoms, and they did very well in organising themselves. They have received lots of funding from Saudi Arabia.
There has been a two-track development in Indonesia. Indonesia has become more part of a global society, more integrated in terms of technology, but at the same time people’s minds have become more conservative, due to the influence of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists have had more chances to preach, and to organise in all kinds of groups and organisations. One of the most well-known is Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), which has been very vocal in attacking us, and they have been able to stop some of our activities.
The attitude of the police has been ambivalent. They haven’t stopped the FPI from attacking us. Rather they have said that for our safety it would be better if we disband. They always use this argument of safety. Since 2016 the police have also been proactive in outing and arresting people. People are arrested, paraded in front of the media and then released without charge.
This has had a huge effect on the whole community. People have become afraid. Since 2016 we have held hardly any public events. We have to keep things secret and do everything underground. We have also had to learn to take security measures. Many of our people became depressed and closed themselves away, stopped going out. It’s just like being back in the Suharto era. We aren’t free any more.
Fundamentalists reached the level of power that in 2017 they were able to put Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of our capital city, Jakarta, into jail for blasphemy. This was when the network of fundamentalist groups reached the height of their power. They were able to work together to do this. Indonesia has a blasphemy law, and once someone has been indicted, it is certain they will be convicted. I haven’t heard of any case when someone charged with blasphemy has walked free.
How has the government responded?
What is interesting is that this level of fundamentalism got to the point where it was threatening the position of President Jokowi. Only then did we see a concerted effort from the government to push back, and this process is still going on. The government has banned one of the fundamentalist groups, an international Muslim network that calls for the establishment of the caliphate, on the grounds that it does not adhere to the national ideology, known as Pancasila.
A law the government recently passed on civil society organisations enabled it to do this. Human rights organisations criticised this law for being too loose and flexible. It could potentially enable the government to ban any group. This is the first time it has been used. The same law could be used against any group. It’s a double-edged sword.
The government is considering banning the FPI. The government is also saying that it is coming to realise how many campuses have been infiltrated by fundamentalist groups, but it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Has the April 2019 presidential election brought any changes?
President Jokowi won re-election in April, but it seems he felt he couldn’t do it without the support of the moderate Muslims, as he took an Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate. Ma’ruf is a fairly conservative cleric who has made all kinds of negative pronouncements against LGBTQI people. It’s a mystery for many people, even for supporters of President Jokowi, why he was chosen over all other candidates.
For LGBTQI people, now President Jokowi has won re-election, it remains to be seen whether the coming five years will bring any improvement. We don’t believe President Jokowi is against LGBTQI people, and on some occasions, he has said that the rights of LGBTQI people should be protected. But this is the kind of thing he has said when he has been interviewed by the BBC. It is a message for the outside world, rather than for a domestic audience.
What is also disappointing is that in his first term, President Jokowi prioritised a focus on the investment climate, emphasising massive infrastructure projects, such as ports, roads and power plants, and reforming the bureaucracy to remove obstacles against investment. Just recently he has announced that his second-term priorities are the same. He said nothing about human rights. Many were hoping that he would be less cautious in his second term. It remains to be seen how committed he will be to human rights.
As well as LGBTQI groups, which other communities are subject to persecution?
Other groups particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses are minority Muslim sects, which have been heavily persecuted over the years, and communists and those associated with them. This goes way back to the mass killings of 1965-1966. Survivors and second and third-generation family members are still suffering from discrimination and threats.
The struggle for gender equality goes back many decades. Women are targeted by conservative groups. Shariah law applies in the province of Aceh, and they have introduced and are applying draconian punishments such as caning and stoning to death. Several LGBTQI people have been the victim of caning. There are attempts to criminalise non-normative sexuality elsewhere in Indonesia.
There is an ongoing effort and desire among many to more closely regulate morality. It is a continuous battle to try to prevent more repressive measures. For example, parliament is currently debating a law on domestic violence, and conservative law-makers are asserting that many things we would consider as sexual violence, like marital rape, are not included. The dividing line is between following a hardline interpretation of the Quran or not. Despite its secular appearance, Indonesia has become a de facto religious state.
How is civil society responding to these challenges, and what support could the international community and international civil society best offer to Indonesia’s LGBTQI community?
Civil society has been trying to respond through networking, joint statements, lobbying parliament and campaigning, including through Change.org. But it can feel like fighting an impossible war, because the conservatives always seem to be more powerful, better organised and better resourced.
We have to be careful when considering outside assistance, because one of the arguments that fundamentalists always use is about foreign influences and attempts to make Indonesia a liberal country. LGBTQI is characterised as a western concept that is incompatible with the culture. Of course if you look at the culture and history of Indonesia you see all kinds of expressions of non-binary gender, including in dances, songs, literature and rituals. This culture has been denied consistently by conservatives who say that the only culture is hardline Islam. The conservatives forget that Islam itself is an imported religion.
In 2015, when the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, this created quite an uproar in Indonesia. Conservative groups always point to this and say that once they give in to one thing, this is what will happen. The global debate about same-sex marriage works both ways for us, because LGBTQI people in Indonesia have never suggested this – it seems too far away to even contemplate this, and we need to have our fundamental rights respected first – but at least it tells us we’re not alone.
So you have to be careful, but solidarity helps. It helps LGBTQI people here to know they are not alone and have not been abandoned. If people have any chance to speak to government officials from Indonesia, they should use that opportunity to speak up for LGBTQI people and other vulnerable groups.
At Indonesia’s United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session in 2017, many shadow reports pointed to the severe situation of LGBTQI people. There was quite a bit of criticism. The usual attitude of the Indonesian government is to cite social conservatism, but this time it was forced to acknowledge the need to take steps and it committed to hold a dialogue with the LGBTQI community. This was a concession that came because of international pressure. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen on the ground. We have to keep the pressure on.
Civic space in Indonesia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with T King Oey throughArus Pelangi‘s website.
MALAYSIA: ‘We need global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka about LGBTQI rights in Malaysia and the ways in which state and non-state forces are working together to deny rights.
Can you tell us about your work and the status of LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?
I work with Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka. Justice for Sisters is a network that primarily works for the human rights of trans people in Malaysia, and we provide legal support, do human rights documentation, engage in national policy work and undertake advocacy with the United Nations (UN) to highlight human rights violations. At Seksualiti Merdeka, we recently launched a website, Queer Lapis. We do capacity strengthening and content production. The work we do is very much grounded in feminist, intersectional principles, and from a queer perspective.
The human rights of LGBTQI people are definitely regressing in Malaysia. Malaysia historically inherited section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, from British colonial rule. Section 377 has been amended several times, and the last amendment in 2017 resulted in the imposition of mandatory whipping as a punishment for consensual carnal intercourse deemed unnatural. The law is gender-neutral but it is used in political ways. As a result, people see it as a law that applies to gay people. We also have shariah laws in three states of Malaysia, introduced between 1995 and 2013, that penalise same-sex relations and posing as a woman or man. Unlike Section 377, these laws directly criminalise sexual and gender identity. The implementation of these laws varies according to state, but amongst them, the law against posing as a woman is most actively used.
Has the situation for LGBTQI people changed in recent years?
In recent years, arrests and raids made under these laws have decreased, because of a legal challenge that took place between 2010 and 2015. An appeal went through the different stages of courts. We got a negative decision in the High Court and then won in the Court of Appeal, which upheld that the law was unconstitutional, but then the decision was overturned by the Federal Court. But because of the activism around this case, the number of arrests significantly reduced.
At the same time we saw a shift in tactics by the government’s Islamic Department, which has adopted a softer evangelical approach towards LGBTQI people. They saw that heavy prosecutions were giving the department a bad image, so there was a shift towards a softer approach, around promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people. There is a narrative that LGBTQI people need help in returning to the ‘right path’.
We saw an increase in state-funded ‘rehabilitation’ activities in this decade, at the same time that Seksualiti Merdeka, which used to organise festivals, was banned in 2011. The government decided it needed to increase its response to this growing LGBTQI movement. This gave rise to more groups that promote and provide ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conversion therapy’. We have seen more anti-LGBTQI campaigns in universities and on social media. We have seen more concerted efforts overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which sits under the Prime Minister’s office, and which launched a five-year action to plan to address the ‘social ills’ caused by LGBTQI behaviour. This brought together most ministries.
As well as the use of various laws and increased state funding for anti-LGBTQI activities, we have seen a heavy-handed response to the freedoms of association and assembly of LGBTQI people. For example, when LGBTQI people have taken part in women’s marches, their organisations have been investigated.
Did anything alter as a result of the May 2018 election, which saw the first change of government in Malaysia’s independent history?
The 2018 election has historic in that it changed the administration, but the government has adopted and continued the same policies. Nothing has changed from the LGBTQI perspective. We still see the same amount of resources going into policies that treat LGBTQI people as a problem.
There is also an ongoing struggle between the new government and the former ruling party that is now in opposition, and this is used to justify the lack of change for LGBTQI people. Right after the election a lesbian couple was arrested in the state of Terengganu, which is an opposition-controlled state. They were charged for sexual relations between women and caned openly in the public court. After this there were also two cases of caning of sex workers.
So there is all this moral policing. Homophobia is real, but there is also a political tussle and mind games being played over who are the guardians of Islam and race. In this crossfire LGBTQI issues and people become politicised.
Who are the main groups attacking LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?
All the groups attacking LGBTQI rights use evangelical language, similar to the right wing in Europe or the USA. They reject the universality of human rights, are nationalistic, oppose pluralism and diversity in many ways, prioritise a particular race or religion and support ‘conversion therapy’. Some of the state-funded activities towards LGBTQI people are carried out by these groups.
There are celebrity preachers who post social media videos encouraging people to troll LGBTQI people and those who post LGBTQI-related content. There are also individuals who make homophobic comments and conservative student groups who organise against LGBTQI people. But they are less physically aggressive than those in Europe and the USA. They are often careful not to insult LGBTQI people out of fear of giving Islam a bad name.
There are also ethno-nationalist groups, with the purpose of protecting Muslims and ethnic Malays, that also engage in anti-LGBTQI activity. These don’t adopt an evangelical approach. They engage more in reporting LGBTQI people to the police, and sometimes physical intimidation and violence. At the last women’s march, we saw some of these groups physically intimidating participants. They also issue statements and have an active social media presence.
Then there are groups that call themselves Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which come together under a coalition of Islamic NGOs that participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These include groups that use more rights-oriented language, given that they engage in the UPR process, and particularly use the language of religious rights. They position what they call the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people as consistent with these religious rights. They also cite examples such as the case of a bakery in the USA that was taken to court for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding to support their arguments for religious rights. Some of these are groups of doctors, lawyers and academics, and they make pseudo-scientific and legal arguments against LGBTQI rights. Some of these Islamic NGOs also provide services, and as such are involved in the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.
Within civil society, there is a tension between groups that support the universality of human rights and those that oppose it. Between those that promote pluralism and liberalism and those that oppose these. Between those that support LGBTQI rights and those that talk in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ LGBTQI people.
How do these tensions play out around civil society’s engagement at the international level?
Some of those Islamic NGOs engage in policy spaces. If LGBTQI CSOs attend a government consultation on the UPR, they share the space with these.
The UPR process – and UN processes more generally – offer a key site of contestation between these two camps. The second UPR cycle in 2013 was seen by critics as an attempt by civil society to push for the recognition of LGBTQI rights and destabilise the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution. There was a lot of pushback. And then in the third UPR cycle in 2018, these groups participated in the process and claimed space. Some of the recommendations of this group were included in the report compiled by the UNHRC.
When the Government of Malaysia tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, there was a lot of pushback from these groups and attempts to mobilise Muslim people against ratification. The government pulled out of ratifying on the grounds that it would affect the position of Islam and could offer an entry point to the recognition of LGBTQI rights.
How do different groups that oppose LGBTQI rights connect and receive support?
After the corruption scandal that led to the ruling party losing the election, ethno-nationalist groups are no longer as closely linked to political parties as they used to be. I suspect now they are mostly self-funded. With Islamic NGOs, I suspect they receive some foreign funding. Some have a presence outside Malaysia as well. There is an umbrella group, ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), which apparently has an office in Germany.
We also believe some groups receive state funding for their participation in the government’s anti-LGBTQI programme. When a colleague raised the issue of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQI people at a UPR meeting, this created a lot of protest from Islamic NGOs, including those linked with ISMA, who demanded an apology and retraction. The small organisations that are providing ‘rehabilitation’ services also mobilised in their support, making quite clear the connections between groups receiving state funding to provide services and Islamic NGOs advocating against LGBTQI rights.
How is progressive, rights-oriented civil society trying to respond?
In the last few years LGBTQI groups are also pushing back and being more organised. The coalition of human rights organisations that participated in the UPR process has also tried to engage with Islamic NGOs and tried to increase engagement by pro-human rights Islamic organisations. They had some success in the UPR process in getting some groups to recognise the discrimination LGBTQI people face. Now there are more civil society groups that are countering arguments against universal human rights online, and more actions to communicate human rights messages in popular ways and in different languages. LGBTQI groups are working on communication strategies. We need this because we face overwhelming misinformation about LGBTQI people.
LGBTQI groups recognise that these issues aren’t restricted to Malaysia alone. We see a lot of tension at the UN level and realise these issues are ongoing, with states pushing the adoption of problematic language. For example at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, language about sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped because of pushback from conservatives. This is a global issue. Civil society everywhere is dealing with these challenges. So how can we come together and strategise around this? How can we do global activism better?
We need to make sure there is diverse representation in these international forums. We need to have global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights.
Because there’s a religious dimension to this, and because Islamophobia is on the rise, we need also to be careful when talking about these issues not to encourage more Islamophobia. We need to have more conversations about how we address intersectional forms of oppression and also give spaces for Islamic groups to participate in processes that help address Islamophobia. This is something that as civil society we need to be sensitive to.
Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Widespread arrests, attacks and legal restrictions facing LGBTQI+ activists across Africa finds new report
Widespread arrests, attacks and legal restrictions facing LGBTQI+ activists across Africa finds new report
Johannesburg | 4 July, 2023
- Same-sex relations criminalised in at least 27 countries south of the Sahara
- Organisations shut down and offices raided for their work on LGBTQI+ rights
- Widespread bans on the publication of information on gay rights
- Anti-LGBTQI+ laws and practices disproportionately impact other excluded groups including women, children and victims of abuse
From Uganda to Cameroon, LGBTQI+ activists face significant restrictions due to the prevailing social, cultural and legal attitudes towards homosexuality and gender identity. A new report by CIVICUS, Challenging Barriers: Investigating Civic Space Limitations on LGBTQI+ Rights in Africa, looks at some common challenges faced by activists and civil society groups in countries south of the Sahara.
Many African countries have laws that criminalise same sex activity. The laws, often remnants of colonial era legislation, can be used to target and prosecute LGBTQI+ individuals, including activists. Penalties range from fines, imprisonment to even the death penalty in some countries.
Limited legal protection in many African countries offers little or no protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This lack of protection makes it difficult for activists and civil society groups to advocate for equal rights or seek justice when they face human rights abuses. The offices and activities of civil society organisations advocating for LGBTQI+ rights have been either raided or shutdown in Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Cameroon.
Attacks against people who identify as LGBTQI+ are common in countries such as Benin, Cameroon and Kenya. In Cameroon since 2022 there have been over 30 recorded cases of violence and abuse against LGBTQI+ people, while in Kenya sexual minority groups face escalating homophobic attacks. In January 2023, following a series of killings in 2022, unknown assailants murdered and dumped the body of LGBTQI+ activist Edwin Chiloba. Chiloba’s death, which many linked to his sexual orientation sparked public outrage, with civil society groups and members of the public denouncing the murder and calling on the authorities to bring those involved to justice.
“With the escalating hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community in Africa, this report sheds light on the grave reality faced by many, and compels us to challenge prejudice, and advocate for equality - especially for the most marginalised. Governments must ensure equal protection for all people in accordance with their obligations on non-discrimination under international human rights law. We implore governments to take robust measures to safeguard the rights and well-being of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Sylvia Mbataru, CIVICUS’ Civic Space Researcher for Eastern & Southern Africa.
Censorship and restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly have contributed to a deteriorating environment for activists. In several countries, the publication and dissemination of material on LGBTQI+ issues face strict editorial controls and bans. CIVICUS also documents how protests are being suppressed, including the use of various laws to deny permits for public demonstrations, specifically targeting LGBTQI gatherings.
Despite the hostile environment in many countries, civil society groups continue to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights and score important victories. The report also documents a number of positive developments including the decriminalization of same sex relations in Botswana and Gabon, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision in Namibia to recognise same-sex marriages concluded abroad between citizens and foreign spouses.
The report concludes by demonstrating the impact of civic space restrictions against LGBTQI+ groups, and shows how the ramifications of these restrictions also affect other excluded groups including women and children.
WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to María Angélica Peñas Defago, gender specialist, professor and researcher of Argentina’s National Research Council (CONICET) based at the National University of Córdoba, and co-author of the recentGlobal Philanthropy Project report, ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights'.
Do you think anti-rights groups have increased their activity in recent times?
We should start by defining what we mean by ‘recent times’, how far back we need to go, and what specific context we are talking about, because for instance in Latin America the situation varies from country to country. In the case of Argentina, we have seen over time – and not only over the past year, when a bill allowing for the voluntary termination of pregnancies was being discussed in Congress – reactions against the progress achieved in claiming rights by women and LGBTQI people. While it is true that, in recent years, anti-rights groups have become more visible and coordinated, largely in response to advances achieved in the area of sexual and reproductive rights, they have been present for decades, always coercing our agendas. In Argentina, they have been actively litigating against any attempt to enact public policy on sexual and reproductive health or even remotely linked to these rights for at least 20 years. In the province of Córdoba, where I live, these efforts have been very successful in the lower courts, although rulings favourable to these groups were eventually overturned in the higher courts.
With regard to street actions, strong reactions by these groups were already recorded in the past, including demonstrations throughout the country, for instance against equal marriage, which was approved in Argentina in 2010. The same groups marched once again against the legalisation of abortion in 2018. There has also been a renewed backlash against sex education in schools, a longstanding battle. Sex education was implemented through a 2006 law that is still being resisted. During the abortion debate, anti-rights groups pretended to promote sex education as an alternative to abortion, but after the bill on the voluntary termination of pregnancy was voted down by the Senate, they restarted their attacks against sex education.
A reorganisation of the conservative camp is currently underway, and I think it is as a result of this that these groups have recently gained more visibility. Although new actors have indeed emerged within civil society, the central phenomenon in the current socio-political context is the reassertion that is taking place in the political and the economic spheres. This can be seen, for example, in the alliances reached in Colombia around the 2016 referendum on the peace process, as well as in Brazil, embodied in the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro.
During the campaign leading to the referendum in Colombia, the forces that rejected the agreement claimed that if ‘yes’ won, so-called 'gender ideology' would be imposed. In Brazil, fake news claiming that the Workers’ Party promoted paedophilia and would try to ‘convert’ children into homosexuals or transsexuals mushroomed during the election campaign.
In other ways, the phenomenon is also seen in Argentina, where all the main actors opposed to the progressive agenda, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, have tended to converge.
Do you think that these are purely reactive groups, whose raison d'être is to curb the progress of the progressive agenda?
As far as I can tell, that is indeed the case. I have monitored congresses of so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and analysed the actions they have undertaken in regional and global spaces, and particularly in the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and it is readily apparent that they are losing ground regarding family formats and the assignment of sexual roles, and they are aware of it. These groups are reacting to what they perceive as a setback. Their reaction is being coordinated not only around the thematic agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, but also around a wider nationalist, neoliberal – and, in some cases, fascist – political and economic agenda.
The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a good example of a reaction to a pluralistic agenda around sexual morality and sexual and reproductive rights. The advances of this pluralist agenda acted as a binding agent for a broader conservative political agenda. Within the framework of the reaction against progress achieved in sexual and reproductive rights, other actors are taking advantage to impose their own conservative agendas, for example around migration issues. There are some new actors at play, especially those joining from other fields – political, economic, religious – but many of the actors that are gaining greater visibility are the same as always, the difference being that they are now unifying agendas that used to run in parallel and in less coordinated ways.
What tactics have these groups used to advance their agenda?
Litigation against sexual and reproductive rights has been an important tool for more than three decades. In Argentina, these groups have litigated, among other things, against the administration of emergency contraception and to stop the implementation of protocols for non-punishable abortions. In Argentina, abortion has been legal since 1921 for cases of rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the woman’s life or health; however, these groups have tried to prevent timely and secure access to this right.
For the part of civil society that works in the area of women's rights, these groups have always been there. But litigation is sometimes a quite silent affair and has possibly remained unnoticed by the wider civil society. Often, it all remained within the realm of the administration of justice and health services. This however did not prevent this strategy from having very strong effects, because judicial decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health tend to produce fears, doubts and paralysis among health providers, which are key agents for guaranteeing actual access to these rights.
The presence of anti-rights groups is not news for feminist and LGBTQI groups, but it may very well be so for other sectors of civil society, including human rights organisations, which in recent times have seen them acting more intensely through the occupation of street space and the creation of partisan political alliances, the two key arenas for political struggle in contemporary democracies. These groups are trying to appropriate public space, showcasing themselves as the majority, and in this way they are gaining public visibility. In this area, one of their most successful strategies has involved the use of coordinated messages and symbols. The ‘Don’t mess with my children’ campaign, for example, has used the same phrases and slogans, and even the same symbols and colours, not only throughout Latin America, but also well beyond. We have seen it in Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. These groups are intensively using social media so that their strategies and symbols travel, are shared and ultimately reach us repeatedly from various latitudes.
If anti-rights positions have gained more visibility, it is because the actors that promote them, mostly faith-based, have gained a prominence in the public space that they did not have 20 years ago. Evangelical churches, like the Catholic Church, are plural and heterogeneous. But in much of Latin America, the political processes of resistance to sexual and reproductive rights have been led by very conservative evangelical churches, sometimes in alliance with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, and in other cases dissenting or even opposing them.
Unlike litigation, the strategy of occupying public space requires support in large numbers. Do you think these groups are gaining in popularity?
The socio-political phenomenon fuelled by these groups is significant. It is not simply about campaigns and slogans; they are deeply embedded at the grassroots level. To understand what is happening in the religious arena and in terms of resistance against progress in sexual and reproductive rights, it is necessary to take into account the socio-economic context and the way that these churches are operating at the grassroots, in strong connection with the populations that they mobilise.
In Argentina, a very politically mobilised society, street mobilisation has been widely used by these groups, so it is nothing new. What is new is the massive character of their mobilisations. These groups were already mobilising 30 years ago, or maybe even earlier, but there was no social media back then. The modes of communication and mobilisation have changed at the same time as the religious field has in the face of advances in sexual and reproductive rights. Evangelical churches have grown throughout the region, and within them, conservative sectors have grown the most.
I think that to understand the phenomenon it is also key to understand the neoliberal context and its general effects that undermine living conditions. In the socio-political context of neoliberalism, as the state has withdrawn from its basic functions, many religious groups have gone on to perform tasks and provide services that should be provided by the state. In some places, such as in the USA, the Catholic Church has been long in charge of providing services to some groups, such as migrants, that are not tended to by the state. In Latin America, the role of evangelical churches, for instance in the area of aid and treatment for addictions, is really impressive. Evangelical sectors are growing exponentially because they are assisting communities that are being forgotten by the state. Evangelical pastors play central roles in communities, are active in providing social assistance, dealing with addictions and providing health and education services, and are also key in mobilising people – partly because many of them are also members of these communities. They live in the same neighbourhoods and maintain close ties with the members of their congregations.
In sum, we are not facing a mere battle of narratives. The discourses that we need to stand up to are rooted in the practices of grassroots communities, and often mobilisations are summoned from the pulpit. Calls from the pulpit are important because to many excluded people the church has become indispensable. In countries that have very high poverty rates, for many people the church is the only place of belonging and protection that remains when both the state and the market have excluded them, and therefore do not have access to work, education, or health services. Beyond the fact that religion remains a central element of many people’s identities, these feelings of belonging and community are not minor issues in contexts of extreme precariousness and individualisation brought about by the economic, political, social and cultural neoliberal model.
What does progressive civil society have to offer in the face of this?
Progressive civil society has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the struggle for and the creation of liveable, rich, plural ways of life, based on solidarity and mutual support. I don't think there is a single recipe, because this work involves very different movements. There are feminist and LGBTQI movements that work from the standpoint of religious pluralism, disputing the idea of the monopoly of faith, and these are very rich spaces of struggle and belonging. Religions, all of them, comprise plural, democratic and horizontal spaces, which many organisations take advantage of in their struggle for meaning. Other organisations have expertise in crafting messages, and that is where they make their contribution. But this battle is not taking place only, or even mainly, on social media, since not everyone has even access to the internet. The dispute over meaning is fundamental both on social media and offline, as can be seen around the ‘pro-life’ label that many anti-rights groups have appropriated. Women’s and LGBTQI groups working at the grassroots level continually reference this label, by asking the question: how much is my life worth if I do not have access to a job, to the recognition of my identity, to the protection of my health – if the kind of life that is being offered to me is not a decent one? Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life, understood as a dignified, fully human life.
To offer this response, progressive civil society needs to ally with others who share its values of pluralism, freedom and equality. The pluralist, inclusive, non-essentialist and decolonial feminist agenda is a good basis on which to form alliances with multiple actors that were not attracted by feminism in the past, in order to take part in the struggle for meaning not only in the rhetorical field, but also in concrete reality. Popular feminism represents a return to the realm of the real, as it focuses on the implications of principles on people’s daily lives. If we talk about abortion, for instance, we must focus on the consequences of the legality or illegality of this practice for the daily reality of pregnant women, families and communities. Religion and faith are an important part of people's lives, and the feminist movement, or at least a good part of it, is now working within this reality.