‘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.
‘The government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it’
CIVICUS speaks to Horace Levy, the director of Jamaicans for Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-violent citizens’ rights action organisation that advocates for good governance and improvements in state accountability and transparency.
1. What led to the formation of Jamaicans for Justice, and what does the organisation do?
In April 1999, the government announced new taxes, including a special fuel tax and a 30% hike in the cost of licensing vehicles. This prompted widespread protests, both peaceful and violent, including roadblocks and barricades, which lasted for several days. There was one group, in the St. Andrew’s section of Kingston, that included some lower class people, but was mostly middle class, and had gathered to block a road in protest. The poorer people were on one side of the road and the middle class people were on the other, but after a couple of days they came together. Some people from that middle-class group met afterwards to discuss the causes of the protests – the general state of injustice, the oppression of poor people. Out of a series of meetings, held along with a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Albert, who offered his church as a venue, was born Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). By July the group had formed, in August it registered as a limited liability company, and on 15 October 1999, six months after the riots, it officially became a registered NGO.
The very first case JFJ took on involved the ill treatment of inner city poor youth by the police. The police had detained 52 poor youths, put them behind bars — then they released some but they kept others. From the beginning, then, ill treatment by police became a major issue for JFJ. As a result of several presentations we made before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the government eventually set up a Special Coroners’ Court, because the Coroner’s Court was totally inadequate to deal with this. The Special Coroners’ Court deals specifically with police abuse, and killings in particular.
Another broad area of our work involves children in the care of the state. JFJ monitors the situation of wards of the state in children’s homes, places of safety, police lock-ups, remand and correctional facilities. We gather data, provide reports and lobby for the protection of this particularly vulnerable group.
We are also involved in a wide range of other things: we deliver human rights education in schools, we provide human rights training to police recruits, we bring legal advice to inner-city communities through legal advice sessions and workshops, we give testimony in front of parliamentary committees, we promote citizen awareness of the right to access public information, and we develop media campaigns, among other things. Right now some of us are working very hard on an identification process the government is putting in place, which involves elements of respect for privacy and other rights. But we keep focusing on one of our core issues: the conditions of detention.
One achievement we contributed to was the establishment by the government of an independent Commission of Enquiry to clarify the events that took place during the State of Emergency declared in May 2010, which left almost 70 civilians dead. A lot of progress was done in prosecuting the police for extra-judicial killings, which helped reduce the number of killings. In order to prevent this from happening again, we keep pushing for radical change in the way the security forces operate.
2. Organisations defending basic civil rights against actions by the security forces are often accused of “protecting criminals”. How do you get public opinion to take your side on divisive issues such as police brutality?
I don’t think we have entirely escaped that accusation. But we try in various ways: for instance, when a police officer is killed in the line of duty we issue a press release offering our sympathy to his family and condemning the act. Most of the times the papers don’t print that, but we issue it anyway. Secondly, we work on other issues as well, such as the welfare of children, which shows we are not fixated on police abuses. There was a period when we also did a lot of work on socio-economic rights: education, housing, employment and the development of rural communities. And of course, we also try to explain that the reason why we are concerned with police brutality is that the police are supposed to be protecting human rights. So a criminal killing somebody and a police officer killing somebody are two completely different things. But people seem to overlook that. Criminals are what they are, and they are not going to be moved by our condemning them. But by addressing actions by the state that should not happen, we have a chance to change them.
3. How would you describe the environment for civil society in Jamaica? Are civic freedoms enjoyed by all Jamaicans equally, or are there restrictions that affect specific groups disproportionately?
Civic space is quite good in Jamaica. The freedom of the press is perhaps the most unrestricted in the hemisphere. The freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are respected and protected. The state does not attack these freedoms; to the contrary, for instance, the state has facilitated the freedom of expression by passing laws governing the establishment of fresh media outlets.
About four years ago, we were stigmatised in public comments by the previous government’s Minister of Youth, who accused us of grooming children in state-run homes to be homosexuals, while we were in fact delivering a sexual education programme in about seven children’s homes. But this was an exception rather than a rule, and it was just an individual reaction from a public official that we had criticised. We had only had another situation like that in the past, when we had just started as an organisation and were perceived as hostile to the party that was in power at the time. But as time passed, and both parties spent some time in power, it became apparent that we criticised them both, that we were not partisan in any way, and that we were constructive rather than over-critical, so our position became accepted.
Along with a quite healthy civic space, we have had free elections since 1945, and elections have been overall free and fair ever since. We never had a party in power that was not legally and legitimately elected. At the same time, slightly more than half the population is currently not voting, which means that each party has the support of about 23% or 24% of the electorate. Although democracy is firmly rooted not just in the political sphere but also among business, civil society and religious groups, recent polls have witnessed an increase in the number of citizens that would favour a military takeover (which is highly unlikely to happen) in reaction to the perceived corruption of politics.
There are also lot of structural but subtle ways in which democracy is hurt. As a legacy of slavery and colonialism, our country has a hierarchical social structure that has stayed in place even after independence. It is a pyramid on top of which are white people, followed by brown people in the middle, and black people (who account for 85% of the population) at the bottom. Of course it’s not clear-cut: we have black politicians and top public officials, for example. But there is a sharp distinction between the brown and the black. The middle class is largely brown, although there are blacks among them as well. This distinction reflects in education: we have a two-tier education system, with the brown and upper class in private, proprietary and secondary schools, and the large mass of the mostly black population receiving and inferior education. Fortunately, this is changing, and formerly weak schools are now beginning to compete with privileged schools thanks to state funding. As for police abuses, they are directed against the black majority in poor communities: you don’t see upper class and white people being beaten by the police.
In other words, democracy is in many ways corrupted by overlapping race and class injustices. The system is not corrupt in the sense that officials massively take bribes, but it is indeed damaged by this racial and class hierarchy that, according to public opinion polls, is unfortunately accepted by the vast majority of the people. Interestingly, this is not reflected in the way Jamaicans individually behave: we don’t see ourselves as less than anybody else, and when overseas we are often regarded as aggressive. We have a strong sense of our rights, but at the same time there is a broad segment of black people bleaching their skin in an attempt to climb up the social ladder.
4. Do you think representative democracy in Jamaica is participatory enough? Do regular citizens and organised civil society have a say in how public affairs are run?
Our democracy is not participatory enough, which is part of our struggle. Recent events have enhanced the prospects for civil society participation, however. In the latest election, in early 2016, the government won by a very tight majority, which made it more open to civil society. So as to gather as much support as they could, they gave continuity to an institution called Partnership for a Prosperous Jamaica (PPJ, formerly known as Partnership for Jamaica).
The PPJ includes representatives of the state (both from the government and the opposition), the private sector, trade unions and civil society organisations. It was in fact as a result of civil society efforts that we got representation for five distinct civil society groups: a faith-based group, a rights advocacy group, a youth group, a women’s group and an environmental CSO. The Prime Minister, who chairs the Partnership, agreed to our proposal to have three sub-committees: on women and children; on violence and the rule of law; and on the environment. The chairpersons of all three sub-committees are civil society people.
The chairwoman of the environment sub-committee, in particular, is a civil society representative who is highly respected by both major political parties and who had resigned to her position in the previous Partnership because she was disgusted by the fact that there was all talk and no real action. She just led a petition to the Prime Minister to protect Jamaica’s Cockpit Country against bauxite mining. According to a recently established mechanism, if you gather 15 000 signatures in 40 days, the government will review the petition, and if it complies with certain standards the Office of the Prime Minister will issue an official response. This petition surpassed the target by far, so we are now waiting to see whether we won this battle or not.
So, there is an element of participation, but making it count is a permanent struggle. Additionally, there is a section of civil society that is mobilised around conservative or even reactionary causes, which means that not all forms of participation are helping advance a progressive agenda. For instance, an area in which we are struggling very strongly is LGBTQ rights. We have long been pushing for the revocation of buggery or sodomy laws, old pieces of legislation that criminalise male same-sex sexual activity. Under these statutes, loosely defined “unnatural offences” and “outrages on decency” can be punished with up to ten years of imprisonment and hard labour. But there is a wide section of society, led by conservative churches such as evangelists and Seventh-Day Adventists, which strongly oppose the repeal of these laws. The majority of the population belong to these churches, while more liberal churches are a small minority.
Politicians are afraid of conservative religious people, so the government has proposed to submit the issue to a referendum. So the government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it. Now, why would the majority go against itself, its own social norms and its own privilege? We just had an international conference with leading Anglicans and human rights activists, including Anthony Gifford, explaining why this is not the kind of issue to be decided by a popular vote. It doesn't make any sense to ask the majority whether they would like to respect the rights of a minority they are oppressing. Sodomy laws were repealed in Britain 50 years ago, but in Jamaica we are not likely to have them revoked anytime soon. On this issue, a section of civil society is fighting another section of civil society.
5. What support, including from international actors, does progressive Jamaican civil society need to play a full role in building a fairer society and a more participatory democracy?
We get international support, for example in the form of the conference I just mentioned, with highly-respected figures putting forward a cogent argument that will hopefully help shape public debate. UNDP has also collaborated in a similar way.
Financial support, on the other hand, is not that good. That’s where organisations like JFJ are struggling. We get some funding locally, but it is very little. For instance, we have one donor who gives us nearly 2.5 million Jamaicans, but that’s just a few hundred US dollars. We have an annual fundraising art auction, which is quite unusual for an organisation like ours, but that’s because we have some middle- to upper-class donors, and this brings in a couple million Jamaican dollars a year. And it takes months of efforts.
So most of our funding comes from international sources. We had funding from the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), but it expired last December. We just got UNICEF funding for our work with children, which is set to last for at least two years. We also have some funding from the European Union, but it ends in about five months, and we are finding it hard to replace it. We have been trying to get funding from the Open Society Foundations but have not yet succeeded. We are approaching the Inter-American Development Bank, and we might get something from them.
In short, we are struggling with funding. Until 2013 we had a Legal Department but we had to close it. We still employ one of the lawyers from our former Legal Department, but we need more lawyers because a lot of our work with pre-trial detainees is of a legal nature. For instance, we have a case now going to the Privy Council and we are struggling to get the money to send people there. Even though we have some pro bono lawyers in England, it still costs us money: we need to send them 3 000 pounds that we can ill afford.
When we get our Legal Department going, we will be able to use it to earn some money. In the past, we stupidly thought that, as a charity, we shouldn’t. But in fact, even as a charity we can earn some money by imposing retainer fees to those who can pay them, while working for free for those who cannot afford them. We are set to do that, but we have made that decision quite recently, so we won’t be earning any money from it for a few months yet.
- Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) was founded in 1999 and primarily works with victims whose rights have been breached by members of the security forces. In the upcoming period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) in Montevideo, Uruguay, JFJ will take part in a hearing on extrajudicial executions and the excessive use of preventive detention against Afro-descendants in Jamaica.
- Civic space in Jamaica is rated as “narrowed” by theCIVICUS Monitor.
- Get in touch with Jamaicans for Justice through theirwebsite or Facebook page, or follow@JAForJustice on Twitter.
‘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.
Adoption of Hungary's Universal Periodic Review amidst increasing civic space restrictions
Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights -- Outcome Adoption for Hungary
Delivered by Nicola Paccamiccio
Thank you, Mr President.
Mr President, CIVICUS welcomes the government of Hungary's engagement with the UPR process.
Since its last review, Hungary failed to implement any of its 33 recommendations relating to civic space. We regret that Hungary accepted just 13 of the 31 civic space recommendations it received during this cycle.
Space for civil society is increasingly being restricted in Hungary.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have faced ongoing attempts to restrict their funding. Although the government repealed the Lex-NGO foreign funding law which was declared unlawful by the European Court of Justice in June 2020, it adopted a new law that threatens the work of NGOs by permitting the State Audit Office to selectively audit NGOs which have a budget that exceeds 20 million forints (55,000 Euros).
The Hungarian government also gave up 2,3 billion Norwegian kroner (€220 million) which it was set to receive from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway Grants for civil society. It set up the Urban Civic Fund (Városi Civil Alap) to replace the Norway Grants which has been financing ‘NGOs’ directly controlled by or linked to politicians of the Fidesz governing party.
The ongoing erosion of LGBTQI+ rights remains a concern, with the government passing several restrictive pieces of legislation which directly target LGBTQI+ people. The latest anti-LGBTQI propaganda law bans LGBTQI+ media, advertising and educational materials and has resulted in limiting freedom of expression and association for LGBTQI+ focused CSOs.
Media independence has been repeatedly threatened as a result of ongoing political influence over Hungary’s media regulatory bodies, with the government's control over the National Media and Communications Authority (NHHH) and its Media Council resulting in diminishing space for independent media. We particularly regret that Hungary did not accept recommendations to take specific measures to ensure media freedom.
Independent media have frequently been denied access to information; however, this practice has further worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, journalists report being denied access to interview health experts and being barred from hospitals, with the government recently passing a decree stating that only the Operational Tribunal, the government centre in charge of managing the pandemic, would decide on press and media accreditation for journalists to access hospitals.
A recent investigation revealed that the government used Pegasus spyware to surveil investigative journalists.
Mr President, CIVICUS calls on the Government of Hungary to take concrete steps to address these concerns, including by withdrawing restrictive legislation and amendments that restrict the activities of civil society organisations and their funding and refraining from obstructing the work of independent journalists.
We thank you.
Civic space in Hungary is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor
African Commission must promote and protect human rights for all
African Commission’s rejection of observer status applications by three human rights organisations threatens its ability to discharge its mandate to promote and protect human rights for all.
We, the undersigned organisations, express grave disappointment with the decision of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) to reject the observer status applications of Alternative Côte d'Ivoire, Human Rights First Rwanda, and Synergía – Initiatives for Human Rights. In the Final Communiqué of its 73rd ordinary session held in Banjul, The Gambia, from 20 October to 9 November 2022, the African Commission states that it rejected the applications of the three organizations on the ground that ‘sexual orientation is not an expressly recognized right or freedom under the African Charter’ and is ‘contrary to the virtues of African values’.
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.
ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They don’t think human rights are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human’
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. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of far-right extremism and religious fundamentalism in Eastern Europe with Gordan Bosanac, co-author of a case study on Eastern Europe for the Global Philanthropy Project’sreport ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI rights.’
You have worked on a variety of issues, from racism and xenophobia to religious conservatism and LGBTQI rights. Do you think the rise of nationalism and attacks against migrants’ rights and sexual and reproductive rights are all part of the same trend?
These are all definitely part of the same phenomenon. The vast majority of the organisations that mobilise against women’s rights also reject LGBTQI people and migrants and refugees. They are all part of the same global movement that rejects liberal-democratic ideas, and they all mobilise against minorities or vulnerable groups.
They are a very heterogeneous set of groups and organisations. Their common denominator is what they fight against: liberal democracy. Neo-Nazi, anti-women, anti-LGBTQI and anti-migrant rights groups have different targets, but they share an agenda and collaborate towards that agenda. Many of these groups come together at the World Congress of Families, where you will find lots of hate speech against the LGBTQI community, against women and against migrants. They share the same philosophy.
To me, these groups are the exact reverse of the human rights movement, where some organisations focus on women’s rights, others on LGBTQI rights, still others on migrants or indigenous peoples, or social, cultural, or environmental rights, but we all have a philosophy founded on a positive view of human rights. We are all part of the human rights movement. It is the exact opposite for them: they all share a negative view of human rights, they don’t think they are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human. Either way, they mobilise against human rights.
When and why did Christian fundamentalist groups emerge in Eastern Europe?
A colleague of mine says that these groups have been around for a long time. She’s currently investigating the third generation of such groups and says they originated in the 1970s, when they first mobilised around neo-Nazi ideas and against women’s rights. The most recent turning point in Eastern Europe happened in the early 2010s. In many cases it has been a reaction against national policy debates on LGBTQI and reproductive rights. Croatia, where I come from, was one of the exceptions in the sense that these groups did not mobilise in reaction to policy gains by women’s and LGBTQI rights groups, but rather in anticipation and as a preventive measure against processes that were advancing internationally, specifically against same-sex marriage.
The Croatian experience has played out in three phases. Beginning in the 1990s, an anti-abortion movement developed, led by charismatic Catholic priests. Following the fall of Communism, abortion was presented as being against religious faith, family values and national identity. The Catholic Church set up so-called ‘family centres’ that provided support services to families. Since the early 2000s, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) formed by ‘concerned’ religious citizens emerged. What triggered them was the introduction of sexuality education in the public-school curriculum. A third phase started around 2010, with the rise in nationally and internationally-connected fundamentalist CSOs, independent from the Church structure. For instance, the new groups had links with ultraconservative Polish movements – Tradition, Family, Property and Ordo Iuris. The Catholic Church remained in the background and the role of anti-rights spokespersons was relegated to ‘concerned’ religious citizens.
Fundamentalists in Croatia made good use of citizen-initiated national referenda. In 2013, they voted down marriage equality, in large part thanks to voting laws that do not require a minimum voter turnout in national referendums, as a result of which a low turnout of roughly 38 per cent sufficed to enable constitutional change. In contrast, similar referendums in Romania and Slovakia failed thanks to the requirement of a minimum 50 per cent turnout.
Anti-rights groups seem to have made a lot of progress in Eastern Europe since the early 2010s. Why is that?
We started closely monitoring these groups in Croatia around the time of the referendum, and what we saw is that their rise was linked to the redefinition of their strategies. They used to be old fashioned, not very attractive to their potential audiences and not very savvy in the use of the instruments of direct democracy. From 2010 onwards they changed their strategies. The anti-rights movement underwent a rapid renewal, and its new leaders were very young, eloquent and aware of the potential of democratic instruments. In their public appearances, they started downplaying religion, moving from religious symbolism to contemporary, colourful and joyous visuals. They started organising mass mobilisations such as the anti-abortion Walk for Life marches, as well as small-scale street actions, such as praying against abortion outside hospitals or staging performances. Ironically, they learned by watching closely what progressive human rights CSOs had been doing: whatever they were doing successfully, they would just copy. They also revived and upgraded traditional petition methods, going online with platforms such as CitizenGo.
Internationally, anti-rights groups started taking shape in the mid-1990s in reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. It was then that a consensus formed around women’s rights as human rights, and when gender first came on the agenda. Religious groups felt defeated in Beijing. Many academics who studied this process concluded that it was then that the Catholic Church got angry because they lost a big battle. They underwent several defeats in the years that followed, which enraged them further. In 2004, the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission, was withdrawn under pressure from the European Parliament because of his anti-gender and homophobic positions. Christian fundamentalists were also enraged when heated discussions took place regarding the possibility of Europe’s ‘Christian roots’ being mentioned in the European Constitution. All of this made the Vatican very angry. There were quite a few symbolic moments that made them angry and pushed them to fight more strongly against liberal ideas.
In reaction against this, they modernised, and it helped them to have increasingly tight connections to US-based fundamentalist evangelical groups, which had a long experience in shaping policies both within and outside the USA.
Do you think this is mostly a top-down process, or have these groups reached deeply at the grassroots level?
In Eastern Europe it is mostly a top-down process, possibly related to the fact that for the most part these groups are Christian Catholic, not evangelical. These ideas come from very high up. They have been produced and disseminated by the Vatican for decades. They are not spontaneous and are very well organised. Their strategies have not spread by imitation but rather because they are all dictated from the top.
This does not mean that they have not been able to appeal to citizens; on the contrary, they have done so very successfully, even more so than human rights groups. That is because they use very simple language and play on people’s fears and insecurities. They build their popularity upon prejudice and fears of others who are different. Fear seems to be an easy way to mobilise people, but people on the left don’t want to use it because they feel that it is not fair to manipulate people. Anti-rights groups, on the other hand, don’t have any problem with scaring people. When they first appeared in Croatia, these groups gained huge support because they stirred fear and then presented themselves as the protectors and saviours of people against the fictional monster that they had created.
What are the main strategies that these groups have used in order to grow?
First, they share a unified discourse that is built around the rejection of what they call ‘gender ideology’, which is nothing but an empty signifier to designate whatever threat they perceive in any particular context. They declare themselves the protectors of the family and the natural order and use defamation strategies and a pseudo-scientific discourse against women’s and LGBTQI people’s rights. A nationalistic rhetoric is also omnipresent in Eastern European countries.
Second, they have co-opted human rights discourse and adopted the practices of civic organising of the human rights movement. They not only profit from direct access to church-going citizens, but they also mobilise the grassroots through lectures, training, youth camps and social networks. They also benefit from sufficient funding to bus people to central rallies such as the Walk for Life marches, pay the expenses of numerous volunteers and cover the cost of expensive advertising.
Third, they have successfully used citizen-initiated referendum mechanisms. In Croatia and Slovenia, they collected the required number of signatures to initiate national referenda against same-sex marriage, which they won. In Romania and Slovakia, in turn, they succeeded in collecting the signatures but failed to meet the minimum participation requirement. Voter turnout in all these referenda ranged from 20 per cent in Romania to 38 per cent in Croatia, which shows that fundamentalists do not enjoy majority support anywhere, but they are still cleverly using democratic mechanisms to advance their agenda.
Fourth, they use litigation both to influence and change legislation and to stop human rights activists and journalists who are critical of their work. In order to silence them, they sue them for libel and ‘hate speech against Christians’. Although these cases are generally dismissed, they help them position themselves as victims due to their religious beliefs.
Fifth, they not only get good coverage of their events on mainstream media but they also have their own media, mostly online news portals, in which they publish fake news that defames their opponents, which they then disseminate on social media. They also host and cover conservative events that feature ‘international experts’ who are presented as the highest authorities on issues such as sexuality and children’s rights.
Sixth, they rely on transnational collaboration across Europe and with US-based groups.
Seventh, they target the school system, for instance with after-school programmes intended to influence children between the ages of four and 14, when they are most susceptible and easily converted.
Last but not least, they work not only through CSOs but also political parties. In this way, they are also present in elections, and in some cases, they gain significant power. Such is the case of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, which fully integrated these groups into its activities. In other cases, they establish their own political parties. This happened in Croatia, where the main fundamentalist CSO, In the Name of the Family, established a political party called Project Homeland. The case of Romania is most concerning in this regard, as it shows how Christian fundamentalist positions on LGBTQI rights can be mainstreamed across the political and religious spectrum.
In other words, these groups are present in various spaces, not just within civil society. And they are targeting mainstream conservative parties, and notably those that are members of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping. They are trying to move centre-right and conservative parties towards the far right. This is their crucial fight because it can take them to power. It’s the responsibility of conservative parties around the world to resist these attacks, and it is in the interest of progressive groups to protect them as well because if they lose, we all lose.
Do you think there is anything that progressive civil society can do to stop anti-rights groups?
I’m not very optimistic because we have been fighting them for several years and it’s really difficult, especially because the global tide is also changing: there is a general rightwards trend that seems very difficult to counter.
However, there are several things that can still be done. The first thing would be to expose these groups, to tell people who they really are. We need to expose them for what they are – religious fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and so on – because they are hiding their true faces. Depending on the local context, sometimes they are not even proud to admit that they are connected to the Church. Once these connections are exposed, many people become suspicious towards them. We would also have to hope for some common sense and disclose all the dirty tracks of the money and hope that people will react, which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t.
The main role should be played by believers who refuse to accept the misuse of religion for extremist purposes. Believers are the most authentic spokespeople against fundamentalism and their voices can be much stronger than the voices of mobilised secular people or political opposition. However, the lack of such groups at the local level, due to pressure from local religious authorities, can be a problem. Pope Francis has seriously weakened fundamentalist groups and he is a great example of how religious leaders can combat religious extremism and fundamentalism.
It is also productive to use humour against them. They don’t really know how to joke; sarcastic, humorous situations make them feel at a loss. This has the potential to raise suspicions among many people. But we need to be careful not to make victims out of them because they are experts in self-victimisation and would know how to use this against us.
Finally, let me say this again because it’s key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to empower conservative parties across the globe so they stand their ground and resist far-right hijacking attempts. Progressives need to protect conservative parties from extremist attacks, or they will become vehicles for the far-right to get to power, and then it will be too late.
Civic space in Croatia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @GordanBosanac on Twitter.inter
ARGENTINA: ‘Cultural change enabled legal change, and legal change deepened cultural change’
Ten years after the Equal Marriage Law, a milestone for Latin America, was passed in Argentina, CIVICUS speaks with LGBTQI+ leader María Rachid about the strategies that the movement used and the tactics that worked best to advance the equality agenda – tactics that may well still be relevant today. María is the current head of the Institute against Discrimination at the Ombudsperson's Office of the City of Buenos Aires and a member of the Directive Commission of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People (Argentine LGBT Federation). In 1996 she founded a lesbian feminist organisation, La Fulana, and in 2006 she co-founded the Argentine LGBT Federation, which brings together various sexual diversity organisations and played a key role in getting the Equal Marriage Law approved.
What was the situation for sexual diversity organisations in Argentina when the equal marriage campaign kicked off?
It was a situation in which the organisations representing sexual diversity had a confrontational relationship with the state. It was the state where most of the discrimination, violence and harassment towards the LGBT+ community, and especially towards trans people, came from, through the security forces and through institutions more generally. Discrimination was permanent and the inability to access rights was a constant. That is why in the 1980s and 1990s we carried out escraches, or public shaming demonstrations, outside police stations, to denounce the police and the tools they used, such as misdemeanour codes and the criminal records law, and we got together with other human rights organisations that fought for the same cause. The state’s tools of discrimination were used against various groups; we were one of them, but there were others who were also harassed and persecuted with the same tools that the police used to obtain petty cash.
After the gigantic economic, social and political crisis of 2001, institutions weakened and social mobilisation became stronger. In a very timely manner, at that juncture, the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA), one of the country’s oldest sexual diversity organisations, submitted a civil union project to the legislature of the city of Buenos Aires, the capital. The law that ended up being passed as a result was very short, less than a page long, and basically established that within the city of Buenos Aires same-sex couples should be treated in a way ‘similar’ to heterosexual marriages. Of course, the original project did not say ‘similar’, but the expression was introduced to get it passed. Nowadays this would be perceived as humiliating, but in that context, it was a huge achievement. Along with this law, other proposals were also passed that similarly reflected claims of social movements, such as the expropriation of a company that had been recovered by its workers and the establishment of norms to enable the work of cartoneros, or recyclable trash collectors.
Once the Civil Union Law was passed in Buenos Aires, we began thinking about next steps. Some organisations proposed to bring civil unions to other districts, as was later the case in the province of Río Negro and Córdoba City, and to try to extend it nationwide. But other organisations began to think about the idea of marriage, although at that time it seemed crazy, since it was recognised by only two countries in the world – Belgium and the Netherlands – which were also culturally very different from Argentina and lacked the main obstacle we faced to have our rights recognised, a politically powerful Catholic Church.
How was it that the impossible became an achievable goal?
In that context of institutional violence, in which there had been only a small step forward thanks to which we as couples would be treated in a ‘similar’ way to heterosexual couples in some districts of the country, some things began to change, both domestically and internationally, that placed the aspiration of equality within the realm of the possible.
One of those things was the fact that, in 2003, the recently inaugurated government led by Néstor Kirchner repealed the so-called ‘impunity laws’, which prevented the prosecution or the implementation of sentences against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity under the dictatorship. This was a shift in the human rights paradigm in Argentina, and at first we wondered if this time we would be included. Since the restoration of democracy, people in our country have talked about human rights a lot, but human rights never included us. Trans people continued to be persecuted, detained and tortured in police stations. But as impunity laws were repealed, we thought that things might change.
Soon after, in 2004, we were invited to participate in the development of a national plan against discrimination. It was the first time that the state called on diversity organisations to develop a public policy plan that would have a specific chapter on diversity. We attended with distrust, thinking that our proposals were going to stay in some public official’s desk drawer. We made a diagnosis and proposals, participated in a lot of meetings in various provinces and thought that everything would come to nothing. But before long, they called us again and asked if we could review the plan before it was published, because they wanted to make sure we approved its content. We started looking at it, thinking that everything we had written would surely have been erased, but it was all there, nothing was missing. Equal rights, the recognition of the gender identity of trans people, everything was there except for equal marriage, and that’s because in 2004 not even diversity organisations spoke of equal marriage in Argentina. We had never raised it in our meetings, and this is why, although it did include the objective of ‘equating the rights of same-sex couples with those of heterosexual families’, the plan did not explicitly mention equal marriage. The National Plan against Discrimination was issued through a presidential decree: thus, our historical demands translated into public policy plan and it was the president himself who told public officials what they had to do in matters of sexual diversity, which was exactly what we had demanded.
In the midst of this change in the human rights paradigm that for the first time seemed to include sexual diversity, a gigantic change took place at the international level: in 2005 equal marriage was recognised in Spain, a country that is culturally similar to ours and where there is also a strong presence of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Spanish Church had rallied 1.5 million people on the streets against equal marriage, and still, the law had passed. In such a favourable context both domestically and internationally, a group of sexual diversity organisations came together to fight for equal marriage in Argentina.
What role did the Argentine LGBT Federation play in promoting equal marriage?
The Argentine LGBT Federation was created precisely at that time, as a result of the convergence of a number of longstanding organisations based not only in the city of Buenos Aires but also in several provinces, to advocate for an agenda that initially included five points. First, equal marriage allowing for adoption; we specifically demanded the recognition of adoption rights because we saw that in other countries the right to adopt had been relinquished to achieve equal marriage. Second, a law recognising gender identity. Third, a nationwide anti-discrimination law. Fourth, the inclusion of diversity in a comprehensive sex education curriculum. And fifth, the repeal of the articles of misdemeanour codes that were still used in 16 provinces to criminalise ‘homosexuality’ and ‘transvestism’ – in their words.
The Federation brought together almost all relevant sexual diversity organisations; only two longstanding organisations stayed out, the CHA and SIGLA (Gay-Lesbian Integration Society), which were very much at odds with each other and led almost entirely by men, with very little female participation. However, SIGLA supported the Federation throughout its work towards equal marriage, while the CHA disagreed with equal marriage because it thought that in Latin America, given the strong presence of the Catholic Church, it would not be possible to achieve, which is why it continued placing their bets on civil union.
What were the main strategies and tactics that you used?
The first thing we did was call on activists active in various professions and in a variety of fields. We put together a team of lawyers and a team of journalists, we organised a journalists’ roundtable and put together a variety of teams that could contribute to the campaign in different ways.
We believed that what we had to do was go down all possible paths at the same time. We first looked at the various paths through which these laws had been passed elsewhere. For example, by the time we filed our first judicial appeal, equal marriage had already been recognised in South Africa through the Supreme Court. We also analysed the debates that had taken place in various countries around the world, not just on equal marriage, but also on other issues such as the feminine vote, civil marriage, divorce and sexual and reproductive rights. The arguments used to deny rights were always the same, and they were based on religious fundamentalism.
As a result of this analysis, we concluded that we needed to go simultaneously through the executive, legislative and judicial routes. At the same time, we needed to reach out to the media and bring out the issue to the public. This became clear to us after a meeting we had with the then-minister of the interior, who told us that we had executive backing, but that we needed to create proper conditions so we would not lose the congressional vote. Since then, we went through years of work to reach out to public opinion and thereby create the conditions to turn the scales of Congress in our favour.
In 2007 we submitted our first amparo petition for equal marriage; we came to submit more than a hundred. As a result of an injunction, in 2009 a gay couple managed to marry with judicial authorisation in Ushuaia, and in 2010 eight more couples, including a lesbian couple, were able to marry in the city and province of Buenos Aires. By then our strategy had changed: we initially litigated in the civil family jurisdiction, where the Opus Dei, a hard-line Catholic institution, had a very strong presence. Many civil family judges are Catholic Church activists, and specifically belong to Opus Dei, so it was very difficult to obtain a favourable ruling in that jurisdiction. Change occurred when we realised that, as we were making a judicial claim against the Civil Registry, dependent on the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, we could resort to the contentious, administrative and tax courts, which can be appealed to when the state is a part in the conflict. As this is a jurisdiction that mainly deals with tax-related issues, and in Argentina the Catholic Church is exempt from paying taxes, we were not going to find activist judges belonging to the Catholic Church or Opus Dei, since this jurisdiction is of no political interest to them. Following this change in strategy, we only obtained positive rulings in the city and province of Buenos Aires.
Although at first we thought of the amparosquite literally, as a way to obtain judicial support for our claims, they ended up being above all an excellent communication strategy, because each of these amparos became a story that we told the public about why equal marriage was just, necessary and timely. For that purpose, we provided a lot of coaching for the couples who were submitting amparo petitions, especially the first ones, who we knew would get a lot of media exposure. So this ended up being a communication strategy rather than a judicial one.
How did you win over public opinion?
We worked a lot with the media. We had breakfasts with journalists, at first with just a few ones that were our allies, but later these meetings expanded. We worked so much in this area that in the last months of debate you could no longer find signed op-eds against equal marriage, not even in the traditional newspaper La Nación, which only opposed it through its editorials, since all the articles signed by its journalists were also favourable to it. In other words, even in hostile media, journalists ended up being our allies. We prepared a booklet for communicators explaining what the bill was about, why it was important, what our arguments were. We also prepared advertising spots, but since we didn’t have any money to broadcast them, we asked journalists and media managers to pass them on as content in their programming, and truth be told, they did this a lot. These were amusing spots that attracted a lot of attention.
To gain further support, we needed to exhibit the support we already had in respected sectors and from well-known individuals. So we started to publish our list of supporters, which at first was very short, but ended up being a huge newsletter containing the names of all the trade union federations, countless unions, political leaders from almost all parties and personalities from the art world, the media and religions.
As the congressional debate approached, we began to hold events, generally in the Senate, to show the support we received from various sectors. These events had great media repercussions. The event ‘Culture Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ featured musicians and artists; the ‘Science Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ event included academics and scientists, and we gathered 600 signatures from academia, research and professional associations of psychology and paediatrics, among others. Unlike the other ones, the ‘Religion Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ event was held in an evangelical church in the Flores neighbourhood, and was attended by Catholic priests, rabbis – both male and female – evangelical pastors and leaders of other Protestant churches. Regardless of what we as individuals might think of religion and the separation of church and state, we wanted to show to people that they did not need to choose between their religion and equal marriage, as they could be in favour of equal marriage no matter what their religion was. Some Catholic priests were expelled from the church the next day, for having participated in this event.
How were these demonstrations of support used to help change the attitudes of legislators?
From the beginning we embraced the strategy of lobbying by exhibiting this support, as well as the support that emerged from public opinion polls. The first survey on this issue was carried out by the newspaper Página/12 and showed that in the city of Buenos Aires approval rates exceeded 60 per cent. Shortly after, the government funded a very important survey, which even included focus groups in the provinces, that allowed us not only to know if people were for or against, but also which arguments were more effective. We presented a variety of arguments in favour of equal marriage to the focus groups and we observed people’s reactions to identify the arguments that worked best.
Of course, we always showed the segments of the surveys that suited us best, because answers depended a lot on how the question was asked. For instance, when we asked people if they believed that homosexual and heterosexual people had the same rights, around 90 per cent said yes; but if we asked them if they agreed that they should be able to get married, the percentage dropped to 60 per cent, and if we asked about the right to adopt children, the approval rate would drop to 40 per cent. However, if we informed them that gay people in Argentina were in fact already legally authorised to adopt children individually, and then we asked them if they would want to take that right away from them, the majority said no. While only 40 per cent were in principle in favour of allowing adoption by same-sex couples, more than 50 per cent refused to prohibit it if it was already allowed. Therefore, part of the discussion consisted in informing people and explaining to them that children adopted by homosexual persons would enjoy half their rights, because since their parents could not marry, one of them would not be able to, say, leave them a pension. When we asked them whether they thought that these people should be able to marry so that their children would have all their rights, more than 80 per cent would say yes.
As a result of our working on the argumentation, support grew steadily throughout the campaign, to the point that we began to receive unexpected shows of support, such as from the Student Centre of a Catholic university that called to join. In the end, I would say that all public figures from art, culture, trade unions and journalism supported us. All those who continued to stand against represented some religion, but among our supporters there were also many religious figures. With the numbers of public opinion and the lists of our supporters in hand, we toured the parliamentary committees and the houses of Congress, and we operated politically during the debates until the very moment the law was passed.
I think that the strategy of going along all possible paths, maintaining a high capacity for dialogue and coalition-making and seeking out all possible allies, was very successful. Even in politically polarised times, we sat with all the parties, with youth and feminist groups within all the parties, with some LGBT+ allies of the parties, and later on, with parties’ diversity areas as they emerged. It was very difficult, but in our struggle towards equal marriage we managed to get the impossible photo of politicians from both the government and the opposition all standing for the same cause.
To change the law it was necessary to change social attitudes first. Do you think that the passage of the law resulted in further, deeper social and cultural change?
The approval of the law created a certain climate in society – I would say even a feeling of pride for being the 10th country in the world to enshrine equal marriage. The political sector that had voted against the law felt left out and did not want this to happen again; this was reflected in the 2012 approval of the Gender Identity Law, which was in fact more revolutionary than the Equal Marriage Law, but was passed practically unanimously. This is a state-of-the-art law at the global level, and even the senators who had been the biggest opponents of equal marriage defended it and voted for it.
These laws had great institutional impact, and institutional action deepened cultural change. After their approval, all the ministries, many municipalities and many provincial governments set up areas of sexual diversity. As a result, there came to be a lot of state agencies at various levels that were making public policy on diversity, which had an impact on many spheres, including schools. This resulted in an important cultural change, since it modified the perception of our families. Of course, there are pockets of resistance and acts of discrimination occur, but now these acts of discrimination are pointed out and repudiated by society, with social condemnation being amplified by journalists and through the media. Discrimination, which used to be legitimised by the state, now lacks all legitimacy. The state not only no longer upholds it but also produces public policy regarding diversity. The law was never our final goal, nor is it a magic bullet to end discrimination, but it is a tool without which ending discrimination is impossible.
Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BANGLADESH: ‘The legal vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people leads to harassment and discrimination’
CIVICUS speaks about the state of civic space and the rights of excluded groups in Bangladesh with Shahanur Islam, founder secretary general of JusticeMakers Bangladesh (JMBD) and founder president of JMBD in France.
JMBD isa human rights organisation working against all forms of discrimination and impunity for violence against ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and organised violence, including women and children. It provides legal support to victims and advocates for justice and human rights through research, awareness-raising campaigns and collaboration with various stakeholders,including other civil society groups, government agencies and international organisations.
BELIZE: ‘Many laws remain that keep LGBTQI+ people as second-class citizens’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Belize and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Caleb Orozco, the chief litigant in a case successfully challenging Belize’s discriminatory laws and co-founder of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM).
Founded in 2006, UNIBAM was the first LGBTQI+-led policy and advocacy civil rights organisation in Belize. Focused on dismantling systemic and structural violence that impacts on human rights, it uses rights-based approaches to reduce stigma and discrimination.
What was the process leading to the overturn of Belize’s so-called anti-gay laws?
The process of overturning the sodomy laws contained in Section 53 of the Criminal Code started with a preliminary assessment that guided the development of the University of the West Indies’ Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) led by Tracy Robinson, whose group initiated my case in 2010. In 2011 we worked with Human Dignity Trust, which joined as interested party, to engage on international treaty obligations.
In 2007, a conversation started at a meeting in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, organised by the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. URAP engaged by email and Viper Messenger, with additional regional conferences to flesh out legal arguments. The process identified Lisa Shoman as local Senior Counsel and Chris Hamel Smith, who argued the case in 2013.
Meanwhile, we submitted reports for Belize’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council to test the government’s response to the challenge to the sodomy laws. We also resorted to thematic hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The response of the government was that it needed a ‘political mandate’. We worked with the subcommittee for policy and legislation of the National AIDS Commission to monitor legislative opportunities and gauge the position of the government and the prime minister. We knew the government would not significantly fight the process.
In late 2010 we filed a challenge to Section 53 and a fight with the group of churches ensued. UNIBAM’s role was eventually reduced to that of an interested party, with the churches relegated to the same role, and I remained as the sole claimant.
We did not have a communications strategy, so we developed one. Nor did we have a security strategy, but we got help from the Human Dignity Trust. We participated in around 300 media interviews, collectively, over the years. The process included the derailment of the government’s revised national gender policy of 2013, with hundreds protesting across the country. Also, in Jamaica, 25,000 people protested to demand the removal of Professor Brendon Bain, an expert witness in my case in support of the churches, from his job at the University of the West Indies.
The case was heard by the Supreme Court in May 2013. We submitted personal experiences of discrimination and tried to strike out the churches, but we failed. Three years later, on 10 August 2016, the judge ruled in our favour, establishing that Section 53 was unconstitutional, which effectively decriminalised consensual same-sex activity held in private by consenting adults.
The Attorney General launched a partial appeal focused on the freedom of expression and non-discrimination on the grounds of ‘sex’, but the Court of Appeal’s judgment was reaffirmed in December 2019, with the expectation that the sodomy law had to be modified by parliament after the Court reaffirmed its unconstitutionality. Over time, the political tone changed: from claiming a political mandate was needed to change our sodomy law, to supporting 15 out of 17 Universal Periodic Review recommendations on LGBTQI+ rights in 2018. We are now waiting for parliament to modify the law as per the instruction of the Court of Appeal.
Did you experience backlash?
I experienced a lot of backlash throughout the process. This included character assassination and death threats, to the point that a personal security plan had to be put in place for me to go to court in 2013 and for my daily movement. Christian TV stations pushed negative propaganda and social media platforms buzzed with homophobia and threats.
How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far?
The LGBTQI+ rights movement became part of a National Working Group, in which I helped draft a cabinet note to advance the Equal Opportunities Bill and Hate Crime Legislation, with support from the Human Dignity Trust. Even though the Equal Opportunities Bill was endorsed by the cabinet, it didn’t reach parliament before the 2020 general election, because the evangelical ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign succeeded in derailing it just in time. We are not giving up in 2022!
I run the only LGBTQI+-led observatory of human rights in Belize, which provides litigation support to clients. We produce knowledge products on systemic and structural violence that feeds into a national and transnational advocacy framework that includes LGBTQI+ economic inclusion and livelihoods.
The process influenced and inspired the development of several niche organisations focused on LGBTQI+ families, health, trans issues and lesbian and bisexual women. It helped launch the global mandate of the Human Dignity Trust’s campaign on decriminalisation. Ours was in fact their first case back in 2011.
What challenges do LGBTQI+ people continue to face in Belize? How can challenges be addressed?
There is the denial of gender markers for trans people. Violence against us can take place in the family and the workplace. Kids experience discrimination in schools. In addition, family insecurity for LGBTQI+ parents is a huge deal. We endure economic rights violations and economic exclusion, as well as unequal access to economic benefits such as social security and government pensions.
LGBTQI+ Belizeans experience daily deficits in the police’s work that deals with us as victims of violence and detainees. If you’re of African descent and gay, expect police harassment.
We need resources to advance 20 amendments to laws that exclude LGBTQI+ Belizeans as citizens, which attack our dignity and rights and keep us as second-class citizens. The functions of the Human Rights Observatory, which provides redress to LGBTQI+ Belizeans and marginalised women, should be strengthened.
What kind of international support does Belizean LGBTQI+ civil society need?
International allies can support us with donations through our GoFundMe page. We also really value offers of pro-bono legal support for the work of our Human Rights Observatory, including legal research, legal defence, protection work, bill drafting, litigation support, and branding strategies, as well as offers of pro bono support to produce investigative or victim advocacy training.
BERMUDA: ‘A right that the LGBTQI+ community enjoyed for four years has been stripped away’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent court decision on same-sex marriage in Bermuda with Adrian Hartnett-Beasley, a founding board member of OUTBermuda.
OUTBermuda is a civil society organisation that promotes and supports the wellbeing, health, dignity, security, safety and protection of the LGBTQI+ community in Bermuda. It provides educational resources on issues of diversity, inclusiveness, awareness and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, and advances human rights, conflict resolution and equality and diversity in Bermuda.
What is the significance of the recent court ruling declaring the ban on same-sex marriage constitutional? How has it affected LGBTQI+ people in Bermuda?
In March 2022, Bermuda’s highest judicial body, the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee, sided with the government of Bermuda, stating that it may regulate and restrict marriage licences only to unions between a man and a woman. According to the judgement, this does not violate the Bermudian Constitution. It would have violated the Human Rights Act of 1981 if the Bermuda Government had not amended it to allow discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
This judgement reversed previous decisions that starting in 2017 made it possible for same-sex couples to get legally married in Bermuda. As a result, a right that we as a community enjoyed for four years was stripped away.
We don’t have survey data, but the general feeling of disappointment is palpable. Our community and our allies are disappointed that this fundamental human rights issue was ever made political in the first place, first with an irresponsible referendum held in 2016 – a non-binding consultation that failed due to low turnout – and then again by successive administrations who used our community as leverage in two electoral campaigns.
We are still reviewing the case, but overall, we have concerns that our constitution has failed us and what this means, if people are paying attention, is that our constitution is not fit for purpose anymore.
How was OUTBermuda involved in the case, and what will it do next?
OUTBermuda was heavily involved throughout the process. We ran very successful arguments at the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, with the guidance and hard work of our legal teams. We believe our leadership and standing helped bring together a consortium of plaintiffs, which together supported the novel and intricate legal arguments being made before the courts, including two churches and a couple of individuals – together encapsulating a broad range of perspectives, as reflected in the evidence we submitted to the courts.
In its former life, that is, before it became a registered charity, OUTBermuda was known as Bermuda Bred and successfully sued the Bermuda government in 2015 to secure some immigration rights for non-Bermudian same-sex partners to live and work on the island. As a result of that victory, its members pivoted the organisation into OUTBermuda and registered it as a charity. The organisation has been leaning into the empty space in which the LGBTQI+ community had no voice ever since.
This adverse ruling does not change that. We will continue to advocate for equality, justice and dignity for all LGBTQI+ Bermudians. If anything, the negative decision of the court highlights that OUTBermuda must continue its work.
What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Bermuda?
The issues we face are as diverse as the community itself. At the core of all of it is acceptance; without acceptance, our community is subjected to unfair and illegal housing discrimination, which alongside family disapproval results in young people having nowhere to live and having higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, this leads to members of our community staying in the closet longer, or at least being less comfortable about being themselves in public. All of this ends up resulting in our community not reaching its collective full potential.
OUTBermuda gets requests for help regularly, and this is the typical story we hear over and over. Marriage has been one, very public, issue but it’s by no means the only one – probably not even the most important one. We will continue working to educate people, including our political leaders, about the human rights of LGBTQI+ people. The next government must re-amend the Human Rights Act to reinstate the full protection of sexual orientation.
How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? Have you experienced any anti-rights backlash?
We have made a lot of progress. When we started litigating for same-sex marriage, polls showed a slight majority of Bermudians were against it, and within five years, when same-sex marriage became legal, a clear majority supported it.
A poll we conducted in 2020, three years into same-sex marriage being legal, showed that 92 per cent of Bermudians believed that LGBTQI+ people deserved human rights protection, 95 per cent believed we deserved civil rights protection, 53 per cent were in favour of same-sex marriage and 72 per cent thought that a church should be allowed to perform a wedding between two consenting adults. An overwhelming majority of 75 per cent opposed the government spending more money on litigation to ban same-sex marriage, while a mere three per cent claimed they had been negatively affected by same-sex couples being able to marry, adopt or live together.
But this progress was met with backlash, particularly by organisations such as Preserve Marriage, which grew markedly since the early days of the public debate on marriage equality. They are well-organised and well-funded and are reacting quite violently to the evidence that public perceptions on all LGBTQI+ issues is increasingly more accepting.
What kind of support would Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society need from their international counterparts?
Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society, while physically isolated – more than 600 miles away from North Carolina – is fortunate to have great internet accessibility, so resources are easy to access and connections are easy to make. OUTBermuda as an organisation has been fortunate to receive the support of comparable – but larger and more sophisticated – organisations overseas in the form of resources, ideas and solidarity. As we have just hired our first employee – a part-time executive director – we are looking forward to building out those relationships and capitalising on the great work that has already been done in other jurisdictions – while still doing it the uniquely Bermudian way.
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.
COSTA RICA: ‘Once legal change achieved, public policy should continue to focus on structural exclusion’
On 26 May 2020, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to recognise same-sex marriage. CIVICUS speaks with Herman Duarte, a lawyer practising in Costa Rica and El Salvador and the director ofSimple Legal Consulting as well as the Latin America Liaison Officer of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee and the founder and president of Foundation Igualitxs. Fundación Igualitxs is a leading think tank working on LGBTQI+ rights in Central America, focused on promoting equal civil marriage across the region. It works towards this goal by conducting strategic litigation at the national and inter-American levels, promoting its ideas in academic circles and partnering with high-level international allies.
What roles have civil society and the government played in the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a constitutional democracy structured as a unitary state with three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – that are in principle independent. At least in theory, the principles of the rule of law and equal legal treatment of all citizens are respected. But Costa Rica is also a confessional state: its constitution expressly recognises Catholicism as its official religion. In recent decades, evangelical congregations have expanded in number, reaching nearly 3,800. By 2017, more than 80 per cent of the population identified themselves as Catholic or evangelic; clearly, Costa Rica is culturally a conservative country.
In the context of a decades-long struggle by the LGBTQI+ rights movement, the kickstart came from the Government of Costa Rica, which in May 2016 asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for an advisory opinion regarding the patrimonial rights of same-sex couples. This consultation opened a window for all interested parties to present their arguments, which more than 90 very diverse actors did, including states, international organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs), universities and individuals. Hearings took place on 16 and 17 May 2017 and we took part in them.
The momentum generated by this event was reflected in the organisation of the First Equal Marriage Congress, held in San José, Costa Rica, in November 2017, which brought together more than 54 speakers from all over the region. In January 2018, the Inter-American Court published its decision, which stated that state parties should regulate the status of non-heterosexual families, opening the doors of civil (non-religious) marriage to same-sex couples. A group of 60 LGBTQI+ organisations in the region celebrated the decision as the most important in the history of LGBTQI+ rights to date.
At that time great discussion was elicited around whether the opinion of the Inter-American Court was binding for Costa Rica. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of Costa Rica settled this debate in August 2018, when it argued that the sections of the Family Code that limited civil marriage to heterosexual couples were unconstitutional. The ruling gave the Legislative Assembly 18 months to amend legislation; otherwise, all restrictions would be lifted automatically, and as of 26 May 2020, any couple could marry with no obstacles in Costa Rica. And so it happened, since there was no legislative consensus to create new legislation.
On the path to the entry into force of the Court's ruling, important civil society campaigns were developed to increase social acceptance to accompany legal change.
Did you face backlash from anti-rights groups?
Conservative reaction has been brutal. It is important to understand that the LGBTQI+ community has framed its struggles around the demand for recognition of their human dignity and their equal value as human beings and that religious groups have mobilised as identity groups – groups whose identity is defined in a narrow, not universalistic way, in opposition to an enemy. These groups channelled resentments brought about by legal changes that advanced equality and gave hope to those who had felt displaced by them, leading to the rise of religious political parties.
In such context, the 2018 presidential elections became some sort of referendum on the rights of LGBTQI+ people, and specifically on equal marriage. An evangelical pastor, Fabricio Alvarado, then the lone congressman from an evangelical party, ran for the presidency, exploiting conservative people’s feelings of outrage and fear at the Supreme Court ruling. The candidate was noted for his incendiary statements; he declared, for example, that homosexuality was “caused by the devil.” This is how he climbed to the top of pre-electoral polls: in just one month, he went from three per cent to 17 per cent of voting preferences, and came first in the first round of the presidential elections, winning 14 of the 54 legislative seats as well. This represented a 1,300 per cent increase in the legislative presence of his political party.
The runoff presidential election revolved around the rights of the LGBTQI+ population. The runner-up, Carlos Alvarado, was the candidate of the incumbent party and was favourable to LGBTQI+ rights. His position eventually prevailed, but the elections forced us to confront the enormous power achieved by evangelical churches. Carlos Alvarado’s victory can be explained by several factors, one of which was the formidable mobilisation of civil society. Among the civil society campaigns that had an impact was that of the Coalition for Costa Rica, which sought to generate an informed and inclusive debate, disseminating the candidates’ proposals so that citizens could deliberate before voting, and ‘For all families’, a campaign that Igualitxs launched a week before the elections to spread an inclusive message and demand equal treatment for the LGBTQI+ population.
The deep division created around the elections has had consequences. Politicians who use religion to polarise society continue to abound. They protest because they think that the government is biased towards addressing the problems of the LGBTQI+ population. This tension has increased with the entry into force of equal marriage and the proposal of bills to censor hatred and discriminatory speech.
Do you think that the legal change has been accompanied by a change in attitudes? What is civil society doing to promote acceptance of LGBTQI+ people?
Legal change is one thing and cultural change is another. Legal change has offered human rights progress and has been a way to achieve the universal application of the law. It has been the result of a decades-long struggle by the LGBTQI+ community. But there is still homophobia, discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people. Once legal change has been achieved, public policy should continue to focus on structural exclusion. Because legal change by itself does not necessarily improve the feeling of belonging to a community. As the political theorist Bikku Parekh explains, while citizenship is a matter of status and rights, membership is achieved when one is accepted and feels welcome. And there is still much to do for this to happen. People’s attitudes do not change automatically just because a law is implemented. The law sets an objective parameter of what is allowed, but much more work needs to be done to modify the parameters of what is considered normal or morally acceptable.
Therefore, to prepare the ground for legal change, in the 18 months between the publication of the Supreme Court ruling and the entry into force of the decision, more than 35 local CSOs developed the ‘Yes, I accept’ campaign, calling for recognition of the equal dignity of all human beings. This campaign was accompanied by the media, by companies that are part of the advertising union, unions such as the Business Development Association, the United Nations and embassies such as those of Canada and the Netherlands.
The campaign featured testimonies from LGBTQI+ individuals, couples and families, as well as their relatives, neighbours and friends, with the aim of promoting acceptance and changing perceptions of what it means to be an LBGTQI+ person in Costa Rican society. It was activated nationwide, with videos that were broadcast for months not only on social media but also on national television. It is the best campaign that has ever been developed on the subject, and we owe it to Mrs Nisa Sanz, president of the CSO Familias Homoparentales, and Gia Miranda, the campaign’s official spokesperson.
The videos appeal to emotion and generate empathy. They led thousands of people who were not politically involved to give up their sacred right to privacy and stand up to exist as a reality rather than an abstraction. It put a human face on the abstract idea of ‘gays’, as presented by newspapers. By telling people that they would not be rejected, it created the conditions for them to lose their fear, since most LGBTQI+ people suffer some type of rejection in their daily lives, regardless of their social status. As a result, an active citizenry took part in the campaign, making it known that with or without a pandemic it would not take a step back from ground that had been won. This was decisive in making legislators who were trying to sabotage equal civil marriage understand that it would not be possible for them to stop it.
This was one of the most important civil rights campaigns in history, and will remain in memory as a light that shone amid the darkness of the pandemic. Just one day before access to civil marriage took effect for all adults in Costa Rica, the Catholic Bishop of Alajuela delivered a message that said: “We are glad that there are different types of human relationships, different ways of being a family, and I think that where there is a demonstration of affection and family love, in a way God manifests himself, and we have to favour this.” Although not necessarily reflecting the position of the entire institution, the words of this religious representative were the result of the excellent work done by activists to achieve the cultural change that was necessary to gain acceptance of LGBTQI+ people.
It is remarkable how Costa Rica went from criminalising homosexuality in the 1970s and closing gay bars deemed to be ‘perverse’ and persecuting gays with raids under the pretence of public health in the 1980s, to requesting an advisory opinion from the Inter-American Court in 2016 and, after a presidential election focused on the issue, appointing a presidential commissioner for LGBTQI+ affairs in 2018 and recognising equal marriage two years later.
We have just left behind another unjust law. And many people have understood that the fact that the union and life plans of two same-sex adults receive legal protection does not affect them in any way – if anything, it validates the institution of marriage in which they are also part – and that there is nothing wrong with being gay, and in any case no one ‘becomes gay’ as a result of this normalisation.
What is the regional significance of the progress achieved in Costa Rica?
Central America is one of the most hostile regions in Latin America for LGBTQI+ people. Murders of homosexual and trans people are frequent in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Costa Rica, as the first Central American country to approve equal marriage, should be a model for the entire region. The advisory opinion of the Inter-American Court is valid for the 20 countries of the Americas that recognise its jurisdiction. Panama could soon follow the path of Costa Rica: an unconstitutionality demand based on the ruling of the Inter-American Court has been filed, and the Iguales Panamá Foundation is coordinating the participation of international and domestic civil society in the process that is taking in Panama’s Supreme Court.
The Igualitxs Foundation has also long been working along the same lines in El Salvador, my country of origin. Salvadoran civil society has made immense progress. Based on the regressive leanings of the Legislative Assembly regarding equal civil marriage, for a decade and a half our efforts have focused on filing demands for the restrictive articles of the Family Code to be declared unconstitutional. I filed one of those lawsuits, titled Equality Lawsuit, on 11 November 2016. Shortly afterwards, several CSOs, such as Asociación Entre Amigos, Comcavis and Hombres Trans El Salvador, as well as numerous independent activists, filed a similar lawsuit.
As in Costa Rica, conservative sectors reacted strongly. In the Legislative Assembly they rushed to start the ratification process of an exclusionary constitutional reform that had been stagnant for years, and that would give constitutional status to the restrictive definition of marriage that we were questioning in the Family Code, which would effectively ban same-sex marriage. In the face of this, we requested a precautionary measure against the constitutional reform process and got the Supreme Court to stop it. It was as a result of this demand that the Igualitos movement was created, which would later become the Igualitxs Foundation.
The two unconstitutionality demands filed in 2016 were eventually admitted in August 2019, and in January 2020 a justice of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court announced that the court would shortly rule on this issue, and admitted that this is one of the court’s major outstanding overdue decisions. So we may be close to achieving our goal.
What support does civil society advocating for LGBTQI+ rights need from international civil society?
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is becoming increasingly difficult. States have their resources committed to fighting the pandemic, CSOs face budgetary constraints and the crisis is affecting everyone. In addition, many people are turning to faith to cope with the crisis and some religious groups are taking advantage and launching campaigns against LGBTQI+ people. However, it is still possible to take substantial measures and actions such as, in El Salvador, the approval of a bill that dozens of organisations are pushing for that would provide recognition to human rights defenders.
With regard specifically to our organisation, which has no funding and is entirely based on volunteering, we are taking it one day at a time, to regain the control that we have lost due to the pandemic. I think it is time to ask ourselves not only what we want and can get from life, but also what we can give back. This way we enter a zone of power, in which we retain agency despite limitations. Thus we leave our comfort zone to enter a growth zone. Starting from the acceptance of our reality, we need to do deep introspection to reinvent ourselves. This is the time to go back to believing that all of us have the potential to do great things and leave a mark if we act not to obtain flattery and gain popularity, but out of the satisfaction that comes from doing what is right and just, achieving positive impact in the world.
COVID-19 Used as Smokescreen to Undermine Gender Rights Globally
By Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual and reproductive rights are being attacked globally: LGBTQI+ persons are facing heightened discrimination, women find themselves trapped indoors with the perpetrators of domestic violence, and access to abortion is being restricted.
Not only have most governments failed to respond to the crisis through a gendered lens, deepening already harmful gender inequalities, but many have used the crisis as an opportunity to introduce laws that threaten to have a detrimental long-term effect on gender rights. In some cases, especially where far-right governments are in power, political leaders are using the opportunity to further push their anti-rights agenda.
Read on Women's Media Center
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
El Salvador es uno de los pocos países que aún no han decidido que la vida de las mujeres importa
CIVICUS conversa con Sara García Gross, Coordinadora Ejecutiva de la Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico de El Salvador e integrante de la Red Salvadoreña de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos. Fundada en 2009, Agrupación Ciudadana es una organización de la sociedad civil multidisciplinaria que busca generar conciencia para cambiar la legislación sobre la interrupción del embarazo en el país; defender legalmente a las mujeres que han sido acusadas o condenadas o por abortos o delitos relacionados; y promover la educación en materia de salud sexual y reproductiva.
Freedom Day: more needs to be done to stop killings of LGBTQI+ people in South Africa
Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images
It has been almost thirty years since Freedom Day was first introduced in South Africa but still the fundamental freedoms of many people are being curtailed - particularly the rights and freedoms of people within the LGBTQI+ community. On Freedom Day, global civil society alliance CIVICUS would like to draw attention to these brutal murders by calling on the South African government to guarantee the safety and protection of all LGBTQI+ members in the country, as enshrined in the constitution.
There has been a recent spate of violent attacks against LGBTQI+ people and at least 6 known murders in the last few months. Gay man Lonwabo Jack was sexually assaulted and stabbed on his 22nd birthday in mid-April. A few weeks before this attack, 34-year old Sphamandla Khoza was brutally stabbed to death in his hometown of Ntuzuma, KwaZulu-Natal, while 40-year-old Andile “Lulu” Ntuthela was butchered and dumped in a shallow grave in Uitenhage, the Eastern Cape.
South Africa has been lauded as a champion for LGBTQI+ rights in the continent because of its progressive legal framework that recognises same sex marriage and full equality for everybody. However, in reality the situation of LGBTQI+ rights has been deteriorating, with LGBTQI+ rights campaigners and individuals living and operating in a hostile environment characterised by hate speech, death threats and killings.
On Freedom Day, to make freedom and equality a reality for the LGBTQI+ community across the country, CIVICUS is calling on the South African government to:
- Guarantee the safety and protection of all LGBTQI+ members in the country as enshrined in the constitution;
- Conduct independent investigations into all cases of those killed and bring the perpetrators to justice;
- Fast track the implementation of the Hate Speech and Hate Crimes Bill;
- Invest in gender sensitisation workshops for rural communities to foster harmony and understanding of the LGBTQI+ community;
- Appoint an LGBTQI+ rights expert to monitor the situation of LGBTQI+ rights defenders in South Africa, and ensure an enabling environment for LGBTQI+ rights organisations and human rights defenders to operate.
South Africa is rated as 'narrowed' on the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, in countries across the world.
CIVICUS is a global civil alliance of over 10,000 civil society organisations and activists, dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the world. CIVICUS Headquarters is in Johannesburg.
HUNGARY: ‘The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of children protection’
CIVICUS speaks about the Hungarian government’santi-LGBTQI+ campaign with Imre Zsoldos of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance.
Founded in 2009, theHungarian LGBT Alliance is an umbrella civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together seven LGBTQI+ groups with the aim of promoting communication, cooperation and joint action to confront social rejection, prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities in Hungary.
What are the latest developments in the government-led anti-LGBTQI+ campaign?
To begin with, Hungarian legislation explicitly forbids same-sex registered partners from adopting children. There is another law prohibiting unmarried single people from adopting children unless they have a special permit issued by the Minister for Families, which has been made almost impossible to get to prevent same-sex parents adopting separately.
On top of this, in April 2023 the Hungarian parliament passed a bill enabling people to anonymously report on same-sex couples raising children, or those who contest the ‘constitutionally recognised role of marriage and the family’ or children’s rights ‘to an identity appropriate to their sex at birth’. This law specifically targeted rainbow families and transgender young people. No specific evidence or details would be needed to report same-sex families and other ‘offenders’ to the authorities. The law also mandated the establishment of a reporting platform.
President Katalin Novak did not sign the bill into law, arguing it weakened the protection of fundamental values, and sent it back to parliament for reconsideration. My assumption is that parliament will pass it again with some changes.
Previously in March, the government filed a counter claim to the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) to defend an education law passed in 2021, which was in fact just another anti-‘gay propaganda’ law. Initially, the law was meant to impose harsher punishment for sexual offences against minors, but legislators from the ruling Fidesz party introduced several changes so that the law ended up criminalising the portrayal or ‘promotion’ of homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors and restricting sexual education in schools. It was condemned by 17 EU member states.
The 2021 Child Protection Act enshrines children’s right to ‘education in accordance with the values based on Hungary's constitutional identity and Christian culture’. The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of child protection, portraying LGBTQI+ people as paedophiles and claiming it is trying to ‘save the children’ from us.
The same narrative is also used to criticise the EU: the government claims the EU suspended over €6 billion (approx. US$6.5 billion) in funds for 2021-2027 because it promotes paedophilia, while in fact the funds were cut off due to a decline in the rule of law and judicial independence and concerns about corruption.
How is the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign affecting people?
This hostile rhetoric resembles the way Jewish people and other minorities were targeted in the run-up to the Second World War. We are losing the feeling of security in our own society. We feel outlawed and can’t understand how this can be happening in Europe nowadays. Many LGBTQI+ people are starting to think about whether we should leave the country before it’s too late.
Public attitudes to the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign are shifting both ways, since everyone is reacting to the portrayal of LGBTQI+ people as a public enemy. On one side of the divide, people are getting outraged by the government’s propaganda and hence showing more support and understanding. On the other side, people are beginning to feel emboldened and legitimised to express discriminatory thoughts and act in discriminatory ways.
What are the conditions for LGBTQI+ organisations in Hungary?
The majority of Hungarian LGBTQI+ organisations are run by volunteers because they very rarely have resources to pay employees, especially in fixed positions. Our funding is strictly tied to projects to be implemented.
As all the major media platforms are in the hands of the government, our opportunities to shift public opinion are really limited. We can only use CSOs’ social media and websites for advocacy. For example, one of the members of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is the Rainbow Families Foundation. It ran a large campaign, ‘Family is Family’, that reached an extensive audience thanks to a TV station broadcasting the campaign in prime time. But then the media authority fined the TV station, saying it’s only allowed to broadcast this kind of advertisement at night because its depiction of homosexuality sensitively affects children under 16, causing misunderstanding, tension and uncertainty among them. A court eventually nullified the media authority’s decision, but this kind of decision is why there is almost no newspaper or TV station where we could have the space to effectively resist the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign.
Activists are targeted by the authorities in diverse ways, such as smear campaigns fuelled by the dissemination of fake information about them, as well as audits and controls on their private or family businesses or pressure in their workplaces or on family members who hold any state position. This creates a constant stress situation, since we never know when, where or how we will be targeted.
But despite the hardship, we are doing our best to create safe places, build a community and provide legal and other forms of help to LGBTQI+ people.
What further support does Hungarian civil society need?
Alongside financial support, it would be extremely helpful – not only for LGBTQI+ people but also for other minorities, the political opposition and civil society as a whole – to have a widely accessible communication platform to reach older people beyond the capital, Budapest. While we can easily reach out to young people through social media, we are unable to reach those who get their information from television, newspapers and their churches, all of which are predominantly controlled by the government.
Civic space in Hungary is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
HUNGARY: ‘Trans people are having our rights being taken away’
A new law in Hungary, passed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevents trans people from legally changing their gender. CIVICUS speaks to Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Vice-President of the Transvanilla Transgender Association, a Hungarian organisation that advocates for trans people’s rights. Founded as a grassroots initiative in 2011, Transvanilla is the only organisation registered in Hungary with an exclusive focus on transgender rights and gender non-conforming issues. It drives advocacy on gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare at the national level. It also monitors discrimination and violence based on gender expression and gender identity and facilitates community gatherings and other events to raise the visibility of transgender issues and transgender people in Hungary.
What has been the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary over the past few years?
In 2012, ILGA Europe ranked Hungary ninth among 49 European countries regarding the rights of LGBTQI+ people, but in 2019 we had regressed to 19th and in 2020 we have further dropped down to 27th. This past year Hungary’s rating has declined the most, and there are various reasons. In 2012 things looked pretty good on paper, but since then new measures were introduced as the human rights landscape has changed. Hungary has not moved forward or followed international recommendations. The other factor has been the huge backlash that we have experienced over the past couple of years. Previously this government had not taken rights away from people, although it had certainly tried, and we knew that it was not LGBTQI+-friendly. But now we are having our rights being taken away.
If we focus on transgender rights, gender identity is a specific ground mentioned in our legislation on both anti-discrimination and hate crimes, which appears to be rather good. But this only exists on paper, as no hate crimes based on gender identity have been taken to court thus far. Similarly, there have been very few cases focused on anti-discrimination because the law is not being implemented. There is no national action plan to combat discrimination based on gender identity.
Therefore, transgender rights were never guaranteed by law. When it comes to legal gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare there were no laws or national guidelines. However, practices had improved. Since 2003, transgender people have been able to change their birth certificates, gender markers and first names based on a mental health diagnosis; no other medical intervention was required. Back then this was amazing. The government promised to create legislation but failed to do so. Until now, no government even addressed the issue. As a result, no legislation backed these administrative procedures, which were not even published on the government's website. But for the time being things were okay because the practice was reliable and procedures were rather trans-friendly. Those who provided the required documentation were able to change their birth certificates and it was relatively easy and fast. But the fact that the practice was not protected by legislation was not a minor detail. We see it now that the practice has become illegal. It has been a huge step backwards.
In 2020, new regulations that only recognise the sex assigned at birth and prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender and obtaining new documentation were passed by parliament by a 133 to 57 vote margin. They are contained in article 33 of an omnibus bill that was introduced on 31 March and approved on 19 May. Article 33 contradicts not just international and European human rights standards but also previous rulings by the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which has previously made it clear that changing your name and gender marker is a fundamental right for trans people. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights issued a report in 2016 and another in 2018 that stated that the authorities need to enact proper legislation because this is a fundamental right.
This law change fits into the fight against gender led by the Christian Democratic party, which is part of the governing coalition. This party has already banned gender studies and has argued that there is no such thing as gender, as in the Hungarian language there are not even separate words for ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. But in the past year, it has resorted to using the word ‘gender’ in English so as to be able to attack gender as a concept. So this is part of a larger attack against so-called ‘gender ideology’. The protection of what the new law calls ‘sex at birth’ is a part of this. For the past six years we have worked to come up with legislation on these issues, and initially we thought the authorities wanted to tackle it as well, but after a while it became obvious to us that our initiatives were being blocked along the way.
It is difficult to engage with the authorities. We don’t get much information from them. We cannot get to those with decision-making authority; we can only talk to low-ranking officials, who are obviously afraid to give us information. There is no public discussion and civil society is not involved. We were not consulted regarding these specific changes to the Registry Act. The proposal came from the government, and specifically from the Christian members of the government coalition, and was supported by civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote so-called ‘family values’. Timing also raised a lot of questions. Why was it so important to address this issue in the middle of a pandemic? Why now, and why in this way?
What are the main restrictions that the Hungarian LGBTQI+ community experiences on their freedoms to organise, speak up and protest?
In Hungary there is an NGO law that requires CSOs to register if they receive foreign funding, if their income is above a certain amount. The threshold is relatively low, so many CSOs, including us, must register. There is a list of foreign-funded CSOs that is published and publicly available. It is no secret that we seek foreign funding because we cannot access funds in Hungary. The government refers to CSOs, and particularly to those that criticise the government, as ‘enemies’ of the Hungarian people. This has obviously affected LGBTQI+ organisations too.
This is not just rhetoric. In practice, the government does not consult with CSOs that are independent or that they don’t like, including us. Instructions to marginalise these organisations come from the top levels of government, and while some lower-level officials might want to try to engage with us, they are not allowed to do so. How can CSOs conduct advocacy or engage with the authorities if public officials are banned from any contact with us?
Additionally, most media are controlled by the government, and the rest tend to have a neoliberal perspective, which usually makes them difficult to access for organisations that do not follow their agenda, like Transvanilla.
Our freedom to conduct our legitimate activities is also being challenged. Last year, for instance, there were several attacks against events organised around Pride month. A speed-dating event for pansexual people that had been organised by Transvanilla was interrupted by far-right activists. We couldn’t continue the event and the police didn't protect us. Far-right activists video-recorded participants for over an hour and we were not allowed to close the door. They were obviously acting illegally but the police took no action against them. In other instances, venues were ruined or damaged by far-rights activists. This was a new development – in the past, our events had received police protection when such things happened.
Year after year there have also been attempts to ban Pride events, but the courts have declared that these events cannot be banned. It’s a constant fight. The authorities have fenced off Pride routes on the pretence of protecting marchers, but this was obviously an attempt to restrict their movement.
How did the LGBTQI+ community react when the new law was passed?
It was a traumatic event because it was a clear attack against us. This amendment only affected trans and intersex people who would like to change their gender markers and trans people who don’t want to change their gender markers but would still like to change their name, which is no longer possible in Hungary. But the whole community now feels like second-class citizens, like outcasts who the government does not respect.
Personally, as a non-binary person, it had a huge effect on me, because I was already far from being recognised in my documents and now I am a lot further away from that. Many of my friends who were in the process of changing their legal gender recognition are in a limbo. At least a hundred applicants’ cases had already been suspended in the past two and a half years, as requests were not being evaluated. Those people have now lost all hopes. They are frustrated and devastated.
There is also fear because we don’t know what is next, what else is coming to us. Even though the law can be challenged, it might require many years. And even if we get rid of this law, the situation may not improve. Some people are suicidal, and many people want to leave the country. A big part of the community is just suffering silently and has no voice. While some activists have emerged from this situation and these activists are gaining visibility, the vast majority are suffering at home, alone. People were already isolated before, and it will not get any better. From now on, more people will hide their identity.
Since 2016 there have been problems with administrative procedures, so increasing numbers of people who began to transition may look different from the sex registered in their documents. And if someone is openly and visibly transgender it becomes difficult to find a job; discrimination is part of everyday life. And now it is becoming more serious. We have seen a rise in discrimination, not just in employment but in everyday life. In Hungary you often must present your ID papers, so you have to out yourself all the time. People don’t believe you and you are questioned. For example, recently a trans person was trying to buy a house and the lawyer who was drawing up the paperwork raised questions about their ID document because it didn’t match their gender description.
Given the restrictions on peaceful assembly imposed under the COVID-19 pandemic, what sort of lobbying and campaigning have you been able to do to stop Article 33?
Transvanilla is very strategic: we only engage in activities that might have an impact. Therefore, we did not focus on the Hungarian context. In parliament the opposition is powerless because Fidesz, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, has two thirds of the seats and can thus win any vote. We also knew that we could not mobilise enough people – the masses would not be out on the streets because of the pandemic, so this wasn’t even an option. If this had not happened during the pandemic, other organisations might have tried to organise protests. Until the amendment was introduced, Transvanilla was not publicly highlighting the issue of legal gender recognition because we were doing silent advocacy. On 1 April, when we found out about the initiative, we called on international actors to raise their voices publicly and to engage in multilateral dialogue with our government on this issue.
We grabbed international attention and many international voices were vocal against the proposal. In April 2020 we also turned to Hungary’s Commissioner on Fundamental Rights and we asked him to do whatever he could to stop the amendment. We of course engaged with international and national media. We launched a petition and managed to get more than 30,000 signatures. We now have another petition that is addressed to the European Union (EU) and we hope it will have an effect.
So, we resorted to the ombudsperson, who could have intervened but didn’t, and we put international pressure on the government, which sometimes works but this time did not. The law was passed, and the day it came into effect we launched two cases at the Constitutional Court. The court could turn them down for whatever reason, but we hope that it will not. At the same time, we are putting pressure on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights because he has the power to request the Constitutional Court to look into the law, and if he does, then the court must do so. Pressure is very important, and many international actors are helping, including Amnesty International Hungary, which has launched a campaign. We have 23 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all of which deal with gender recognition, and the applicants are represented by our lawyer. The government and the other parties involved were given time until June 2020 to settle these cases, and if they didn’t, the Court would move forward for a decision. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for the government was pushed to September 2020, which is not good news for us. But based on ECHR practice, we are confident that it will respect transgender rights. We will also take more cases to this court and represent people who are specifically affected by this law. We want to put pressure on the Court to make a decision as soon as possible.
We also continue to engage with EU human rights mechanisms, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. We got CSOs to sign a statement to put pressure on the European Commission (EC), which so far has been silent on this. We want to make sure that what happened in Hungary doesn’t happen in other countries, so we have created a civil society alliance to convey the message that if other governments try to do the same, they will face huge resistance. And of course, we keep trying to engage with the ministries, although we have sent them letters and have received no response.
How can an increasingly authoritarian government like Hungary’s be held accountable for its actions?
We have tried to engage directly with the government to hold it accountable, but it has not worked so far. We represent a minority group and cannot fight this government alone. But international institutions do sometimes influence the government's actions. We hope that a court decision from the ECHR or the Constitutional Court would have an effect.
Unfortunately, what we have seen since 2010 is that the way it is designed, the EU cannot take definitive action against a country, especially if it is not alone. And this is the case here, as Poland and Hungary always back each other. People believe that the EU lacks political will to take action. We cannot repeat often enough that the EU should cut off funding, because Hungary is living on EU money and if it cuts off funding the government would start to behave differently. But the EU refuses to do it.
The EU should act not only on this specific legislation but also on other, bigger issues related to the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary. It should do something about its own member states, or else it should not pass comment on any non-EU country. The fact that the EC fails to mention Hungary explicitly is outrageous. When the Authorisation Act was passed in late March, giving Prime Minister Orbán extra powers to fight the pandemic, EC President Ursula von der Leyen made a statement that was clearly about Hungary, but did not mention it by name, and then Hungary was a signatory to the statement. The EC’s Commissioner for Equality was recently asked to condemn Hungary for the anti-transgender amendment and she refused to do so; instead, she decided to speak about trans rights in general. This is something that we cannot accept.
The EU should not just speak up, but also act on Hungary and Poland. If the EC keeps refusing to address the situation on the ground, then we really don’t know where else to go. Thus far, the government has followed ECHR decisions, but it has stopped following Hungarian court decisions just this year, which is very worrying. In 2018 there was a Constitutional Court decision in the case of a transgender refugee that required parliament to enact legislation on legal gender recognition for non-Hungarian citizens, which it has not yet done.
What support do Hungarian CSOs need from international civil society?
It is important to attempt to unify the different movements and to act as bridge between them and I think international CSOs can play a role in this. As a trans organisation we are responsible for trans people, but trans people come in all sizes and shapes – there are migrant trans people, Roma trans people, disabled trans people – and we all have to come together. Also, while trans people are currently under attack in Hungary, we don't know which vulnerable group is next on the list, and I think international CSOs should focus on everyone. They also need to assist in raising awareness in international institutions – in Hungary, for example, international pressure is important because Orbán still sometimes cares about how Hungary is perceived. So the engagement that comes from the international community is helpful. International civil society can also assist in presenting good examples, because the better the situation is in other countries for trans people, the more shame it can bring to the Hungarian government. But if other EU countries start to follow Hungary, then the government will get away with this. Organisations like CIVICUS can bring CSOs together.
Civic space in Hungary is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Hungary also currently features on our Civic Space Watchlist.
Get in touch with theTransvanilla Transgender Association through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@Transvanilla on Twitter email@example.com on Instagram.