Sochi: Tensions and warnings escalate

The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory Saturday for citizens traveling to Russia for the Winter Olympics next month, including a specific warning that “vague guidance” from Russia about its new laws making “it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public” could be used to fine, deport, or jail foreign visitors.

russia_flagThe U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory Saturday for citizens traveling to Russia for the Winter Olympics next month, including a specific warning that “vague guidance” from Russia about its new laws making “it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public” could be used to fine, deport, or jail foreign visitors.

The LGBT warning was part of a longer advisory alerting Americans traveling to Sochi, Russia, for the Olympics that such highly publicized global events are seen as an “attractive target” for terrorists and that several acts of terrorism have already been perpetrated in Russia in the past few weeks.

            The advisory, issued January 10, urges American citizens to “avoid large crowds in areas that lack enhanced security measures” and to use caution “in any areas where protests, demonstrations, or other public disturbances are taking place.”

“Demonstrations intended to be peaceful can develop quickly and unpredictably, sometimes turning violent,” notes the advisory.

The possibility of LGBT-related protests in Russia has been a concern since last June, when the Russian government approved its anti-gay laws. Although the Russian government says the laws are just focused on protecting children from “non-traditional sexual relations,” the legislation goes much further. Signed by President Vladimir Putin in June and July, they also prohibit any public displays of affection by same-sex couples and any public events related to LGBT people.

Early talk by activists of staging protests or wearing rainbow pins or waving rainbow flags at the Olympics was met with promises by the Russian government of tough enforcement of its laws. Putin and Russian officials have softened their tone in recent weeks, and earlier this month and said they would provide a designated area in a nearby village for protests. Then earlier this month, Putin signed an executive order that will require protesters to secure approval in advance.

But tensions seemed to be ready to escalate again over the weekend, when the head of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested the Russian people vote on whether to re-criminalize homosexuality.

The State Department advisory notes that foreign citizens could be fined as much as $3,100, jailed for 14 days, and deported for violating the laws.

“The law makes it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public, but lacks concrete legal definitions for key terms,” notes the advisory. “Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes ‘LGBT propaganda,’ and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as ‘LGBT propaganda.’ For more.

Russia to create ‘protest zone’ for Olympics

The International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday that Russian authorities “plan to set up a protest zone in the city of Sochi.”

russia_flagThe International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday that Russian authorities “plan to set up a protest zone in the city of Sochi.”

Concern about protests at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in February have been building for months since the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin enacted laws to prohibit virtually any form of positive expression about “non-traditional” sexual orientations. Activists have pushed athletes, corporate sponsors, and others to express their opposition to the anti-gay laws. The Russian government has promised to both abide by the Olympic Principle 6, which prohibits discrimination of any kind, and to enforce its anti-gay laws. In August, Putin even issued a special decree banning political protests during the Olympics in Sochi.

In a press release Tuesday, IOC President Thomas Bach said he welcomes the plan for the protest zone “and the fact that people will now have an opportunity to express their views and freely demonstrate their opinions in Sochi.”

“There is something terribly wrong if the head of the International Olympic Committee must request a guarantee that athletes, spectators, and Russian citizens will not be punished for speaking their mind,” said Andrew Miller, a member of Queer Nation, an activist group that has been protesting against Russia’s anti-LGBT laws.

“IOC president Thomas Bach continues to collaborate with the Russian government while Russian LGBT citizens are arrested, jailed, beaten, raped, tortured, and murdered,” said Miller. “Instead of negotiating a protest zone, he should be demanding the repeal of Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and insisting that the Russian government respect the human rights of all its citizens.”

The news of a “protest zone” came just one day after the IOC announced that it would, during Tuesday’s IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, approve a letter to athletes reminding them that Rule 50 of the IOC Charter states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Tuesday’s press release indicated that the executive board did discuss Rule 50, as well as Rule 40, related to drug testing.

Bach told reporters that the idea had been “under discussion with the IOC for quite some time,” though no mention of the possibility had been mentioned previously.

UN human rights council passes first ever effort to address LGBT discrimination

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council voted to approve a resolution that expresses “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Susan Rice

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, voted 23 to 19 on Friday, June 17, to approve a resolution that expresses “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The resolution calls for the creation of a U.N. commission to document discriminatory laws, practices, and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity around the world.  The study is to recommend “how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The commission is to submit its report in December, and the Human Rights Council will convene a panel to discuss the report.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission called the vote a “groundbreaking achievement.” And President Obama issued a statement noting that it is the “first time in history” that the U.N. has adopted a resolution “dedicated to advancing the basic human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.”

“This marks a significant milestone in the long struggle for equality, and the beginning of a universal recognition that LGBT persons are endowed with the same inalienable rights—and entitled to the same protections—as all human beings,” said President Obama’s statement. “The United States stands proudly with those nations that are standing up to intolerance, discrimination, and homophobia.  Advancing equality for LGBT persons should be the work of all peoples and all nations.  LGBT persons are entitled to equal treatment, equal protection, and the dignity that comes with being full members of our diverse societies.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council is comprised of 47 countries.

Countries voting for the resolution were Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the, United States, and Uruguay.

Countries voting against it were Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Moldova, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Uganda.

The countries of China, Zambia, and Burkina abstained. Two other members—Kyrgyzstan and Libya—were absent. (Libya was suspended from the Council in March.)

The resolution was originally presented by South Africa.

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said the United States took a “leading role” in the resolution’s adoption, “and we pledge to continue to fight discrimination in any guise and embrace diversity in every form.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying the U.S. worked with South Africa and other countries to secure passage.

“The United States will continue to stand up for human rights wherever there is inequality and we will seek more commitments from countries to join this important resolution,” said Clinton.

In an earlier victory at the United Nations, the General Assembly voted last December to restore a reference to “sexual orientation” in a resolution against the killing of vulnerable minority groups—a reference that had been removed only a month earlier. The Assembly then approved the amended resolution.

U.N. votes to restore ‘sexual orientation’ to resolution against killings

In an important win for LGBT people and U.S. international diplomacy, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to restore a reference to “sexual orientation” in a resolution against the killing of vulnerable minority groups—a reference that had been removed only a month earlier.

Susan Rice

In an important win for LGBT people and U.S. international diplomacy, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to restore a reference to “sexual orientation” in a resolution against the killing of vulnerable minority groups—a reference that had been removed only a month earlier.

The vote to restore explicit mention of sexual orientation came on December 21, with 93 member nations favoring restoration, 55 countries voting against, 27 nations abstaining, and 17 countries absent. The United States sponsored the measure.

On the same day, the General Assembly then approved the amended resolution, with 122 countries voting in favor, no nation voting against, and 59 abstentions, according to the Associated Press.

LGBT civil rights groups and human rights activists welcomed the vote, praising U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice for her forceful advocacy.

On December 10, International Human Rights Day, Ambassador Rice said, in a U.N. speech, that she was “incensed” over the earlier vote to remove sexual orientation from a human rights resolution on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions.  She vowed a U.S.-led push for its reinsertion.

“[We] applaud the principled leadership of the United States and other like-minded countries in restoring the language and staking out a clear claim for gay men and lesbians at the United Nations,” said Mark Bromley, chair of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Global Equality, in a press release. The council advocates for American foreign policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to its mission statement.

“Protecting minorities from persecution is one of the United Nations’ most important functions,” said Todd Fernandez, a human rights lawyer and activist based in New York City. “U.N. leadership against anti-LGBT discrimination is now setting the tone for the world.”

Fernandez said that various international human rights treaties were written to include race, religion, and sex explicitly, but relegated sexual orientation to be implied under “other status.”

“Gradually, we are filling in this archaic gap in global consciousness and the Obama administration deserves credit for this,” said Fernandez.

Since 1999, the U.N. General Assembly has approved a bi-annual resolution on extrajudicial executions, urging nation states “to investigate promptly and thoroughly all killings,” including those “committed for any discriminatory reason,” including “sexual orientation.” The resolution is the only U.N. resolution explicitly mentioning “sexual orientation.” Although General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, they do establish an international standard for a majority of the world’s nations.

In 2005, two teenage boys believed to be gay were hanged by Iran. Under Iran’s Islamic Penal Code of 1991, homosexual relationships are illegal, and sodomy is a crime punishable by death, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Association. The hangings were reported by BBC and Human Rights Watch.

As of May 2010, six other countries have laws allowing the execution of persons convicted of homosexual conduct, including Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria, according to recently released publication of Human Rights Watch. And last fall, in Uganda, where a bill to broaden the criminalization homosexuality with death penalty provisions was introduced in Parliament, a newspaper published a list of prominent gay professionals, including names and addresses, with a call to “Hang Them.”

Back in November, when a U.N. committee voted on the extrajudicial resolution, a majority of nations voted to delete the reference to sexual orientation, yielding to pressure from some Arab and African member states to remove it. The vote was 79 to 70, with 17 countries abstaining and 26 nations not voting.

Removing that reference “felt like a stab in the back of homosexual people in countries where those killings do take place,” said Boris O. Dittrich, acting director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Program of the Human Rights Watch, based in New York City.

Reinserting sexual orientation, he said, “could help put an end to the hateful killing of people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Following the U.N. reversal vote last week, the White House issued a statement applauding the outcome:

“Today’s vote in the United Nations marks an important moment in the struggle for civil and human rights. The time has come for all nations to redouble our efforts to end discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

“No one should be killed for who they are,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a press release. “Sadly, many people around the world continue to be targeted and killed because of their sexual orientation. These heinous crimes must be condemned and investigated wherever they occur.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest, now a senior adviser to the Global Equality Council, called the U.S. diplomatic effort “remarkable,” adding in a statement, “The United States took a very principled position, and our diplomats worked very hard at the U.N. and in capitals around the world to explain to other countries why this is an important human rights cause.”

U.S. Reps call for action against Ugandan bill

Three openly gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 91 of their colleagues, have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to do everything he can to stop a bill in Uganda that calls for harsh penalties against gays.

Tammy Baldwin
Tammy Baldwin

Three openly gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 91 of their colleagues, have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to do everything he can to stop a bill in Uganda that calls for harsh penalties—including life imprisonment and the death penalty—against gays.

The proposed law in Uganda, which calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having sex with a person of the same gender, also triggered a U.S. Congressional hearing this month.

The January 21 hearing took place in the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, created two years ago to “promote and advocate” for rights adopted in the international Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Openly gay U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), a member of the Commission’s Executive Committee, called the Ugandan legislation, “An extreme and hateful attempt to make people criminals not because of anything they do, but because of who they are and who they love.”

The bill was introduced to the Ugandan Parliament by Member David Bahati and expands upon an already existing statute that outlaws homosexuality. The new bill seeks to impose life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having sex with or trying to contract a marriage with someone of the same sex. In certain cases, such as when the person tests HIV positive, the penalty is death.

In addition to targeting gays, the bill seeks to go after anyone who “promotes” homosexuality or “aids, abets, counsels or procures” someone else to engage in homosexual acts. Such persons could face up to seven years in prison. Anyone who is aware of someone breaking the law but does not report this fact to authorities faces a fine and three years in prison.

“The severity of the Ugandan legislation requires a severe response,” said Baldwin in her opening remarks at the Commission hearing. Bills, such as this, she said, are “contemptible statements of hate and bias,” have “serious consequences,” and are “enormous obstacles to effectively addressing HIV/AIDS.”

At the hearing, Baldwin and Commission Co-Chairman James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), along with other Commission members, heard testimony from Karl Wycoff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as well as a panel of expert witnesses: Cary Alan Johnson of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; Julius Kaggwa of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Uganda; Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Political Research Associates; and Christine Lubinski of the HIV Medicine Association, Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Kaggwa told members of the Commission that, because the Ugandan bill also targets anyone who “promotes homosexuality,” it should be opposed not only by LGBT-rights supporters but also those who advocate for free speech and greater democracy.

Baldwin said in an interview she hopes the hearing will help Congress to “direct our actions in a more focused way.”

Assistant Secretary Wycoff testified that, while it is important for the U.S. and other countries to make public statements and meet privately with Ugandan government officials, many in Uganda view these communications as outside meddling. That, he said, could embolden proponents of the legislation. Wycoff’s remarks led to a discussion of the importance of supporting the activists in Uganda and the coalition they are building to oppose the legislation internally.

But Baldwin said opposition against the bill could take many forms, including support for the non-governmental organizations that are part of the coalition fighting the bill.

“It may also mean figuring out further venues for heartbreaking stories of oppression and violence and humiliation to be told both internally to Uganda, but to a larger world audience,” she said.

On January 21, 94 U.S. representatives—led by Reps. Baldwin, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.)—sent a letter to President Obama and one to Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, asking them to help stop the bill. One day earlier, 12 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Museveni with a similar message.

Baldwin said she and the other House members who signed the letter to President Obama think the president could do more than he has. The White House issued a written statement in mid-December, saying that the president “strongly opposes” the legislation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also expressed concern about it. The House letter, however, asks the President to “speak out publicly” on the matter, especially given his popularity in Africa.

This week, Shin Inouye, a spokesperson to the LGBT media for the White House, said, “The President has strongly opposed legislation that would criminalize homosexuality anywhere—including Uganda—and the Department of State has made this opposition clear to the Ugandan government. We appreciate the interest of Congress in that matter, and will continue to make our opposition to this bill clear, and to support human rights around the world.”

The House members believe, too, that they can bring economic pressure to bear. Should the bill pass, they wrote to President Museveni, it could endanger the $300 million in President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds to Uganda.

“If you can’t reach men who have sex with men and be able to talk honestly about prevention and early intervention and treatment,” said Baldwin, “those [PEPFAR] funds are not going to be used according to congressional intent. Baldwin said no one at the hearing called for a complete halt to the AIDS funding for Uganda, but rather “more a review of who gets it, how it’s used, how it will be overseen and supervised if the law passes.”

Baldwin said the PEPFAR funds comprise 2.6 percent of the Ugandan economy, and thus have significant impact.

Currently, the U.S. and Uganda have extensive bilateral relations. If the bill passes, Baldwin says, it could affect those ties. Sweden has already threatened to cut its assistance to Uganda if the bill passes.

Rep. Frank, who signed the letter but was not at the hearing, agreed that the bill would affect future cooperation between Uganda and the U.S. If it passes, Frank said, he would oppose any debt relief and aid from the World Bank to Uganda, areas where he has some influence as chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

One undercurrent of the issue is the influence of U.S.-based religious groups in Uganda.

“As has happened elsewhere, this proposed legislation appears to be the product of Americans recruiting prominent African religious leaders to campaign to restrict the human rights of LGBT individuals in their countries,” said Baldwin at the hearing.

Last year, three American evangelical Christians gave a seminar in Uganda on “the gay agenda,” saying it threatens traditional families. The speakers were Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center; Caleb Lee Brundidge of the International Healing Foundation (IHF), which encourages people to “heal” themselves of their same-sex attractions; and Don Schmierer of Exodus International, a group that says it promotes “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”

Their Ugandan host was Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, a non-governmental organization focused on “the restoration of family values and morals.” Langa has admitted helping to draft the anti-gay bill, according to a January 3 report in the New York Times. The report said Lively also acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers about the legislation.

All three Americans have now posted statements on their organizations’ Web sites denying they intended such harsh actions. Exodus sent a letter to President and Mrs. Yuseveni, condemning the criminalization of consensual homosexuality, saying it interferes with the church’s task of helping homosexuals. IHF sent a similar letter to the Ugandan parliament, saying the bill would “frighten all people from seeking the very help they need, and that many want.”

The International Transformation Network (ITN), another U.S.-based evangelical group that works to turn people away from homosexuality, has reportedly established a training network of approximately 14,000 evangelical churches in Uganda, according to journalist Bruce Wilson of the Web site Talk To Action. Wilson has detailed ITN’s involvement in Uganda and says President Museveni and his wife Janet have hosted ITN representatives at state dinners. Janet Museveni has attended, or sent a representative to, several of ITN’s world conferences. Their daughter Patience runs a church whose members are being trained by ITN, and David Bahati, sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, has been one of the attendees of that church.

“We need to be mindful that those voices of the conservative religious evangelicals in Uganda are not being appropriately balanced by voices of truth-tellers who are reaching out,” said Baldwin, in an interview.

“We need to have U.S. voices,” said Baldwin, “and people who have person-to-person cultural exchanges, political exchanges, etc., that have a different message and can counter the lies with truth.”

Baldwin said the January 21 hearing gave the commission a chance to hear ideas for doing just that.

“Most of the women in the Ugandan parliament are supporting the bill, as are some women’s rights groups,” Baldwin related. One idea mentioned by several panelists at the hearing was that First Lady Michelle Obama and women in Congress speak to Ugandan women. There was also a suggestion that the Congressional Black Caucus could make a statement.

“I think we’ll follow up on all those very helpful pieces of advice,” Baldwin said, “especially knowing that they came from people in Uganda who have a sensibility about what will be effective and what won’t.”

The letter to President Obama from members of the House asks the president to not only to speak out publicly against the legislation in Uganda but also to work towards the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide.

“More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalizing consensual same-sex acts, and over 80 countries worldwide currently have in place sodomy laws or other legal provisions that criminalize their LGBT communities,” said Baldwin.

Uganda, she said, is part of “an alarming trend.”