World Report 2017: Russia
In Russia, the government in 2016 further tightened control over the already-shrinking space for free expression, association, and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics.
This week Poland’s parliament has the chance to improve the lives of transgender people by passing a law that simplifies the legal gender recognition procedure.
Recognition before the law in your preferred gender is a vital aspect of ensuring respect for the human rights of transgender people. For example, it allows transgender people to access services on an equal footing with their peers.
Momentum on this matter is building. Earlier this year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a resolution noting “the emergence of a right to gender identity”, while raising concerns that “transgender people face widespread discrimination in Europe.”
Members of Poland’s parliament will consider the country’s Act on Gender Recognition this Friday. Parliament already passed the draft legislation over the summer, although the president vetoed it last week.
The act proposes some important advances.
First, it defines gender identity as a “settled and intense experience of one’s own gender,” which may or may not correspond with one's sex assigned at birth.
Second, it eliminates the requirement for physical interventions before gender can be legally recognized, and instead makes the process a court procedure.
Third, it spells out the various documents on which applicants are legally entitled to change their gender – including education certificates, work qualifications, and health records – and allows the possibility for young transgender people, once they reach age 16, to change their name.
Access to documents in your preferred gender and name is a key element in ensuring respect for an individual’s right to personal and private life, and also allows transgender people better access to healthcare, education, and employment.
In a recent survey, 78 percent of Polish transgender people said quicker and easier legal gender recognition procedures would allow them to live more comfortably.
There’s no doubt President Andrzej Duda’s recent veto of the act was a setback. But if parliament does vote in majority support of the legislation, Poland will take a huge step forward and transform the lives of many.
Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program, is an expert on LGBT rights. He has conducted research, taught and published extensively on gender, sexuality, LGBT issues, and HIV/AIDS.
Before joining Human Rights Watch in 2011, Reid was the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and a lecturer in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at Yale University. An anthropologist by training, Reid received an master’s from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a PhD from the University of Amsterdam.
Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
21 April 2017
Re: Addressing the human rights situation in the North Caucasus
Dear Assembly Member,
We are writing, ahead of the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), to call upon you to participate in the Plenary debate on the report of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights on “Human Rights in the North Caucasus” to be held on Tuesday 25 April, and to fully support the adoption of the resolution and recommendation that reflect the concerns raised by the report and renews the Council of Europe’s attention and reporting on the dramatic human rights situation in the region.
Our organizations welcomed the PACE Bureau decision to reinstate the report to its Plenary agenda. PACE had remained one of the few international forums that could regularly expose the situation in the turbulent region and support victims in their quest for justice. We were deeply concerned that the suspension of the debate in June 2016 on the report was a disservice to human rights professionals, activists and journalists striving to document and address the human rights violations committed in the region.
The upcoming debate therefore represents a unique opportunity to put the authorities in the North Caucasus on notice that the Assembly is effectively monitoring the grave violations committed in the region, as well as to urge the Government of the Russian Federation to ensure that North Caucasus authorities fully comply with Russia’s domestic legislation and international human rights obligations. This is even more important as waves of violence have shaken the region, including in advance of the September 2016 regional elections in Chechnya and the recently documented brutal attacks on men in Chechnya who are perceived to be gay.
The Parliamentary Assembly should adopt a strong resolution that addresses the persistent impunity and deteriorating human rights situation in the region, in particular the human rights crisis in Chechnya. The Parliamentary Assembly should also offer detailed recommendations to the authorities of the Russian Federation, including on the urgent need to bring perpetrators to justice and put a resolute end to attacks on human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists working to expose and eradicate abuses in the region. Finally, the Parliamentary Assembly should also decide to continue to pay attention, monitor and report on the human rights situation in the North Caucasus region, especially in the Chechen Republic.
We therefore call upon you to raise the following concerns during the 25 April debate and ensure that they are duly reflected in the resolution put up for adoption:
We continue to regret the lack of cooperation by the authorities of the Russian Federation with the Council of Europe, as well as the non-participation of the Russian delegation to PACE. In this context, we deeply value PACE’s continued reporting on the dramatic situation of human rights in the North Caucasus. While many of the recommendations presented by the Committee have not been implemented by the local and Russian authorities, we firmly believe that they are fully relevant.
We hope that you can echo those concerns, and participate in the Plenary debate to support PACE’s continued reporting role on this egregious situation. Your voice will matter for those who work to defend the victims of violations and abuses in the North Caucasus.
United Nations Secretary General
April 14, 2017
Re: The Arbitrary Detention, Torture and Murder of Gay Men in Chechnya
OutRight Action International and Human Rights Watch, both founding members of the UN LGBT Core Group, together with ILGA Europe are writing to you to urgently appeal for your intervention in the appalling situation in Chechnya. As you know, in recent weeks, up to 100 gay and bisexual men (and those perceived as such) in Chechnya have been subject to detention, enforced disappearances, torture, and, in some cases, murder sanctioned by local authorities in Chechnya.
We urge you and your senior staff to contact the Russian mission to the United Nations and senior Russian government officials in Moscow and appeal to the Russian government to:
We have been working closely with ILGA Europe to ensure that accurate information on the situation in Chechnya is expedited to UN mission representatives and UN representatives in New York and Geneva. We attach a briefing from ILGA Europe for your information.
Over the past two weeks, a coalition of civil society organizations has requested immediate engagement of stakeholders across the UN system including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the New York UN LGBT Core Group, UN agencies, and relevant mandate holders, including on arbitrary detention, cultural rights, health, summary executions, torture, and sexual orientation and gender identity. A subsequent statement from the Office of The High Commissioner on Human Rights was released on April 13th.
We understand that the public attention that the persecution of gay and bisexual men has received over the past week may have the effect of preventing the murder and torture of some of the victims and halt arbitrary detention of new victims, but gay and bisexual men (and those perceived as such) still remain at great risk in Chechnya.
We look forward to your response and are available to discuss the issue further.
OutRight Action International
Human Rights Watch
Latest information from Chechnya – 13 April 2017
Since ILGA-Europe’s previous update on the alarming situation of arbitrary detention, torture and killing of (perceived) gay men in Chechnya, there has been a concerted effort to document facts of the situation. The Russian LGBT Network has driven this fact-finding mission, while simultaneously continuing to evacuate survivors from the region and solicit international support. The overall aim of all these activities is to put pressure on the highest level of Russian authorities so that these atrocities are immediately halted and investigated and that those detained can be freed.
News of the situation in Chechnya has spread far, and the reactions of support from across the globe have been encouraging. (See a list of public statements here.)
The arbitrary detention of men based on their (perceived) sexual orientation is continuing, almost two weeks after the news reached international attention. In spite of the global outcry, no action has been taken, either on the part of the Russian or Chechen authorities, to release those detained.
According to the latest information received by the Russian LGBT Network from a survivor, the NGO believes that the second suspected prison at Tsotsi-Yurt, previously reported by Svoboda, does exist. Survivors have also expressed fears that the social media accounts of (perceived) gay and bisexual men are being targeted, hacked and used to contact other men who have not yet been arrested.
The Russian LGBT Network continues to receive requests for emergency assistance, although the NGO has not been able to maintain contact with several survivors. This unexplained loss of contact is a clear cause for concern.
Information from Novaya Gazeta
New information about the conditions faced by those detained has since been collected and published by Novaya Gazeta (the independent newspaper which broke the story on 1 April).
The personal stories of victims, some of which have escaped beyond the borders of Russia while others remain hidden in Chechnya, confirm:
Sources reported years of blackmail and beatings, but nothing compared to the concerted effort in hunting gay men that has taken place over the last month or so. During this period, (perceived) gay men were arrested and detained in illegal prisons, beaten, tortured and humiliated en masse, with male contacts from their phones suffering the same fate. published the statement about the threat declared by Chechen authorities.
Novaya further reports, that on April 3, days after the scandalous publication, Chechen authorities organized a meeting in the main mosque of Groznyy - regional capital on which a resolution about punishment was adopted. This statement says that Novaya's publication about the state campaign on killing every single gay person in the country 'has insulted centennial customs of the Chechen people', they 'promise that retribution will come to them wherever they are without time limitation'. Adam Shahidov, Chechen president's advisor who attended the meeting characterized the journalists of Novaya as 'enemies of our faith and fatherland'.
This information has already been acknowledged by Chechen officials. Supreme Mufti of Chechnya Salah Mezhiev in response to RBC's question has stated that the journalists of Novaya will pay the price 'for sure'. The cleric added: 'I don't even want to call them humans!'
The seriousness of this threat cannot be underestimated as two years ago, Russian prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed exactly after similar 'allegations' from Chechen authorities.
Response from federal authorities
After alarm over the concerted efforts in detention, torture and inhumane treatment of homosexual men in Chechnya was raised, the Russian LGBT Network filed reports with the Investigating Committee of Russia and the Federal Ombudsperson. To date, no investigation has been initiated.
Meanwhile, presidential Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov stated that “We do not have such information and it is not a prerogative of the Kremlin. If any actions have been taken by the law enforcement agencies, which, in the opinion of some citizens, were taken with some irregularities, these citizens can use their rights, file relevant complaints, and go to court.”
Reaction from public authorities in Chechnya
Chechen officials continue to deny that gay people live in the region.
ILGA-Europe, the Russian LGBT Network and a number of other NGO partners have reached out to international institutions and national governments to advocate for the rights of Chechen gay men. An encouraging response has been received so far, with both public and private follow-up actions, from the EU, Council of Europe and others. Processes have also been commenced using the United Nations’ special procedures.
Call for action
Despite a strong response from the international community, no investigations into the detention of (perceived) gay men in Chechnya have yet been started, either at a local or federal level.
At least 100 men remain in detention and a growing number of survivors are making use of the hotline set up by the Russian LGBT Network seeking practical help in escaping the region. As such, further effort is needed to ensure the situation is halted, those detained are released, and a proper investigation is launched.
End abuse and detention of gay men in Chechnya, UN human rights experts tell Russia
GENEVA (13 April 2017) – Men detained in the Russian Republic of Chechnya simply for being perceived to be gay must be immediately released and their abuse and persecution ended, United Nations human rights experts* say.
The experts are also calling on the Russian authorities to condemn firmly all homophobic statements, which constitute incitement to hatred and violence.
“We urge the authorities to put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual in the Chechen Republic who are living in a climate of fear fuelled by homophobic speeches by local authorities,” the experts stated.
“It is crucial that reports of abductions, unlawful detentions, torture, beatings and killings of men perceived to be gay or bisexual are investigated thoroughly,” they added.
The appeal follows reports emerging from Chechnya since March of abductions of men perceived to be gay or bisexual, carried out by local militia and local security forces and followed by arbitrary detention, violence, torture and other ill-treatment.
There are even reported cases of killings based on the perceived sexual orientation. Some of them have also allegedly been carried out by family members themselves in so-called ‘honour killings’.
“These are acts of persecution and violence on an unprecedented scale in the region, and constitute serious violations of the obligations of the Russian Federation under international human rights law,” the experts said.
Much of the abuse is reported to have taken place at an unofficial detention centre close to the city of Argun.
The arrested men are subjected to physical and verbal abuse, torture including with electric shocks, beatings, insults and humiliations. They are forced to give contact details of other gay people and threatened with having their sexual orientation disclosed to their family and community – a move which could put them at risk of ‘honour killings’.
“We call on the authorities to proceed with the immediate release of everyone unlawfully detained in the Republic of Chechnya on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all suspected cases of abduction, unlawful detention, torture and unlawful killing, and to ensure that all those involved in such acts are held to account, and that victims are provided with effective remedy” the experts said.
The UN experts are also concerned about alleged homophobic statements made by local authorities, denying the existence in the Republic of persons with so-called ‘non-traditional’ sexual orientation and condoning the killing of gay men by family members and other citizens.
The experts condemned statements by Chechen officials suggesting that gay people should be hunted down and killed and warned that such comments constituted incitement to hatred and violence.
“The Russian Federation must officially state that it does not tolerate any form of incitement to violence, social stigmatization of homosexuality or hate speech, and does not condone discrimination or violence against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We call on Russia to take urgent measures to protect the life, liberty and security of gay and bisexual people in Chechnya and to investigate, prosecute and punish acts of violence motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation,” the UN human rights experts concluded.
The experts are in contact with the Russian authorities and closely monitoring the situation.
(*) The UN experts: Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn, Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; Mr. Sètondji Roland Adjovi, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working on Arbitrary Detention; Ms. Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment; and Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The Independent Experts, Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Proceduresof the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Chechnya dominated international headlines more than 15 years ago when Russian forces were bombing the capital, Grozny, to stop the republic’s bid for independence. Now Chechnya is in headlines again because of a brutal campaign of police violence and abuse against men believed to be gay.
Police have been detaining the men in secret locations, beating and humiliating them, and forcing them to hand over information about other men who might be gay.
The United Nations and many other international organizations and governments, including the Trump administration, have firmly condemned the campaign. And with good reason. The violence is brutal, the cruelty extreme and the anti-gay hostility extremely virulent. Yet the Kremlin has been slow to respond.
Chechnya is a highly traditional Muslim society, and for many not only is homosexuality unacceptable but having a relative who might be gay represents an unspeakable “stain” on their family’s honor and reputation. During the recent campaign, police have leveraged this social stigma by, in many cases, releasing men suspected to be gay to their families and “outing” them. They encourage families to “restore family honor,” which in Chechen terms usually means through an “honor” killing. At least three men have died since the campaign started at the end of February.
Russia’s fiercely independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, first exposed the campaign in early April and has published several follow-up stories. Human Rights Watch has confirmed their allegations, including in interviews with victims. Chechen officials threatened Novaya Gazeta multiple times for the articles. In an April 15 post to his Instagram account, Chechnya’s press and information minister, Jambulat Umarov, demanded the newspaper “apologize to the Chechen people” for suggesting gay men exist among Chechens. Umarov also demanded that Novaya Gazeta reveal its sources and warned that if the newspaper’s journalists did not stop publishing “hysteria” about “non-existent threats,” then people who are “more annoyed by your newspaper than we are” would take care of them.
It was the second time in two weeks Chechen officials had threatened Novaya Gazeta. On April 3, Chechen television broadcast a gathering of Chechnya’s religious leaders and public figures, together with what it said was 15,000 people in Grozny protesting the initial article. In a speech to the crowd, an adviser to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, called the newspaper “enemies of our faith and of our motherland.” The crowd adopted a resolution that threatened retribution against the journalists “wherever they are and without any statute of limitations.”
Novaya Gazeta has good reason to take these threats seriously. Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta reporter who first exposed the anti-gay purge, is well known for her hard-hitting reporting on egregious rights abuses in Chechnya that almost no other journalist in Russia dares to cover. Ms. Milashina effectively picked up the mantle from her colleague and mentor, Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in a contract killing in Moscow 10 years ago. Another journalist and activist who exposed abuse, Natlaya Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered in 2009. Ms. Milashina has received numerous death threats in connection with her Chechnya work.
The anti-gay campaign and the threats against those who expose it are taking place in the context of the tyranny that Mr. Kadyrov has created in his decade-long rule, in which his control touches virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse and family matters. Any form of dissent, even when expressed in closed groups on mobile apps, is ruthlessly punished.
Mr. Kadyrov created this tyranny with the Kremlin’s tacit approval. At first, the Kremlin spokesperson merely stated that any victims should report abuse to the authorities. Yet they know exactly why that would never happen. Russia’s Investigative Committee just opened an inquiry into the violence and the the threats against Novaya Gazeta. To be effective, the investigation will need to provide effective security guarantees for people who come forward about their ordeal. Better late than never.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin met yesterday with the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Official reports from the meeting indicate that they mostly spoke about economic issues – housing, unemployment, and agriculture. But in the middle of this rather routine conversation Kadyrov suddenly mentions “provocative articles about the Chechen Republic, the supposed events… the supposed detentions…”. What he is referring to, of course, are the disturbing allegations of a brutal campaign against gay people in Chechnya.
Since February 2017, Chechen police and security officials have waged a terrifying anti-gay purge, rounding up dozens presumed gay and bisexual men, holding them in unofficial detention facilities in horrific conditions, torturing and humiliating them, shaming their relatives, and encouraging “honor killings.” Novaya Gazeta, a leading Russian independent paper, first broke the story on April 1, and Human Rights Watch corroborated the information based on reports from our own sources.
Last week, we interviewed several victims of the purge who fled Chechnya for central Russia. “They treated us like animals,” said a man who spent a week in an unofficial detention facility. “Beatings, electric shocks I could deal with… I was strong. But the humiliation was unbearable,” he said. “The [police] spit in our faces, they called us disgusting, offensive names, they forced us into humiliating poses…When they finally released me, I was close to hanging myself. I cannot live with this, I just can’t.” Other victims told us similar stories.
During his meeting with Putin, Kadyrov indignantly denied the allegations, and Putin did not ask him any questions about it. But the fact that the meeting’s official record includes Kadyrov’s denials makes clear that both men deemed this issue important enough to include in the snippets of their discussion released to the press, and that Putin did raise the allegations with Kadyrov. This was likely a result of consolidated and persistent international pressure.
In recent days, international leaders have expressed profound concern about the anti-gay campaign, and called on Moscow to intervene. The Kremlin has not seen such outcry on Chechnya for many years – and the pressure has clearly worked. The Kremlin has moved from merely suggesting that victims should file official complaints, to yesterday opening a federal investigation into the allegations and now to discussing the situation with Kadyrov.
Global leaders should sustain this pressure if they want the anti-gay purge in Chechnya to end once and for all.
(Moscow) – Chechen officials and clerics are threatening the newspaper that first exposed the campaign of police abuse against men in Chechnya perceived to be gay, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should unequivocally condemn the threats, investigate them, and ensure that journalists are protected from harm.
On April 1, 2017, Novaya Gazeta published an article documenting that Chechen police have been rounding up men believed to be gay and holding them in secret detention, where they submit the men to humiliation and torture. During the following week, the newspaper published another in-depth article on the same topic, including accounts from several victims. The abusive campaign has drawn condemnation from the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, the United States, and many other countries.
“The threats to Novaya Gazeta for exposing the appalling events in Chechnya are extremely serious,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The history of threats and violence against the paper’s journalists who work on Chechnya make this situation especially alarming.”
In an April 15 letter to Novaya Gazeta’s editor posted to his Instagram account, Chechnya's press and information minister, Jambulat Umarov, demanded that the newspaper “apologize to the Chechen people” for suggesting that gay men exist among Chechens, calling it a “filthy provocation.” Umarov also demanded that Novaya Gazeta reveal its sources, and warned that if the newspaper did not stop publishing “hysteria” about “non-existent threats,” then people who are “more annoyed by your newspaper than we are” would take care of them.
It was the second time in two weeks that Chechen officials and clerics had threatened Novaya Gazeta. On April 3, Chechen television broadcast a gathering of Chechnya’s religious leaders and public figures, together with what it said was 15,000 people in Grozny, the Chechen capital, to protest the article. In a speech to the crowd, an adviser to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, accused the newspaper of defamation and called its journalists “enemies of our faith and of our motherland.” The crowd adopted a resolution that threatened retribution against the journalists “wherever they are and without any statute of limitations.”
Novaya Gazeta found that police hold the men for periods ranging from one day to several weeks, and in many cases “outed” them to their families and encouraged their relatives to restore family honor through honor killings. At least three men have died as a result of the purge. Human Rights Watch has confirmed the anti-gay purge, including through interviews with victims.
In Russia, the government in 2016 further tightened control over the already-shrinking space for free expression, association, and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics.
The horrific campaign, which began in late February, is taking place in the context of the tyranny Kadyrov has created in his decade-long rule, with the tacit approval of the Kremlin, Human Rights Watch said. Kadyrov’s control touches virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse, and family matters. Any form of dissent is ruthlessly punished.
Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta reporter who uncovered Kadyrov’s anti-gay purge, is well-known for her courageous reporting on egregious rights abuses in Chechnya. Milashina, honored by Human Rights Watch for extraordinary activism in 2009, effectively picked up the mantle from her colleague and mentor, Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in a contract killing in Moscow 10 years ago. Milashina has received numerous death threats in connection with her Chechnya work. The authorities have not effectively investigated the threats against her.
“It’s good the Kremlin deplored the recent threats against Novaya Gazeta, but it is somewhat hollow given that over the years, the Kremlin has allowed Kadyrov to believe he can act above the law, no matter how violently” Williamson said. “The Kremlin needs to respond with a serious investigation into the campaign of police abuse against gay men and threats against Novaya Gazeta.”
A brutal campaign against gay men is sweeping Chechnya, with reports of abduction-style detention, enforced disappearances, torture and deaths. Chechnya is an administrative unit of the Russian federation, and Russia’s authorities are duty bound to uphold the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in its domestic legislation and international human rights obligations. The obligations it owes to residents and victims in Chechnya, and its failure to meet them, are evident to all in the region.
Minorities and government critics in the Chechen republic face a ruthless state security apparatus and scant avenues for recourse. LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Anti-gay social attitudes are widespread in Chechnya; homophobia is intense and rampant – and fueled by local leadership. LGBT people are in danger of being both attacked by the authorities and victims of “honour killings” by their own relatives – a vile, lawless practice against those who supposedly tarnish family honour.
Local officials openly approve of these killings, while Moscow turns a blind eye. Given the societal and authoritarian pressures, gay Chechens released to their families after days of torture and confinement in horrific conditions sadly risk more persecution and abuse instead of sanctuary.
The presidential spokesman’s blithe recommendation was that those who, “in their opinion” suffered abuse by law enforcement officials should report the cases to authorities. This advice is not only tone deaf and cynical, but reveals the lack of recourse available to victims in Chechnya. Without concrete, effective security guarantees, victims and witnesses cannot come forward, and there is no chance that any worthwhile investigation would take place. It should be a call to action for the international community.
In Russia, the government in 2016 further tightened control over the already-shrinking space for free expression, association, and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics.
As with past attacks on Chechen dissidents, activists and minorities, Russia’s leadership can have no doubt of the extent to which Chechen authorities have violated human rights. Over the past decade, Ramzan Kadyrov, the local strongman, has installed tyranny in Chechnya with the blessing of the Kremlin. Kadyrov’s control touches virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse and family matters.
If the Kremlin’s dismissive response indicates that Russia will not offer any meaningful security guarantees to the victims of this current horrific campaign, the international community needs to fill that gap.
The actions in Chechnya fit into a disturbing global pattern of governments explicitly driving anti-gay violence, or tacitly allowing vigilantes to attack LGBT people with impunity. Throughout 2016, officials and politicians in Indonesia stoked anti-LGBT sentiment that boiled over into police violence against peaceful demonstrations and raids on suspected gay gatherings, and vigilante attacks on activists. After the brutal machete slaughter of two gay activists in Bangladesh in April last year, a top government official publicly stated that the deceased had been working to promote values “that do not fit in our society.” The Gambian government’s targeting of journalists, human rights defenders, student leaders, religious leaders and political opposition member extended to the LGBT community as well, driven by the former president’s charge that “homosexuality is anti-God, anti-human, and anti-civilisation”.
Western governments should press Russian authorities at the highest level to resolutely condemn what effectively stands for a mop-up operation against gay men in Chechnya. Given the seriousness of the situation and the level of the threat, governments should also do whatever they can to assist LGBT people in imminent danger to leave Chechnya and find safe sanctuary outside Russia. This includes providing and expediting humanitarian visas, refugee resettlement, or any other permission for entry.
Russia’s record of failure to investigate and prosecute anti-LGBT violence elsewhere in the country is coupled with the stark lack of accountability for torture, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings in Chechnya by security officials under Kadyrov’s control. That sends an urgent signal to key international actors to step in to save the lives and dignity of people before it leads to yet more blood and suffering.
(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should investigate the death of a Pakistani transgender woman at a Riyadh police station following a raid on an event space in late February 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi authorities should also immediately release five Pakistanis who remain in detention if they are held only on suspicion of committing morality related “offenses.”
On February 26, local media outlets reported that Saudi police in Riyadh had raided a rented hall that day, and arrested 35 Pakistanis gathered there. A Saudi news website released photos of 10 of the Pakistanis at the hall, some dressed in women’s clothes, as well as a box of rings. Pakistani transgender activists told Human Rights Watch that some of the those gathered at the hall, including the detainee who died in detention, are transgender women, known as Khawaja Saras in Pakistan.
“Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policing of the private consensual activities of Saudis and foreigners diverts resources from actual problems such as preventing and solving crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should immediately end this nightmare for Pakistani families by credibly investigating why this woman died in police custody and releasing the other Pakistanis still in jail.”
Human Rights Watch confirmed the death by reviewing official documents after earlier media reports, including assertions by a family member that she was tortured in custody. March 28 media reports in Pakistan said that a representative of the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry told a meeting of the Pakistani Senate’s Human Rights Committee that Saudi authorities had arrested the 35 Pakistanis after monitoring them for two months. He confirmed that 29 of them were eventually released, while five remain in detention.
The son of the transgender woman who died in detention, who was known by the name Meeno, told the committee that his family received her body on March 11. “When we opened the coffin, my father’s teeth and jaw were broken,” he was quoted as saying. “Moreover, there were marks of wounds on the body.”
Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry denied the torture claims in a statement to Reuters on March 6, admitting only that “[o]ne 61-year-old person suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital after being treated.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed the Saudi Health Ministry’s medical report and the Interior Ministry’s death certificate. The medical report states that the body did not show “any signs of suspicious wounds.” It also quotes a police memo from Aziziyya station, in southern Riyadh, stating that police detained the person on February 26, in a “morality case,” and that after the detainee complained of chest pains police called the Saudi Red Crescent Authority, which provides emergency services, to take the person to the hospital.
The Saudi death certificate lists the cause of death as “stopping of the heart and breathing,” and the date of death as February 27. But a briefing from Pakistani Senate’s Human Rights Committee says the transgender woman died on March 1. The Saudi-issued embalming certificate is dated March 9.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm where the five additional Pakistanis are held or whether authorities have charged them. Pakistani law includes provisions to protect the rights of transgender people due under a 2011 Supreme Court judgment. In that decision, similar to those from other courts in South Asia, Pakistan’s Supreme Court said that all provincial governments should recognize the rights of transgender people.
Saudi Arabia has no written laws concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but judges use principles of uncodified Islamic law to sanction people suspected of committing sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery, extramarital and homosexual sex, or other “immoral” acts. If such activity occurs online, judges and prosecutors utilize vague provisions of the country’s anti-cybercrime law that criminalize online activity impinging on “public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.”
A Human Rights Watch review of LGBT-related cases from 2013 listed in a Saudi Justice Ministry of Justice report found three cases in which authorities accused men of wearing makeup or dressing in women’s clothes. The sentences ranged from 20 days in prison to a year-and-a-half, and between 20 and 300 lashes.
In February 2016, the Saudi Gazette reported that the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution is considering requesting the death penalty for anyone “using social media to solicit homosexual acts.”
“Saudi authorities should set the tone for society by respecting peoples’ privacy rather than targeting LGBT people for arrest,” Whitson said.
(Tunis) – The National Council of the Medical Order in Tunisia issued a statement on April 3, 2017, calling for doctors to cease conducting forced anal and genital examinations. The move is an important step toward ending degrading, discriminatory, and unscientific “testing” for evidence of homosexual conduct.
Tunisia is among several countries in which Human Rights Watch has documented the use of forced anal examinations in the last six years. These invasive and humiliating exams, based on discredited 19th century science, usually involve doctors or other medical personnel forcibly inserting their fingers, and sometimes other objects, into the anus of the accused. The law enforcement officials who order the exams claim that, based on the tone of the anal sphincter or the shape of the anus, one can draw conclusions as to whether the accused person has engaged in homosexual conduct. Forensic experts reject such a claim.
“Tunisian doctors have taken a courageous step in opposing the use of these torturous exams,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To ensure that forced anal testing in Tunisia ends once and for all, police should stop ordering the exams, and courts should refuse to admit the results into evidence.”
Forced anal exams violate the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As the United Nations Committee Against Torture has emphasized, they “have no medical justification and cannot be performed with the free and informed consent of the persons subjected to them, who consequently will then be prosecuted.” For medical practitioners to conduct such exams is a violation of medical ethics, Human Rights Watch said.
The statement from Tunisia’s medical council said that doctors must henceforth inform peoples that they have the right to refuse the exam. Prohibiting doctors from carrying out anal exams without consent is a step in the right direction, but because of their unscientific nature, the use of anal exams to test for consensual homosexual conduct should cease altogether, regardless of consent, Human Rights Watch said. In that sense, the medical council’s statement does not go far enough: it leaves open the possibility that someone accused of same-sex conduct might “consent” to an anal exam under pressure from police, because they believe their refusal will be held against them, or because they believe it will prove their innocence.
Doctors in the Tunisian towns of Sousse and Kairouan subjected at least seven men accused of sodomy under article 230 of the penal code to forced anal exams in 2015, sparking a civil society movement against the practice. Human Rights Watch interviewed the men, some of whom described the forced anal exams as akin to rape. A 22-year-old student subjected to an anal exam in Kairouan told Human Rights Watch: “I felt like I was an animal, because I felt like I didn’t have any respect. I felt like they were violating me. I feel that up to now.”
The UN Committee Against Torture condemned the use of anal exams in Tunisia in May 2016, and the European External Action Service asked Tunisia to immediately stop conducting these examinations at an EU-Tunisia human rights dialogue in January 2017.
The statement by the medical council follows a more recent case in which two young men were arrested on sodomy charges in December 2016. They were subjected to forced anal exams, and though the results were “negative,” were sentenced in March 2017 to eight months in prison.
In a July 2016 report, Human Rights Watch documented and condemned the use of forced anal exams in Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and Zambia. Tanzania also carried out forced anal exams on suspected gay men in Zanzibar in December, during an ongoing anti-LGBT crackdown.
Forced Anal Examinations in Homosexuality Prosecutions
In Lebanon, the use of forced anal exams declined significantly in 2012 when, in response to a campaign by activists against the “tests of shame,” the Beirut Medical Syndicate issued a circular calling on doctors to cease carrying out the exams. But isolated cases occurred as recently as 2015, indicating that action by a medical council is unlikely to be enough to fully stem the practice.
Heads of states and heads of governments should take steps that are legally within their powers to end forced anal examinations in prosecutions for consensual same-sex conduct, such as issuing executive orders prohibiting their use; introducing and advancing legislation banning forced anal examinations; or instructing relevant ministries to take steps to ban the exams, Human Rights Watch said.
Judicial authorities should prohibit judges and magistrates from admitting the results of anal examinations into evidence in cases involving criminal charges of consensual same-sex conduct, and law enforcement officials should refrain from ordering the exams.
Health ministries and national medical councils or similar regulatory bodies should prohibit medical personnel from conducting anal examinations on people accused of consensual same-sex conduct. National human rights institutions should investigate the use of forced anal examinations and call on relevant authorities to put a stop to the practice.
The World Health Organization should issue a clear statement condemning the use of forced anal exams in homosexuality prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch calls on all countries to revoke laws that criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, which violate international recognized rights to privacy and nondiscrimination.
“It is time for the world to say a resounding no to the use of forced anal exams everywhere,” Ghoshal said. “It is encouraging to see Tunisia’s doctors leading the way. Medical councils around the world, as well as law enforcement agencies and other government bodies, should take their cue from this example.”
(New York – April 10, 2017) – Indonesian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release two men detained in Aceh province under a local ordinance that criminalizes homosexuality, Human Rights Watch said today.
On the night of March 28, 2017, unidentified vigilantes forcibly entered a home and brought two men found there to the police for allegedly having same-sex relations. The two men, in their twenties, have been detained at a Wilayatul Hisbah, a Sharia (Islamic law) police facility in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. The chief inspector indicated that the men had confessed to being gay and would be detained for sentencing. Under Aceh’s Islamic Criminal Code (Qanun Jinayah), they face up to 100 lashes in public—a punishment that constitutes torture under international law.
“The arrest and detention of these two men underscores the abuse imbedded in Aceh’s discriminatory, anti-LGBT ordinances,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia division director at Human Right Watch. “These men had their privacy invaded in a frightening and humiliating manner and now face public torture for the ‘crime’ of their alleged sexual orientation.”
Cell phone video footage of the raid, apparently shot by one of the vigilantes and circulating on social media, shows one of the two men visibly distressed as he calls for help on his cellphone. “Please brother, please stop,” one of the men says in the video. “My parents want to talk to you, they can pick me up.” Aceh’s Sharia ordinances empower members of the public as well as the special Sharia police to publicly identify and detain anyone suspected of violating its rules.
Aceh’s Sharia police have previously detained lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. In October 2015, Sharia police arrested two women, ages 18 and 19, on suspicion of being lesbians for embracing in public and detained them for three nights at a Sharia police facility in Banda Aceh. Sharia police repeatedly attempted to compel the two women to identify other suspected LGBT people in Aceh by showing them photographs of individuals taken from social media accounts.
Over the past decade, Aceh’s parliament has gradually adopted Sharia-inspired ordinances that criminalize non-hijab-wearing women, drinking alcohol, gambling, and extramarital sexual relations, all of which can be enforced against non-Muslims. Aceh’s LGBT population is also vulnerable to Aceh’s 2014 Criminal Code that bars liwath (sodomy) and musahabah (lesbian sexual action). Aceh province imposed the Sharia punishment of multiple lashes of a cane against 339 people in 2016.
Under national legislation stemming from a 2001 “Special Status” agreement, Aceh is the only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces that can legally adopt bylaws derived from Sharia. Human Rights Watch opposes all laws or government policies that are discriminatory or otherwise violate basic rights. Under Indonesian law, the national home affairs minister can review and repeal local bylaws, including those adopted in Aceh. In June, Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo backtracked on his announced commitment to abolish abusive Sharia regulations in the country.
Local government officials in Aceh have actively stoked homophobia, Human Rights Watch said. In 2012 then-Banda Aceh Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin advocated harsh punishments for homosexuality, telling the media: “If we ignore it, it will be like an iceberg…Even if one case of homosexuality [is] found, it’s already a problem...[W]e are really concerned about the behavior and activities of the gay community, because their behavior is deviating from the Islamic Shariah.” In 2013, after Illiza was elected mayor of Banda Aceh, she told reporters that “homosexuals are encroaching on our city.” In February 2016, she announced she would create a “special team” to make the public more aware of the “threat of LGBT” and to “train” LGBT people to “return to a normal life.”
In April 2016, four United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the Indonesian government expressing concerns about the abusive enforcement of Sharia against LGBT people, and sought the government’s response. The government has yet to respond.
Aceh’s discriminatory Sharia ordinances violate fundamental human rights guaranteed under core international human rights treaties to which Indonesia is party. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2005, protects the rights to privacy and family (article 17), and freedom of religion (article 18) and expression (article 19). The covenant prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and other status such as sexual orientation (article 2). It also prohibits punishments such as whipping that amount to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment (article 7).
Anti-LGBT incidents across Indonesia have significantly increased since January 2016 and included police raids on suspected gatherings of gay men, attacks on LGBT activists, and vitriolic anti-LGBT rhetoric from officials and politicians. In October, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo broke his long silence on escalating anti-LGBT rhetoric by defending the rights of the country’s LGBT community. He declared that “the police must act” against actions by bigoted groups or individuals to harm LGBT people or deny them their rights, and that “there should be no discrimination against anyone.” However, Jokowi has not backed up that statement with action.
“President Jokowi should urgently intervene is this case to demonstrate his stated commitment to ending discrimination against LGBT people,” Kine said. “Jokowi then needs to act to eliminate Aceh’s discriminatory ordinances so these outrageous arrests don’t happen again.”
A gay couple was walking home in a provincial town, holding hands. They encountered a group of youths who started shouting homophobic slurs, then beat up the two men. One man was hit with a bolt cutter in the face and lost four teeth. Both received blows and were kicked while lying on the ground.
This happened Sunday in the Netherlands, a country known for its LGBT-friendly laws and policies. In 2001, Netherland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. The Netherlands has many openly lesbian, gay and bisexual role models in politics, business, religious denominations, sports, media, entertainment and other parts of society. And yet, violent incidents like this one occur on a regular basis - 1,574 reports of homophobic violence last year, compared to 428 in 2009.
After the media reported Sunday's violence, four suspects turned themselves in at a police station and were interrogated. Three of them are 16-years-old, one is 14.
Dutch authorities take homophobic violence seriously. The police have a special squad called "Pink Police Force" of LGBT police officers and allies who specialize in investigating these types of incidents. Politicians denounced Sunday's violence. Two heterosexual politicians from the social liberal party D66 walked to parliament holding hands while giving interviews to the media in support of an anti-violence campaign, launched by the Dutch LGBT group COC.
But in spite of all this, violent incidents and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity keep happening. It reminds us that emancipation of LGBT people and equal rights are not things that can be "achieved" and then forgotten. No, society needs to combat discrimination and violence and build tolerance on an ongoing basis - everyday.
Anti-discrimination courses in public and private schools in the country need to be intensified and special attention given to raising consciousness in migrant communities and empowering LGBT people from those communities. Surveys by the Dutch government suggest that acceptance of LGBT people in these communities is lower than in the Dutch population as a whole.
For several weeks now, a brutal campaign against LGBT people has been sweeping through Chechnya. Law enforcement and security agency officials under control of the ruthless head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, have rounded up dozens of men on suspicion of being gay, torturing and humiliating the victims. Some of the men have forcibly disappeared. Others were returned to their families barely alive from beatings. At least three men apparently have died since this brutal campaign began.
This chilling information was first publicised by Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent Russian paper. Their report came out on 1 April, prompting the spokesperson for Chechnya’s Interior Ministry to dismiss it as an “April fools’ joke.” Kadyrov’s press secretary immediately described the report as “absolute lies and disinformation,” contending that there were no gay people in Chechnya and then adding cynically, “If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
Chechnya’s official news agency, Grozny Info, quoted numerous local commentators bashing Novaya Gazeta and other “enemies” of Chechnya and Russia for supposed attempts to discredit the Chechen people, “foster sodomy,” and undermine “traditional values.”
The information published by Novaya Gazeta is consistent with the reports Human Rights Watch recently received from numerous trusted sources, including sources on the ground. The number of sources and the consistency of the stories leaves us with no doubt that these devastating developments have indeed occurred. LGBT Network in Russia opened a special hotline to provide emergency support to those who find themselves in immediate danger.
In light of brutal repression in Chechnya, we cannot reveal our sources for fear of compromising their security. The fear of devastating reprisal is so intense that we cannot even provide detail on specific cases as the victims could suffer even more as a result of the exposure.
On Monday, 3 April President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stated that the Kremlin was previously not aware of the situation, but that law enforcement authorities would look into these media reports. On the one hand, this seems like good news, a signal to investigative officials to run a check promptly. On the other hand, Peskov also suggested that people who supposedly suffered from abuses by law enforcement officials should “file official complaints” and “go to court” without indicating what, if anything, Russian authorities are planning to do to protect them.
These days, very few people in Chechnya dare speak to human rights monitors or journalists even anonymously because the climate of fear is overwhelming and people have been largely intimidated into silence. Filing an official complaint against local security officials is extremely dangerous, as retaliation by local authorities is practically inevitable.
Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases in recent years showing just what fate awaits people in Chechnya who do what Peskov has suggested. For this reason, with very few exceptions, victims of torture and other horrific abuses refrain from seeking justice or withdraw their complaints as a result of threats, including death threats and threats of retaliation against family members.
It is difficult to overstate just how vulnerable LGBT people are in Chechnya, where homophobia is intense and rampant. LGBT people are in danger not only of persecution by the authorities but also of falling victim to “honour killings” by their own relatives for tarnishing family honor.
So it is particularly disappointing that the Kremlin spokesman should tell the victims to use official channels to complain, without saying a word about any security guarantees. Without solid security guarantees, victims and witnesses cannot possibly come forward, and there is no chance that an effective investigation could take place.
Surely Russian authorities can do better than that. At the highest level, they should resolutely condemn attacks against LGBT people in Chechnya and ensure safety and justice for the victims.
April 3, 2017
Texas House of Representatives
P.O. Box 2910
Austin, TX 78768
Re: Texas SB 6 and the Rights of Transgender Students
I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to share our concerns about SB 6, a bill that would deny transgender students access to bathrooms and changing facilities in public schools consistent with their gender identity.
SB 6 would define a student’s “biological sex” as either male or female as reflected on the student’s birth certificate. It would mandate that multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities accessible to students must be designated for, and only used by, individuals of the same “biological sex.” Schools would not be required to accommodate transgender students, and would be barred from providing access to facilities consistent with a student’s gender identity even in schools where such an arrangement is already in place and has proven workable.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and parents about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in US schools, including in Texas. We have documented the impact of laws and policies that discriminate against transgender students in two recent reports: Shut Out: Restrictions on Bathroom and Locker Room Access for Transgender Youth in US Schools and “Like Walking Through a Hailstorm”: Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in US Schools. We believe SB 6 is unnecessary and would have negative consequences for students, school districts, and the State of Texas – especially the transgender youth you represent.
First, SB 6 discriminates against transgender students on the basis of their gender identity. It treats transgender girls differently from other girls and treats transgender boys differently from other boys. It does so to deny transgender students – but not other students – access to shared facilities that they can use comfortably and safely during the hours they are in school. Such treatment sends a false and stigmatizing message that transgender youth are sexually predatory or threatening to their peers and cannot be trusted to share facilities with other students.
Second, SB 6’s requirement that students use facilities according to their biological sex poses serious health and safety risks for transgender students. In interviews in Texas and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch has found that transgender girls who use a boys’ restroom and transgender boys who use a girls’ restroom are highly vulnerable to bullying, harassment, and assault by other students. Furthermore, transgender students who are unable to use a bathroom where they feel safe and comfortable frequently forgo restroom use altogether, a dangerous practice that places students at risk of dehydration, bladder infections, urinary tract infections, and kidney problems.
Third, SB 6 raises serious privacy concerns. Many transgender students change their appearance, undergo medical intervention, or change schools as a part of their transition, and in many cases, other students are not aware of their transgender status. Requiring those students to use facilities according to their biological sex, or a different facility from other students, outs those students as transgender to their peers.
The problems raised by SB 6 are avoidable. Schools across the US have demonstrated they are capable of making arrangements so that all students are able to use restrooms and locker rooms safely and comfortably. Some schools find that providing gender-neutral options is feasible and satisfactory for transgender students, while other schools opt to install private bathroom stalls, shower stalls, or curtains that offer greater privacy to all students in existing facilities. Schools are best equipped to accommodate a transgender student’s needs and determine whether various options would be feasible in terms of comfort, safety, privacy, accessibility, and architecture. SB 6 would tie the hands of schools and school districts by imposing a blanket rule that is insensitive to the needs of transgender students and the viable solutions that schools are currently able to provide.
SB 6 is an unnecessary bill that would have serious, harmful repercussions for Texas’s children, and we urge you to oppose the legislation. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can provide further information.
Director, LGBT Rights Program
Human Rights Watch
The results of three elections in different parts of the world have been cast by pundits as proof that politicians who embrace “identity politics” risk being punished for it at the polls. In each case, this narrative has pointed to an emphasis of LGBT rights as being politically risky and somehow divisive.
Last year, in a plebiscite, a slight majority of the Colombian people rejected the negotiated peace agreement between the government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. Some observers believed that many voters had treated the vote as a referendum on the government’s overall performance—as tends to happen with many referendums. In that vein, some analysists attributed the loss to “gender politics.”
The Constitutional Court had removed barriers to adopting children for gay individuals and couples in 2015 and legalized same-sex marriage in 2016. On top of that, months before the plebiscite the education minister, a lesbian, had proposed mixed bathrooms and changes to school uniforms to put less emphasis on gender. She also wanted to create a manual to curb discrimination based on sexual orientation in schools. Her proposals met fierce opposition from conservative politicians.
Opponents linked the issue with the peace process, in part, misusing the fact that the education minister had become one of the central spokespersons for the government’s “yes” campaign on the peace agreement. The opposition falsely claimed that the peace agreement undermined family values and supported non-traditional views on gender and sexual orientation. The term “gay colonization” was coined.
Analysing the unexpected electoral loss of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential elections in November, professor Mark Lilla argued in an op-ed in the New York Times that her campaign had “slipped” into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters while saying nothing of direct resonance to white, working-class voters that have long been part of her party’s base. In his telling, this led many white working class voters to feel abandoned.
He said that national politics is not about “difference,” but about commonality, and that Clinton’s campaign failed to speak clearly enough to issues like economic justice that cut across group lines. In a campaign that set out to embrace diversity, white, rural, religious Americans started to see themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity and real-world needs were being ignored.
In the Netherlands, the March 15 elections ended in a dramatic loss for the Dutch Labor Party. Martin Sommer, a leading pundit, gave his analysis in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. According to him the Dutch Labor Party had neglected to address issues of major concern for the general public, in favour of a narrow focus on specific interests of minority groups. He echoed Lilla’s views. The Dutch education minister, a Labor Party member, had opened a gender-neutral bathroom in her ministry and gave interviews about why she thought it was important to introduce them. Sommer contended that transgender people whose interests would be served by this arrangement are only a very, very small percentage of the population and by addressing this issue the minister had alienated the majority of voters.
Whatever one thinks of the term, public unhappiness with “identity politics” has shown itself to be a complex and volatile political rallying cry. Many of the questions Lilla and many others have written on are of course worth exploring. But it’s dangerous and intellectually bankrupt to claim that the right lesson to draw from all of this is that politicians have gone too far in embracing diversity and standing up for the rights of women, racial minorities, LGBT people or anyone else. Political leaders may well need to look for new ways to speak to the needs and interests of groups who feel alienated by mainstream politics, but they shouldn’t embrace bigotry as a cheap and easy way to get there.
LGBT activists advocate for equal rights and non-discrimination. They do not claim special or extra rights. They aspire to a society where LGBT people are not bullied at work or in school, and have the same relationship rights as others do. Equality and non-discrimination are values that concern everyone in society. They require a robust defence. Because the values of human rights depend foremost on the ability to empathize with others – to recognize the importance of treating others the way we would want to be treated – they are especially vulnerable when the argument of the majority versus minorities is invoked.
Politics that stops talking about minority rights on the theory that upholding them is “divisive,” or makes it harder to win over majority voting blocs, will only lead to a more fragmented society, not bring people together. Instead, political leaders should make clear that rights are not a zero-sum game – protecting my rights does not undermine yours. On the contrary it creates a framework we can all rely on if our rights come under threat.