LGBT Forum - Day Three - Public Forum on Supporting LGBT Human Rights Held in Berlin




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May 23, 2014
by Klaus Mueller and Sudeshan Reddy
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LGBT Forum - Day Three - Public Forum on Supporting LGBT Human Rights Held in Berlin

Global LGBT Forum discusses urgent LGBT needs at German Federal Foreign Office, Berlin, Germany  Klaus Mueller, Chair of the Global LGBT Forum, thanks the German Federal Foreign Office for their invitation

The Public Forum provided a unique opportunity for the Global LGBT Forum participants and representatives of the German Foreign Ministry to address key issues facing LGBT communities globally.

Christoph Strässer, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, opened the evening outlining how the German government supports a large variety of measures to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTI persons in the world: "While contexts and stakeholders vary, the questions Foreign Service members face in choosing these measures are often similar: Should support be public or discreet? How do we avoid endangering human rights defenders and the very rights they are trying to protect?"

He continued that regular conversation with civil society and human rights defenders is vital: "To help us identify these questions and identify answers, we have invited a core group of the Global LGBT Forum to join us in Berlin for meetings and conversations on how to sustain Global LGBT networks."

Klaus Mueller, the chair of the Global LGBT Forum, thanked the German Federal Foreign Office for their invitation and emphasized that "our partnership is driven by two shared perspectives: to strengthen cooperation that, while established, is relatively new for both sides: LGBT groups would benefit from better understanding procedures of the Foreign Office; and the Ministry struggles to build continuous engagement with groups that in many countries operate under extreme pressure, are fragile, or even illegal. We both believe this new relationship should not be taken for granted, but nurtured through regular meetings." Adding, that "we both struggle with a growing global polarization on questions around sexual orientation and gender identity," Mueller asked the question: "How can we react to the fact that not only the struggle for LGBT rights has gone global, but hate too - and that trans- and homophobia are more and more connected globally?"

Christoph Strässer moderated the first conversation entitled: "Supporting LGBT Human Rights: What works, where and when, and what does not?"

Hans-Ulrich Südbeck, the Head of Division of the Western Balkan Office of the Federal Foreign Office described the close cooperation between LGBT activists and EU embassies in Serbia. Diplomatic pressure on the Serbian government helped to secure the freedom of assembly and Pride March in Belgrade. Diplomatic intervention by EU members, Germany included, led to integrating LGBT rights into the general human rights framework in some Balkan countries. As diplomats have limited terms in a duty station, he emphasized, that it is critical that local activists have more than one contact point at an embassy and operate pro-actively.

Russia is a similarly difficult environment as described by Olga Lenkova, spokesperson for Coming Out, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based LGBT support group, who made the case that behind-the-scenes diplomatic engagement with government officials at times can be very useful as these officials are often less hostile and defensive during private discussions. Wanja Kilber, spokesperson for Coming Out, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based LGBT support group, suggested to use existing networks, such as city partnerships, to address LGBT human rights.

With regard to the role of the United Nations, Tamara Adriana of the Central University of Venezuela described the increasing visibility of LGBT issues. Capacity building by diplomatic missions, among others, has allowed activists to travel abroad and get better informed through the exchange of ideas and best practice.

Sudeshan Reddy from the United Nations Information Centre in South Africa noted how, in numerous multilateral forums, homophobia and transphobia has moved away from the periphery of global human rights discourse. From the UN Secretary-General to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, LGBT rights are prominently discussed and promoted. Examples of this are the landmark 2011 resolution in the UN Human Rights Committee as well as launch of an anti-homophobia campaign titled “UN Free and Equal.” The UN remains the largest forum in the world and the significance of its increasingly assertive anti-homo- and transphobia stance should not be underestimated; but that strong and continuous pro-active support from countries like Germany remains essential for future success.

The situation in India remains complex according to Pooja Badrinath of CREA with both progressive and regressive legal supreme court judgments within the last year. Civil society in India remains active and vibrant but capacity building is key and the support of diplomatic missions here is valuable.

Dan Zhou, a lawyer and activist from China highlighted the significance of networking and urged a more coordinated approach from embassies on LGBT human rights that could facilitate regular exchanges and meetings as well as build bridges to other civil society organizations, as for example to gender activist groups. 

The Public Forum provided a unique opportunity for the Global LGBT Forum participants and representatives of the German Foreign Ministry to address key issues facing LGBT communities globally.

The second part of the Public Discussion examined the issue of “Crisis Response: How to react? How to react well?” and was moderated by Anke Konrad, the Deputy Head of Division in the Human Rights Office of the Federal Foreign Office.

When there is a sudden deterioration of the human rights situation on the ground, it is critical that local organisations have contingency plans. As the situation in Uganda worsened, Kasha Nabagesera, Founder and former Executive Director of FARUG in Kampala, Uganda, spoke of how prior training in security and safety helped local activists cope. The support of various diplomatic missions in Kampala was also encouraging both prior to and after the crack-down by the government against the LGBT community. What was not anticipated was the public outing campaign by some of the Ugandan print media which then meant it became less secure for LGBT activists to meet. Here too, the Guidelines prepared by Farug for diplomatic missions, among others, assisted with providing them with advice on how to support the LGBT community. These included information on the sanctions that should be applied as Uganda should serve as deterrence for other countries. Legal assistance, advice and general moral support from diplomatic missions based in hostile countries cannot be underestimated.

In a crisis situation, key contacts are a vital tool, argued Dietrich Becker, Head of Division for Western and Central Africa in the Federal Foreign Office. Hence, it is important for activists to  establish personal relationships and keep these contacts going before the situation deteriorates.  In addition, activists need to be pro-active in contacting ambassadors and should not expect any pre-existing knowledge. Even conservative diplomatic staff are aware that LGBT-issues are high on the  German agenda.

Discussing the Uganda case, Riccardo Serri of the European External Action Service informed the audience that the EU member states viewed the passing of the homophobic laws in Uganda as a very serious issue.  Guidelines on LGBTI issues proved to be helpful to senior EU officials. Steps taken included the collection of information on the situation in Uganda as well as open-door and closed-door diplomacy tactics. With regard to Eastern Europe, he noted, that there is considerable leverage if a country aspires to be a member of the EU. Financial pressures can be used if governments do not respect human rights (i.e. suspending aid). 

When discussing how best to foster positive development in a hostile environment, Dennis Wamala of Icebreakers in Uganda, emphasized the need to understand the causes of a difficult situation. In the case of Uganda, religion (in the form of right-wing evangelists), culture (where one does not talk openly about sexuality), and lack of knowledge (where information is not readily available to society) created the conditions for the difficult situation.   With regard to addressing this, one needs to reach out to progressive elements in society, educate civil society partners to begin a process of change.  Media should be, where possible, be used as an ally. Local activists need to work with international organisations to remind hostile governments of their obligations under international law. Postive news has emerged from Lebanon as recounted by George Azzi of the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality who elaborated on a few recent court judgements in the country. As a consequence, there is a noticeable reluctance among the authorities to target the LGBT communities.

In responding to the question: “What can we do at home to advance human rights?,” Klaus Mueller, the Chair of the Global LGBT Forum, argued that bold and clear leadership now on full equality is decisive. "Clear legislation from homo- and transphobic laws. Ensure the safety of teenagers. Recognize and value families in all shapes. Open marriage. At Home." He noted that South Africa's constitutional protection of LGBT human rights, Argentina's transgender legislation or the opening of marriage in many Latin American countries are models to follow - emphasizing the sense of urgency while the global spotlight is on the LGBT issue.

In summarizing the evening Forum, Anke Konrad highlighted the need to for LGBT activists to remain in constant contact with diplomatic missions, to not work in isolation and to be prepared for emergencies.