Opening the Closet:  The Security Council addresses violence affecting LGBT persons, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Aug

This past week, with peacekeeper abuse in Central African Republic and the first meeting of states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty commanding much attention, it was the Security Council that took pride of place in the UN.

A particularly hopeful development took place on Monday as the US and Chile hosted an Arria Formula event to highlight discrimination and abuse suffered by LGBT persons in diverse cultural contexts, with a particular focus on abuses concocted and perpetrated in Syria and Iraq by ISIL.

As one would anticipate given the speakers, which included persons who had been directly affected by violence and threats of violence merely for their sexual expressions, some of the testimony was gruesome.  Reports were numerous of alleged violators of ISIL’s interpretation of Islamic moral codes being tossed from the roofs of buildings and then stoned to death by onlookers if the fall failed to kill them first.

And while efforts were made (perhaps excessively) to keep the spotlight on ISIL’s abuses, there was also acknowledgement of a deeper problem.  As one speaker put it, if ISIL didn’t get me, my own family would.  LGBT persons continue to experience discrimination in many forms, in many cultures, and with many unwelcome consequences.   DSG Eliasson noted during the event that “there are no exceptions to human rights protections,” regardless of circumstance or, in this instance, preferences.   But some states and communities clearly failed to get this memo as people worldwide continue, as reinforced by a Syrian refugee speaker, to be “terrorized by intolerance.”

Indeed, our capacity for discriminating against others, and for enforcing discriminatory patters through violent means, seems to have no bounds. Too many of us have still not evolved from needing to create hierarchies, to feel superior, to adopt normative frameworks for our own lives and then seek to impose them on others.   The US is often cited (and chided) for its claims of national exceptionalism, but many societies and social movements have tendencies to claim superiority and enforce “in group – out group” discrimination. And as we have seen from Syria to Myanmar and in several African states, these collective (as Lithuania called them) “excuses for gross violence” have grave implications for international peace and security, certainly for our ability to build and maintain stable and peaceful societies.

In listening to the challenging narratives of this Arria Formula, it was good to have those “excuses” called out by Council members, to be reminded by Chile and others that silence on LGBT violence simply emboldens those seeking to perpetrate it.  And while France may have over-reached a bit in using this particular session to invoke International Criminal Court jurisdiction with respect to ISIL, it was reassuring that states seemed to interpret this session as something more than what the US referred to as “an historic step” of bringing the Council together to condemn crimes against LGBT persons.  As France, the US and the other Council members know full well, condemnation has little effect without effective follow up measures.

A few other things occurred to us while listening to the statements:

First, as is too often the case, the Council diminished what was a largely successful incursion by failing to acknowledge other efforts within the UN to call attention to abuses perpetrated against LGBT persons.  While the ISIL abuses are certainly grotesque, they should properly be seen as aberrations of already aberrant behavior by some states and communities, aberrations that should largely remain the province of General Assembly and Human Rights Council, especially once states demonstrate their inability or unwillingness to provide domestic remedies for abuse.   For those wondering if, indeed, there would have been just cause for Council members to cite the LGBT-related efforts of other stakeholders in the UN system, please visit http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/LGBTUNResolutions.aspx .

Secondly, and we hesitate to make this point again, while it is important to take stock of abuses committed against persons and communities, and there are so many to choose from in this discouraging time, stories of abuse do not in and of themselves suggest a remedial framework.   That such stories can (or at least should) create urgency is beyond doubt, but urgency in what form?   What is the most effective response strategy going forward?  How do we address such abuse within the limitations of the UN Charter, the will of key member states, certainly the requirements of international human rights law?  It is most important, as noted by New Zealand, to put a “human face” on violations, by ISIL or any other abuser.  But faces of pain are the motivation for thoughtful, effective policy, not a stand-in for it.

Finally, we wonder about the use of Council time and energy on these particular ISIL violations, aside from the important matter of highlighting an issue of discrimination that is massive in some states and present in almost all, albeit one that is most likely to be resolved through other UN forums.  If an objective of this Arria Formula was to highlight the breadth and venom of ISIL abuses in Syria and Iraq, we alredy have more than sufficient evidence in hand.  Jordan aptly highlighted the degree to which “ISIL trades in fear,” as Colombia noted that ISIL violence denies core UN Charter provisions.  But for Council members all of this is old news that may have actually diverted a bit of the focus from the specifics (and pervasiveness) of LGBT-related discrimination itself.

For those who think it callous to question any aspect of Council efforts to call attention to this serious pattern of discrimination and abuse affecting LGBT persons, I would refer you to a series of briefings this week in Security Council chambers focused on events in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan.   In each instance, the escalating levels of violence, discrimination and displacement reported simply stagger the imagination.   All of these crises are already on the Security Council agenda and all have resisted some or all of its efforts to address the violence and the humanitarian crises in its wake.   Seemingly with each briefing, the vast numbers of reported abused, neglected and forsaken continue to grow.  Frustration with Council responses – rightly or wrongly – increases as well.

Argentina was perhaps the most “vocal” of the states to speak at this Arria Formula, using the opportunity to link LGBT violence to “femicide” and many other discrimination-related abuses that now occur frequently even in times of “peace.” Argentina also, to the amusement of some in the room, urged the Council itself to “come out of the closet.”  Amb. Percival was referring specially to the fact that the Arria meeting was closed to the press – which was actually a concession to the fact that testimony was offered by a gay Iraqi activist who himself faced grave threats of violence at home.

But there is meaning here that might add value going forward.  “Closets,” after all, keep in as well as keep out.  They are useful, even metaphorically, in protecting conversations and behavior from outside scrutiny.  They help preserve the private sphere, important for those “terrorized by intolerance,” but much less so for the governments and multi-lateral agencies seeking to build passion and capacity for addressing broader discrimination-related violence that causes so much misery in our contemporary world.

If this Arria Formula is indeed to become that “historic step,” it needs to be taken in full connection with those addressing intolerance across the UN system and beyond.  The “closet” door must be swung open to provide better access for all capable and relevant stakeholders – not only on LGBT matters but on the many other forms of discrimination and related abuse that seriously impede peace and security progress worldwide.

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