Countdown to Tolerance

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Tue Mar 27, 2012

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: When Hate Masquerades as Logic

By Maurice Tomlinson

A historic UN session took place in Geneva in early March this year. It was convened to discuss an equally historic report by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights regarding violence against homosexuals.

Some persons (including me) deemed this report to be long overdue. It is a matter of historical record that several thousand homosexuals were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II by the Nazis (who introduced the infamous Pink Triangle as a badge of shame) and many perished; yet it was not until 2002 that Germany officially apologized for its wartime treatment of LGBT. Even after the founding of the UN, which rose phoenix-like from the ashes of WWII, and the numerous human rights instruments it birthed, homosexuals continue to be mercilessly persecuted around the world: 76 countries still criminalize homosexuality, seven of which allow for the death penalty as punishment.

This latest UN session demonstrated just how divided the globe remains on the issue of basic human rights for homosexuals, such as their right to life and freedom from torture. The presentation of this report, sponsored by South Africa, was boycotted by the Organization of Islamic Countries and most of the African Union. The reason given was that condemning homophobic attacks would be seen as legitimizing same-sex relations (!).

A similarly flawed logic manifested during the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in 2008. On that occasion, the Brazilian delegation introduced the first ever resolution on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” The normal trajectory of such resolutions is that they are first introduced and agreed to at the OAS Permanent Council in Washington before being brought to the itinerant OAS General Assembly (GA) for rubber-stamping. This resolution failed to garner sufficient support at the Permanent Council, but the brave Brazilians bypassed normal OAS procedures and brought it to the OAS GA anyway. This was a rare act of political courage within the highly politicized OAS system and demonstrated the Brazilian government’s commitment to LGBT rights.

Yet for all its high-sounding title, the resolution did no more than tamely condemn violence against LGBT within the Americas. Even so, to their eternal shame, the Guyanese delegation was persuaded by the 15-nation CARICOM block to oppose the resolution ostensibly because of “domestic legal realities” (no doubt referring to the fact that 11 of the group retain colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexual relations). In what can only be described as a supreme act of diplomatic maneuvering, the Brazilian ambassador inquired if any Caribbean country really had laws on their books that would allow for violence against any group of individuals, including gays. In the face of this masterful piece of rhetoric, the CARICOM block collapsed and the resolution was adopted. A similarly themed resolution has been concluded in Washington every year since then and duly brought to the OAS GA for unanimous adoption.

The tragic parallels between the recent UN debate on homophobic violence and the OAS resolution in 2008 are stark. Even more tragic is that the countries that stand the most to gain from addressing homophobic violence and its impact on HIV are the ones least inclined to address the issue.

Africa and the Caribbean have the highest HIV prevalence rates. Multiple UNAIDS reports confirm that the epidemic in these regions is both generalized and concentrated, with men who have sex with men recording rates as high as 42% in some parts of Kenya and 32% in Jamaica.  The high rate of multiple sexual partners—38.9% amongst sexually active respondents in one UN study in Africa—combined with the fact that many MSM also have sex with women as a cover for their sexuality (nearly 4/5 of those surveyed in Senegal) leads to the conclusion that there must be an increased focus on reaching MSM if we are ever to eradicate HIV and AIDS throughout Africa and the Caribbean. Yet research presented by Professor Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins University highlights that efforts aimed at reaching MSM with HIV eradication interventions are severely hampered in homophobic and hostile environments. A very palpable example was the 17 deaths that occurred as a result of prison riots when Jamaica tried unsuccessfully to introduce condoms in penal institutions in 1997.

Thankfully, the OAS resolution passed and the work to reach Caribbean MSM with life-saving HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions has been increasing. Sadly, the countries in the OIC and the AU who stand to benefit the most from the recent UN Human Rights Council debate were absent.

As a sad footnote, many of these same boycotting countries attended a Vatican-supported side-event, ironically entitled “Towards Preserving the Universality of Human Rights,” the central focus of which was to deny recognition of the human rights of homosexuals. Hate for gays has the power to unite even former religious crusading foes, I guess.

It was the Vatican that steadfastly resisted endorsing condoms as a means of HIV prevention.  Now they are seeking to deny human rights for homosexuals in order to preserve human rights. This misguided logic led me once to opine that inviting the Vatican to a HIV conference was as perverse as inviting Nazis to a Holocaust memorial.