Archive for Human Rights Watch

Freedom of Expression Under Threat

By Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch

Invisibility and stigma go hand in hand. “Coming out” became a central part of the gay liberation movement in the United States and Europe from the 1960s, a strategy adopted as a prerequisite for claiming rights. And in the late 1980s, in response to the AIDS crisis, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) adopted the slogan “Silence=Death,” which became the rallying cry of a movement challenging silence and stigma. Globally, in the past three decades, there has been a rapid increase in queer visibility, facilitated by many factors including images and ideas circulating through the internet, interconnectedness among LGBT organizations and individuals, and the global response to HIV/AIDS. 

As of 2017, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has 1,228 member organizations in 132 countries. Yet visibility also comes with risks. As the visibility of sexual and gender minorities has increased, so too has the prevalence of laws that seek to ban public expressions of identity. When “the love that dare not speak its name” moved into the public square, LGBT activists in many parts of the world were treated with suspicion, accused of importing foreign concepts, promoting homosexuality, and threatening “traditional values.”

In the first week of January, a Chinese court accepted a case challenging a ban on depictions of homosexuality from online video platforms. The vague and sweeping regulations, imposed in June 2017 by the media regulatory authority under the Chinese government, prohibit portrayals of “abnormal sexual lifestyles or behavior,” including homosexuality. Also among the taboo subjects are portrayals of “Chinese imperialism,” “sexual liberation,” or “excessive drinking.” The guidelines were an attempt to bring internet content in line with Chinese television regulations that have explicitly banned depictions of same-sex relationships since 2016. This despite the fact that homosexuality is not criminalized in China, and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its official classification of mental disorders in 2001. These new restrictions are part of a pattern of ever-tightening social control in China.

Similarly, Indonesia’s parliament is considering a revised broadcasting bill that would ban “showcasing lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender behaviors.” Lawmakers say that the ban could include dramas with gay characters, broadcasts advocating for the rights of LGBT people, and traditional folk performances that often include waria (loosely translated as “transgender women”).


A victim of the purge telling his story in a safe house in central Russia in April 2017. // Nataliya Vasilyeva for Human Rights Watch

Dede Oetomo, an activist, decried this threat to make waria characters, ubiquitous in Indonesian entertainment and beauty culture, invisible on broadcast media. Bobby Rizaldi, a lawmaker, said: “LGBT is not criminal, but if it enters the public sphere, if it is broadcast to the public, then of course it must be regulated.” Another member of parliament said that if the content were aimed at “fixing the abnormality” it would be allowed. The highly polarized debate about LGBT issues in Indonesia is shorthand for competing claims between pluralism and fundamentalism.  

In 2013, Russia imposed a national ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Similar propaganda-style legislation has been debated in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine, leading to an increased public discussion of “traditional values” and the perceived threat posed by sexual and gender minorities. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Russian law for reinforcing stigma, encouraging homophobia, and discriminating against a vulnerable minority. Russia is obligated to abide by the ruling, yet continues to charge people under the law – an administrative offense that, at worst, imposes a fine. But its effects are widespread and insidious, leading to self-censorship and contributing to bias-motivated violence. The government of Vladimir Putin has used this law to mobilize popular support domestically and take on the mantle of protecting “traditional values” internationally.

Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (2014) goes a lot further than banning same-sex marriages. The law punishes establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection with 10 years in prison. The law was passed in the midst of security concerns, corruption scandals and a looming election in Nigeria, serving its purpose as a political football.  

The idea that homosexuality can be improperly “promoted” is rooted in the fear of same-sex relations as a social contagion. Just as laws prohibiting same-sex conduct seek to regulate what consenting adults may and may not do with their bodies, so too do propaganda and promotion laws that seek to regulate what is permissible in the social sphere. Sodomy and propaganda laws are based on similar ideas of contagion and social pollution.  

In this respect, Chechnya is an extreme example. In April 2017, news broke of a systematic purge against gay and bisexual men, who were rounded up and tortured before being released to their families in public rituals of humiliation that encouraged so-called “honor-killings.” Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadirov, said at the time, denying the abuses: “If there were such people [gays] 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.” In this discourse, gay people are completely erased from Chechnya. Their existence is impossible.  

Ibu Shinta, the founder of an Islamic boarding school and mosque for transgender women in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, chose to close down the institution under threats from fundamentalist groups in February 2016. // Kyle Knight for Human Rights Watch

One of the ways governments attempt to curtail visibility is by making it difficult for LGBT groups to operate.  In the past year alone, police raids in Uganda forced the closure of the Kampala International Queer Film Festival and a week of activities linked to Uganda Pride. In Turkey, the governor of Ankara imposed an indefinite ban on all public LGBT events in the province. In Egypt, after 75 people were arrested and 40 convicted in late 2017 after a rainbow flag was displayed at a music concert, the government imposed a media blackout on all positive depictions of homosexuality. And Tanzanian authorities suspended an organization that works on LGBT health rights and arrested a prominent South African human rights lawyer together with 12 of her colleagues and activist clients for “promoting homosexuality.”   

But in legal systems under which the judiciary enjoys a degree of independence, courts are playing an important role in providing a remedy. Recent court rulings in Botswana (2016), Kenya (2014) and (2015), Tunisia (2016), South Korea (2017), and Mozambique (2017) have asserted the right of LGBT groups to register and advocate for their rights, despite laws in some of these countries that restrict same-sex practice.

Claims such as those by Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni that homosexuality is “un-African” can hardly stand in the face of an increasingly visible, mobilized, indigenous African LGBT movement, and the same holds true for other parts of the world. Homophobia is a convenient political tool precisely because it can be portrayed as a dangerous foreign influence. Symbols of a transnational movement, such as rainbow flags, pride parades, queer cultural events, or LGBT organizations can be used by unscrupulous politicians to stir moral panics about LGBT rights to distract attention from economic woes, social tensions, and political problems.

Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch and teaches at Columbia and Yale. Reid is teaching Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Human Rights at Columbia University this Spring 2018.

What does the Rohingya crisis mean for Myanmar’s Nobel Laureate?

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

On November 14, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University hosted a lecture titledUnderstanding the Rohingya Crisis.” Panelists addressed the historical roots of ongoing violent conflict in Myanmar, including the “othering” of the minority Rohingya Muslims and escalating fear of Islam, as well as the responsibility of the international community to respond to the country’s human rights crisis. The lack of response raises questions about the international community’s commitment to protecting peace and precipitates another interesting discussion: What does an ethnic cleansing overseen by a Nobel Peace Prize winner mean for the credibility of the award itself?

Aung San Suu Kyi accepts her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. // Flickr

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and first state counselor, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her admirable fight for democracy in Myanmar during 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner. However, actions speak louder than words. Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity to the killings and expulsions of Rohingya Muslims raises questions about her promise to ensure peace and democracy in Myanmar.

Panelists of the event provided context for the current crisis and cited startling statistics of pervasive and systematic violence against the Rohingya, violence that constitutes ethnic cleansing by U.N. standardsHuman Rights Watch reports that military repression has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, forcing at least 600,000 people to flee their homes since 2016. The U.N. continues to deliberate on whether the killings constitute a genocide. Furthermore, panelist Mayesha Alam mentioned that no state besides Indonesia criticized the government of Myanmar for its inhumane treatment of the Rohingya during the recent ASEAN summit. The lack of international response delegitimizes international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and principles such as the Responsibility to Protect.

In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Malala Yousafzai, another Nobel Peace Laureate, also expressed her disappointment in a statement on Twitter: “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.” Similarly, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and long time supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, has said, “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Malala Yousafzai have been critical of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of response on the Rohingya crisis // Flickr

In her first public address since the violent military crackdown on the Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements contradicted her actions. She displaced blame and denied culpability, claiming that the Myanmar government “condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” She also made false claims, assuring the audience that Rohingya Muslims did not face discrimination and had equal access to healthcare and education— a blatant lie according to international human rights advocates. Perhaps more concerning, in the same speech, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that despite widespread condemnation, she does not fear international scrutiny.

Despite ubiquitous disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and calls for the revocation of her award, former Nobel Prize committee member Gunnar Stalsett defended the committee’s choice: “The principle we follow in the decision is not a declaration of a saint…when the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee.”

However, Stalsett’s above statement is dangerous— it insinuates that the Nobel Peace Prize committee has no interest in the actions of their awardees post-conferment. Not condemning Aung San Suu Kyi for her direct contradiction of the award’s values discredits the legitimacy of the prize. Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize should be held to higher standards and accountable for their actions. At the least, they should face repercussions for committing injustices. While a Nobel Peace Prize has never been revoked, in this case, rescinding the award appears to be one of the more obvious and symbolic means of sending an important message to Aung San Suu Kyi: reputation and power do not acquit anyone of wrongdoing in the face of human rights violations.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.

Careers in Human Rights: Insights From the Field

By Bárbara Matias, an M.A. student in human rights

Amid a tense political climate and growing importance of the human rights field, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights annual Career Panel came at a particularly conducive time. On February 21st, an ensemble of undergraduate, graduate and prospective students gathered to discuss topics ranging from the professional opportunities available to human rights students to the skills, credentials, and experiences most valued by organizations.

As acknowledged by faculty and students alike, human rights does not always present an obvious career path, which was why hearing from experts in diverse fields within this realm proved opportune. This year’s panel welcomed four experts working at intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and not-for-profit organizations: Mia Briones, a leadership gifts officer at the International Rescue Committee (IRC); Bethany Brown, a researcher at the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch; Emilie Filmer-Wilson, a Global Human Rights adviser at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); and Nahal Zamani, an advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

The panelists opened the discussion by describing their academic backgrounds and professional paths. Mia Briones’ role with the IRC’s major donors, for example, requires her to be completely up to date with international affairs, as was noted by Nahal Zamani from the Center for Constitutional Rights. Being knowledgeable about a wide range of issues around the world and able to provide commentary is crucial to her work. With information and international events moving as fast as they do, it is fundamental for professionals to engage with many actors —governmental, non-governmental, national and international, as well as civil society— to get a full grasp of the current footing of your field.

Panelists Bethany Brown and Emilie Filmer-Wilson // Andrew Rizzardi

With this in mind, every student or job applicant is expected to be alert to how their research or a particular organization is presented in the media. Following social media or official news outlets to better understand public opinions about the field or organization was highlighted throughout the panel.

Oftentimes, in human rights advocacy and funding, it may be difficult to motivate or spark interest in a listener or reader— therein a full understanding and motivation in your work is indispensable to engage others. On this note, Bethany Brown added that networking should never be overlooked or overrated; she herself reaches out to other departments at Human Rights Watch to make sure she is fully abreast on certain topics.

For many within the human rights field, working for the United Nations is a career goal. Emilie Filmer-Wilson, having worked at the development pillar of the UN for the last 11 years, offered some insight into the work environment and hiring competitiveness of the organization. While it is a state-centric organization, she reminded attendees that ‘’there is nothing like the UN in bringing stakeholders together.” The diverse backgrounds of UN employees make for an inspiring work environment for anyone with a passion for our global village. Moreover, it enables work-related international travel and missions, which are often of major interest to students.

Another type of work environment students might find interesting is not-for-profits. Working at the CCR, Nahal Zamani finds it particularly fulfilling to be able to transfer the skills she acquired from a life of political activism to a professional setting.

Panelist Mia Briones // Andrew Rizzardi

Against a growing competitive backdrop within human rights and international affairs, the panelists shared some insights on the attributes most sought by hiring managers. Excellent communicators, writers and researchers with direct work experience stood out among the hundreds of applicants reviewed, according to the panelists. In other words, while there must be an evident drive to work in a specific field, it is highly recommended to demonstrate how you have already engaged in the field. Tangible experience in adopting a certain mindset given the scope of work, as well as showing initiative or producing creative solutions to problems were all highlighted. For example, to work internationally, clear evidence of successful work with people or teams from different backgrounds is essential.

Analytical skills matched with political judgment to identify how to present information depending on the audience also mustn’t be disregarded. There must be an underlying passion in one’s work, however never to a point that hinders one’s ability to see others’ perspectives. Such diplomatic skills are a valuable asset in cultivating change and engaging in discussion with various actors.

It was particularly interesting to see the emphasis on the importance of a fortuitous opportunity made possible through hard work. All panelists reminded the audience that while hard work does lead to great opportunities, one should take advantage of lucky opportunities and invest hard work. Avid commitment was flagged as the key to converting opportunities into concrete achievements. It is important to know what you want, to put yourself out there, and to take the risk. There is nothing to learn from an opportunity not taken, but one can always learn from failure.

A last topic worth highlighting was the panelists’ discussion on field work. While the majority of students look internationally, any work with affected communities constitutes field work. There are a myriad of human rights organizations in New York City that students are encouraged to explore, as well as opportunities to work with vulnerable populations such as refugees, the elderly or the homeless. In fact, Brown revealed she first became aware that she wanted to pursue a career in researching international frameworks for older people’s human rights after volunteering for a hospice in her hometown in her early 20s.

At the end of the event, prospective ISHR student Jessica Pierson reveled in the opportunity to hear from such skilled human rights workers: “For someone who is looking to apply to this master’s program, knowing what kind of jobs I’d be able to apply to when I graduate was really beneficial.”

There are sure to be more career-related events for the human rights aficionados around campus. Be sure to stay informed of opportunities and make sure to take advantage of each one.

Bárbara Matias is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  Her research interests include refugee rights, forced displacement, and human rights affairs in the context of the European Union.