Free Nicholas Opiyo

On Tuesday, Ugandan officials unjustly arrested celebrated human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo. In violation of Ugandan law as well as both international and African human rights law, the LGBTI+ rights and civil liberties advocate is now being dangerously and unjustifiably detained along with several other human rights lawyers including a member of the Ugandan opposition party.

On Wednesday, the US Embassy took action, issuing a joint statement voicing concern and demanding the immediate release of the four detainees. Voicing concern for the four lawyers and support for due process, the statement was the result of collaboration between members of the Partners for Democracy and Global Governance Group: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, UK, USA, and the EU. 

We’re heartened by their swift action and specifically the US Embassy’s coordination with other embassies. In collaborating with the PDG, the US has taken a necessary stance to protect human rights advocates. The PDG’s statement amplified a chorus of human rights defenders — from the board of Opiyo’s nonprofit Chapter Four Uganda and Ugandan Law Society to the International Centre for Transnational Justice and Human Rights Watch — and affirmed our coalition’s efforts on behalf of all marginalized people. Notably, the statement explicitly names a human rights lawyer best known for defending the LGBTI community, a promising sign at a time when our rights are under attack globally. 

“Nicholas Opiyo is a fearless defender of human rights. His bold, unapologetic conviction and tireless work towards upholding and defending the constitutionally guaranteed rights for all is what the country needs. We must fight against any efforts to crucify him on the altar of evolving political circumstances because wherever human beings exist – so will inalienable human rights.”

Angelo Izama, Board Member of Chapter Four Uganda where Nicholas Opiyo serves as Executive Director

Rejecting Refugees on Human Rights Day

December 10, 2020—Today is International Human Rights Day, marking the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the birth of the modern human rights movement at the United Nations.  To our national shame, the Trump Administration today also released new asylum regulations that gut asylum protections in the United States, tragically turning our country’s back on those fleeing persecution and seeking to breathe free on our shores.    

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and with the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave practical form to the world’s collective cry of “never again.” More than seventy years later, the refrain from the Trump Administration is an isolationist rant. 

President Trump went through the motions yesterday, officially proclaiming today as International Human Rights Day, but he spent most of the week tweeting a torrent of lies about his election defeat, desperately trying to convince courts and legislatures to invalidate legal ballots and the will of the American people.  President-elect Biden, in contrast, pledged to “stand with human rights defenders here in the United States and the world over as we put universal rights and strengthening democracy at the center of our efforts to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”  And he reminded us that we all have rights, “no matter how we look, how we pray, or whom we love.” 

Today’s deadly asylum regulations are really an attempt to codify the cruel legacy of the Trump Administration: refugee families ripped apart, children thrown in cages, and vulnerable people turned back at the border.  President-elect Biden has pledged to overturn that legacy and rebuild our country’s refugee and asylum system.  That will require the President-elect’s personal commitment, the dedication of officials across the government, and, most importantly, the empathy of ordinary Americans.     

All of us living in the United States—Democrats and Republicans alike—have  a responsibility to undo the misery caused by this outgoing Administration. On this International Human Rights Day, let’s redouble our efforts to make our country a haven for those fleeing persecution.  

Council for Global Equality Releases Biden-Harris Transition Paper

The Council today released a new transition policy paper to encourage the incoming Biden-Harris Administration to adopt detailed proposals for each foreign affairs agency to center the rights of LGBTI individuals in U.S. Foreign Policy.  Read our proposal for Centering the Rights of LGBTI Individuals in U.S. Foreign Policy: A Pathway to Effective Global Leadership.

President-elect Biden and his Administration face an array of obstacles that include an ongoing pandemic, sharp divisions along racial, ethnic, and economic lines, and deep erosion in our country’s trust and image abroad.  We applaud the transition for initially prioritizing COVID-19, Economic Recovery, Racial Equality, and Climate Change. These domestic and global obstacles are linked.  A Biden Presidency can unite the country by renewing our commitment to inclusive human rights values at home and abroad. 

In our paper, the Council asks that the foreign policy-related options being framed for the President-elect affirm our country’s respect for, and attachment to, LGBTI- and minority-inclusive human rights.  We urge that human rights be approached through a “whole of government” lens rather than agency-by-agency silos.  We insist that those chosen to lead these policies represent America’s commitment to fairness and equality, in both character and characteristics.  And we call on the Biden Administration to recommit to strengthening coalitions of LGBTI human rights-supportive governments engaged in the work of international organizations.

Read our 2020 transition paper here.

The Congressional Race to Chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee

United States Congress

The Council for Global Equality, together with its leading human rights membership organizations, released a public letter today calling on House Democrats to vote for a new Congressional Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee who will restore U.S. human rights commitments and promote the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons globally.  The Chair should be ready to lead the development and oversight of a progressive, principled, rights-driven foreign policy that includes urgently needed attention to the human rights of LGBTIQ+ people abroad.

The letter asks the candidates for the committee chairmanship to pledge support for LGBTIQ+ equality at home and abroad by demonstrating a commitment to six core principles:

  • America’s commitment to advancing democratic and human rights precepts must be restored and must be pursued in partnership with other like-minded allies.
  • Our country’s foreign policy must embrace LGBTIQ+- and gender-inclusive human rights.
  • LGBTIQ+-inclusive immigration and asylum policies must be strengthened.
  • Our development and health assistance programs must holistically incorporate LGBTIQ+ populations.
  • The Administration’s public servants must be representative of America’s diversity.  
  • The Foreign Affairs Committee’s oversight functions must be marshalled to ensure the effectiveness of our human rights policies and programs.

The Council and its members look forward to hearing detailed plans from the three leading candidates for Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee describing how they would advance these core American values in the next Congress. Based on his campaign pledges, we are pleased that President-elect Biden and his administration stand ready to work with the new Chair to secure these value and advance equality for LGBTIQ+ people everywhere.

Read the full letter here.

Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights – What Our Country Never Was and What Our Human Rights Policy Should Never Be

20180628_Mike_Pompeo_8x10_250_1The penny drops.

On Thursday, Mike Pompeo pompously unveiled a long-awaited report that could sharply limit our country’s advocacy for human rights around the world.

Defying Philadelphia Mayor Kenney’s COVID-related ban on large public gatherings, Pompeo unveiled the report in a speech at that city’s National Constitution Center.  The props of the unveiling were part-tent revival, part-Americana:  a Catholic cardinal’s invocation, a military-sung rendition of the national anthem, and of course the Liberty Bell.

And the trappings were wholly political.

Pompeo voiced his now-typical whine that a so-called “proliferation” of rights “risks trivializing core American values.”  He offered strangely disjointed, State-of-the-Union-like applause for charter school and Chinese human rights advocates.  He exalted American principles, defended the Administration’s support for human rights, chastised China, uplifted Confederate statues, and decried moral equivalency.  And, of course, he criticized those who call for our country to be better than it is – particularly chastising The New York Times’ critical race history project, “The 1619 Project,” as well as American protesters’ removal of slave-holder and slavery advocate statues.

With an overt ode to Trump’s own dark and cynical speech at Mount Rushmore, Pompeo claimed that “today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack.”  And he complained that “too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles . . . . They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding.”

But the report he unveiled, by his self-appointed “Unalienable Rights Commission,” is hardly a guide to how to make this Administration’s support for human rights more credible.  Rather, it’s a mishmash of pontifications and sophistry — reflecting perhaps Pompeo’s political aspirations as much as his narrow, hard-right-religious worldview.

The basic message of this report sounds respectful but is deeply concerning as it argues that countries must have “leeway to base their human rights policy on their own distinctive national traditions.”  Claiming that this is a nuanced – not relativistic – approach, it still hands dictators a roadmap to justify abuses based on their culture, religion and national traditions.

The takeaways from the report are neither surprising nor inspiring:

That “…the ambitious human rights project of the past century is in crisis.”

That some rights are universal, while others — commonly known as “positive rights” — are “created by, and can only exist in, civil society.”

That property rights and religious freedom enjoy “…primacy in the American political tradition — as an unalienable right, an enduring limit on state power, and a protector of seedbeds of civic virtues.”

And that “abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage” are “divisive social and political controversies in the United States” — in other words, not really human rights, and certainly not unalienable.

There’s much in the report about America’s uniqueness and greatness — and Pompeo’s remarks were themselves full of Administration self-puffery.  Between the two, the Philadelphia event offered a thinly-disguised, gauzy, puritanical lens on what our country never was, and what our country’s human rights policy never should be:  a monochromatic, Bible-thumping vision of our country, rather than a set of principles around which all countries can find common cause.

We’ve seen this train wreck coming for months, of course.  Stacked with religious academics with little-to-no practical grounding in human rights, the Unalienable Rights Commission seemed ill-equipped from inception to author a serious report on how to strengthen human rights principles.

We’d of course be interested to know whether the Commission talked, behind closed doors, about the Trump Administration’s silence in the face of human rights abuses committed by Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and countless other countries around the globe.  Indeed, both the Commission and its report seem in many ways a smokescreen for Trump and Pompeo’s unwillingness to stand up for human rights, and in so doing stand for not only a decades-long bipartisan consensus on the principles that should undergird our foreign policy, but the 1949 Universal Declaration on Human Rights that the U.S., in fact, helped draft.

Pointing to the inadequacies of this Administration’s human rights embrace, and calling for a renewed U.S. commitment to human rights for all, would have been a far more worthy use of time than this report offers.  And despite the report’s obsession about slavery in its historical context, the commissioners failed to crystallize how, in this moment, the very Administration that requested the report has failed to apply our country’s founding principles equally to black and brown lives, to the LGBT community, and to other minorities at home and abroad.

But that wasn’t the point was it?  In the end, the Commission’s report falls short of any balanced and reasoned mark— and today’s event may have been far more about Pompeo’s political ambitions than anything else.


Calling for Pride at State Department

CGELtrThe Council for Global Equality joined member organizations today to call on Secretary Pompeo to recognize LGBTI Pride month, despite his failure to do so last year.  Pride month provides an opportunity for the State Department to issue a call for international solidarity and a commitment to working with all countries to address violence and discrimination against LGBTI people everywhere – particularly transgender people, who face the most extreme violence within our community.  The letter comes after the State Department refused to sign or issued confusing clarifications to important international declarations last month marking the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia – IDAHOBIT.

Without a Pride statement from the State Department, the Trump Administration must be seen as deliberately rejecting international standards and alliances in a calculated effort to delegitimize the rights of LGBTI people, with explicit exclusion of transgender people.  This “America Alone” stance undermines our country’s international alliances and its long history as a champion of human rights in international fora – and it undermines the growing international consensus around human rights for LGBTI persons everywhere. 

Read the full letter here.



Don’t miss our May 2020 Newsletter

Newsletter Link

A Call to Action for IDAHOBIT

IDAHOBIT (2)May 17 – We’ve not yet seen whether the State Department will issue, this year, a statement celebrating “IDAHOBIT” — the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. But with the track record of this President, how believable could such a statement be?

We were particularly disappointed to see that despite repeated requests, the United States did not join a global statement on COVID-19 and the human rights of LGBTI persons that was signed by 38 other members of the Equal Rights Coalition. The U.S. also declined to sign a similar statement as a member of the UN LGBTI Core Group. While the United States did join an IDAHOBIT statement at the Organization of American States, it also offered troubling caveats that could be used to promote discrimination against LGBTI persons in our hemisphere. These notable absences and caveats to basic human rights statements call our country’s support for the rights of LGBTI individuals into question – raising even larger questions about the Trump Administration’s commitment to human rights in general.

IDAHOBIT is intended as a reminder of the real, ongoing need for countries around the world to step up together in combatting negative attitudes toward our community. At this point, a statement of support by this Administration would only underscore the failed moral leadership and hypocrisy of this President and Secretary of State on issues impacting fairness and equality for all.

Leadership begins at home, after all. The Trump Administration has banned patriotic transgender Americans from military service on behalf of the country they love, and eliminated protections for transgender students. It has proposed that federal contractors be allowed to hire or fire employees on the basis of religious belief — a direct threat to the employment of LGBTI people. It has allowed child welfare organizations to choose not to accept gay prospective parents. And many of its administrative appointees and judicial nominees carry long and troubling records of support for discrimination against LGBTI people.

This sorry lack of leadership at home in the fight against homophobia, biphobia, interphobia and transphobia is echoed in American human rights policy abroad. At his confirmation hearing, Secretary Pompeo refused to walk away from the homophobic record he carved as a Kansas politician and Congressional representative. Since then, he has lowered the Pride flag at embassy celebrations worldwide and done little to address the refusal of some countries to provide diplomatic visas to the families of lesbian and gay U.S. diplomats.

More consequential for our country, Pompeo’s human rights focus has been limited to promoting religious freedom, an important principle of course but one that’s been used to deny LGBTI citizens their equal rights in employment, health, and education. And his initiative to reexamine the scope of America’s human rights engagement abroad — through a so-called “Commission on Unalienable Rights” stacked with religious freedom academics with clear records of opposition to LGBTI and reproductive rights — can only negatively impact the credibility of our human rights policy with the world.

The Trump Administration likes to pretend that it is LGBTI-friendly. It points to the service of a smattering of openly gay political appointees, and to a single-line call from his UN address last fall for homosexuality to be decriminalized, to justify that claim. It trots out Rick Grenell (or, more accurately, Grenell trots himself out) to claim that the Administration actually is doing something new to realize that call. But we’ve seen no genuine steps or plans by him and his political patrons to persuade countries of why decriminalization matters — nor any tempering of Vice President Pence’s and Secretary Pompeo’s religious-rights-above-all agenda.

Just this week, a bipartisan group of five former Assistant Secretaries for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor published a call in “The Hill” for Pompeo’s Commission to be dismantled, and for human rights policies to be reaffirmed as equal and universal. We join them in that call.

And as we commemorate IDAHOBIT, we add a call of our own: for those who are genuinely committed to LGBTI equality to push this Administration more visibly, and relentlessly, for our government to honor America’s commitment to equality — at home and abroad.

State Department Human Rights Reports, Part III: Ghosting Reproductive Rights**

U.S. Department of StateWe can’t leave the subject of this year’s human rights country reports without noting, yet again, the failure of those reports to reference restrictions on reproductive rights practiced in dozens of countries around the world.

As it did last year, the Trump Administration again has chosen to strip out of the annual reports any discussion of sexual and reproductive rights — another instance of human rights cherry-picking that dilutes the value and integrity of American human rights leadership.

We continue to call for this deliberate omission to be reversed.  Women’s health and reproductive rights have been recognized by UN bodies, and this includes access to safe and legal abortion.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Torture Convention, both of which the United States has signed and ratified, recognize that access to abortion is a human right.  As such, the U.S. government has legal obligations under both the U.S. Constitution and binding human rights treaties to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion, at home and abroad. This is an important part of our country’s obligation to eliminate discrimination against women and to ensure women’s right to health and other fundamental human rights globally.

Attacks on these sexual and reproductive rights are happening worldwide, with alarming frequency.  And our government’s failure to collect and publish information on these attacks amounts to a secret handshake with other governments, signaling that these rights don’t matter – or, worse yet, that they don’t really exist.

We’re equally concerned that several of the commissioners on Secretary Pompeo’s so-called “Commission on Unalienable Rights” have written about, or made a point of speaking to, the rights of the unborn — an ominous signal of where that commission’s recommendations, slated to be released this summer, may be headed.  The purpose of the Commission, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is to identify which internationally recognized human rights are “unalienable” and which are “ad hoc.”  It seems clear that the Commission wants to jettison sexual and reproductive rights to the ad hoc dustbin, in opposition to U.S. treaty and legal obligations and longstanding foreign policy positions.

To block this dangerous effort, the Council is suing Secretary Pompeo to disband the Commission and ensure that it does not undermine our country’s international human rights obligations, including global commitments to sexual and reproductive rights and to the rights of LGBTI and other vulnerable communities.

Trump and Pompeo have made a deliberate choice to place the priorities of the religious right above broad values and human rights commitments that this country has espoused for generations.  The lack of sexual and reproductive rights coverage in these reports, on one hand, and the Commission’s predictable anti-abortion bent, on the other, only feed the impression that this Administration’s go-it-alone “Make America Great Again” approach is dragging America’s championing of human rights into the partisan divide.

** This is part three of a three-part series of blogs analyzing the State Department’s annual human rights reports. While it is a difficult time to be sharing anything that is unrelated to coronavirus, we believe that the strength and accuracy of these reports is vital to a robust human rights policy and to our country’s leadership in the world. Read more here.

State Department Human Rights Reports, Part II: Undermining Trump’s Refugee Policies**

One of the more surprising aspects of this year’s country human rights reports, released in Washington last Wednesday, is that the State Department’s own findings undermine the Trump Administration’s legal efforts to limit refugee protections here in the United States — especially the safe third country agreements that the United States negotiated last year with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Those agreements allow the United States to expel asylum seekers to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  Yet the human rights reports make abundantly clear that it is manifestly unsafe for LGBTI individuals to seek asylum in that region.

By its own admission, Guatemalan authorities cannot protect asylum seekers.  And the State Department’s report on Guatemala notes that “UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate.  Migration authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status.”

In reality, the situation facing LGBTI asylum seekers in Guatemala is far worse than even the report describes.  The State Department’s report admits that “According to LGBTI activists, gay and transgender individuals often experienced police abuse. The local NGO National Network for Sexual Diversity and HIV and the Lambda Association reported that as of October, a total of 20 LGBTI persons had been killed, including several transgender individuals the NGOs believed were targeted due to their sexual orientation. Several were killed in their homes or at LGBTI spaces in Guatemala City. LGBTI groups claimed women experienced specific forms of discrimination, such as forced marriages and forced pregnancies through ‘corrective rape,’ although these incidents were rarely, if ever, reported to authorities. In addition, transgender individuals faced severe discrimination.”

So why is it that the United States is now arguing in court that LGBTI asylum seekers are safe in Guatemala?

Last January, a group of civil rights and refugee organizations brought suit against the United States based on the safe third country agreement with Guatemala.  The suit represents the claims of a group of refugees, including a gay man from El Salvador who sought asylum in the United States but was sent, instead, to Guatemala by U.S. officials to pursue his asylum claim there, despite his strong objections and the country’s horrific record of human rights abuses against LGBTI individuals.

In the lawsuit, the refugee groups argue that: “Because of the Rule, vulnerable asylum seekers are shut out of the United States and left to seek protection in countries with barely functioning asylum systems that cannot adequately protect them. . . . The result is a deadly game of musical chairs that leaves many desperate asylum seekers without a safe haven, in violation of U.S. and international law.” Indeed, after being sent to Guatemala, local officials told the Salvadoran man in this case that they could not protect him — and advised him to flee to Mexico. (See more here.)

Safe indeed.  As the Department’s own human rights reports make clear, the so-called safe third country agreements that the United States is implementing with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are nothing but a farce, especially for LGBTI asylum seekers.

When asked about this hypocrisy at the reports’ rollout, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) Robert Destro stammered and hedged: “I don’t think there is any inconsistency whatsoever.”  Shame – the inconsistency is obvious.  It’s also deadly.

** This is part two of a three-part series of blogs analyzing the State Department’s annual human rights reports, which were released with little fanfare last week. While it is a difficult time to be sharing anything that is unrelated to coronavirus, we believe that the strength and accuracy of these reports is vital to a robust human rights policy and to our country’s leadership in the world. Read part one here.

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