BRAZIL: ‘The Law Should Protect Women and Girls, Not Criminalise Them’

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Inequality, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations

Jul 18 2024 (IPS) –  
CIVICUS discusses abortion rights in Brazil with Guacira Oliveira, director of the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advice (CFEMEA). CFEMEA is an anti-racist feminist organisation that defends women’s rights, collective care and self-care and monitors developments in Brazil’s National Congress.


In June, thousands of women took to the streets of São Paulo and other cities to protest against a bill that would classify abortion after 22 weeks as homicide, punishable by six to 20 years in prison. Protests began when the lower house of Congress fast-tracked the bill, limiting debate. Abortion is currently legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, foetal malformation or danger to the life of a pregnant person. The proposed bill, promoted by evangelical representatives, would criminalise people who have abortions more severely than rapists. Public reaction has slowed down the bill’s progress and its future is now uncertain.

How would this new anti-abortion law, if passed, affect women?

Currently, abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, danger to a pregnant person’s life and severe foetal malformation. However, current legislation doesn’t set a maximum gestational age for access to legal abortion. The proposed bill would equate abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy with homicide, punishing the person seeking the abortion and the health professionals who perform it.

This would particularly affect girls, as over 60 per cent of rape victims are children under the age of 13. In more than 64 per cent of these cases, the rapist is someone close to the girl’s family, making it difficult to identify the rape and the resulting pregnancy.

Another perverse aspect of the problem is racial inequality. Forty per cent of rape victims are Black children and adolescents, and of those under 13, more than 56 per cent are Black girls. Of 20,000 girls under the age of 14 who give birth each year, 74 per cent are Black. In addition, Black women are 46 per cent more likely to have an abortion than white women. The passage of this bill would make Black women and girls even more vulnerable than they already are. The law should protect these women and girls, not criminalise them.

How has civil society mobilised against the bill?

CFEMEA has been monitoring threats to legal abortion for decades and is part of the National Front Against the Criminalisation of Women and for the Legalisation of Abortion. Threats increased with the rise of the far right to the presidency in 2018, and feminist movements mobilised over cases of girls who were victims of sexual violence and faced institutional barriers to accessing legal abortion.

In 2023, in response to regressive legislation, they launched the ‘A child is not a mother‘ platform, recently reactivated as the new anti-abortion bill was submitted as a matter of urgency. More than 345,000 people signed up to the campaign and sent messages to parliamentarians. They also applied pressure on social media through posts and hashtags such as #criançanémãe (#ChildNotMother), #PLdagravidezinfantil (#CongressForChildPregnancy) and #PLdoestupro (#CongressForRape).

We also campaigned through face-to-face actions and other collectively defined strategies, led mainly by state-level alliances against the criminalisation of women and for the legalisation of abortion. In May, we laid a symbolic wreath in front of the Federal Council of Medicine, which in April had published a resolution banning foetal asystole, a procedure recommended by the World Health Organization for legal abortions after 22 weeks. By doing so we symbolised our grief for all the women and girls whose lives are cut short due to lack of access to a legal abortion. We reenacted this outside the official residence of the President of the Chamber of Deputies, just before the fast-track request for the anti-abortion bill was approved, on the evening of 12 June.

The following day, the first public protests took place in several Brazilian state capitals. These continued over subsequent days, culminating in a nationwide action on 27 June. The issue is still on the agenda in July and demonstrations are still going strong.

Why is Brazil moving against the regional trend towards legalisation?

Brazil has seen advances by the religious fundamentalist far right since 2016, when President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office through a legal-parliamentary manoeuvre that amounted to a political coup. The violent ethnocentric, LGBTQI+-phobic, neopatriarchal and racist reaction intensified in 2018 with the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in an election marred by disinformation.

Conservatives view the rights to diverse and plural ways of life as a threat to their existence. In this sense, their regressive proposals are a direct response to women’s struggles against patriarchy and all forms of women’s oppression.

Even after its defeat in the 2022 presidential election, the far right has become stronger in the National Congress, where extremists have obtained majorities in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. This has led to the revival of a bill known as the ‘Statute of the Unborn Child’, aimed at granting ‘personhood’ to the foetus in order to criminalise abortion.

Many factors explain the conservative reaction in Brazil and around the world. For fascists in power and in society, violence is justified against groups considered to be ‘enemies of the people’, which can include any dissenting voices – those of women, Black people, Indigenous peoples and LGBTQI+ people. In the case of women, they are trying to re-domesticate us, to send us back home, subservient to the command and judgement of patriarchs. Control over reproduction and our bodies is a crucial part of this strategy.

What are the forces for and against sexual and reproductive rights in Brazil?

The main force against sexual and reproductive rights is religious fundamentalism, which positions itself as a harbinger of control over women’s bodies and gender dissidents and is strongly represented in the National Congress. The defence of these rights lies in the progressive camp, represented by the political left and the feminist, women’s and LGBTQI+ movements.

But it’s worth noting that even with a Congress besieged by anti-rights groups, most people have a less punitive and more empathetic understanding of feminist struggles and women’s rights. A survey we carried out in 2023, in collaboration with the Observatory of Sex and Politics and the Centre for Studies and Public Opinion of the State University of Campinas, showed that 59 per cent were against the criminalisation and possible imprisonment of women who have abortions.

What are the main demands of the Brazilian feminist movement?

The feminist movement is plural and diverse, but what it has in common is the fight to end all forms of violence against women. CFEMEA seeks to transform the world through anti-racist feminism and by taking a stand against all gender inequalities and oppression. This is our position when we enter dialogue with society and make demands of governments. We demand public policies that reduce inequalities between men, women and people with other gender identities, considered in their intersectional dimensions of age, creed, ethnicity, nationality, physical abilities and race, among others.

A fundamental issue is the sexual and racial division of labour, a powerful structure that maintains and exacerbates the inequalities experienced by women. After all, the care work they do, despite being rendered invisible and devalued by patriarchal capitalism, is an indispensable condition for human life and the construction of collective good living. The manifesto of the Anti-Racist Feminist Forum for a National Care Policy, signed by dozens of movements and organisations, affirms the need for social reproduction activities to be recognised and shared by the state. This means that care work, which is currently unpaid and done at the family and community levels almost exclusively by women, must be effectively taken over by the state, because care is a human need.

We demand that governments allocate public investment to combat gender inequalities in areas as diverse as care, culture, education, the environment, health, justice, labour, leisure and wellbeing. It is the state, not the market, that can and must combat such inequalities.

Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with CFEMEA via its website or its Facebook or Instagram page, and follow @cfemea on Twitter.

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HLPF 2024: Protecting Civic Space Critical for SDGs Success

Armed Conflicts, Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Change, Featured, Gender, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Inequality, Migration & Refugees, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

NEW YORK, Jul 12 2024 (IPS) – Each year the international community comes together at the UN’s headquarters in New York to take stock of progress on sustainable development. This year’s High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) is being held between 8 and 18 July. Representatives from 36 countries, as per the UN HLPF website, will showcase their achievements on commitments outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, presenting their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs).


This year’s HLPF convenes amid sobering times, underscored by findings from the recent UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2024 report. The report highlights growing inequalities, an escalating climate crisis, accelerating biodiversity loss and disappointing progress towards gender equality. These challenges are compounded by conflicts in Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine and beyond, resulting in close to 120 million people being forcibly displaced worldwide. Alarmingly, only 17 per cent of SDG targets are on track, with around half making minimal or moderate progress, and progress on over a third having stalled or regressed.

Among the SDGs being reviewed this year is SDG 16, which includes commitments on responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making, access to information and fundamental freedoms. These hard-won commitments recognise the importance of transparency, accountability and participation in achieving the SDGs. They were agreed only after persistent advocacy by civil society activists. For civil society, it’s crucial that these commitments are realised if the transformative promise of the SDGs is to be achieved, in particular because they enable civil society to work with governments to help deliver the goals.

One major reason for uneven progress on the SDGs is the restriction of civic space in many countries around the world. According to the CIVICUS Monitor – a participatory research collaboration – globally only two per cent of people live in open civic space conditions, where civil society is free to exist and act. Of the 36 countries slated to present VNRs this year, only three – Austria, Palau, and Samoa – have open civic space.

Civic space encompasses the right of people to organise, mobilise and speak out to shape the political, social, and economic structures that impact their lives. Where civic space isn’t open, communities have significantly restricted and limited agency to pursue progress – the kind the SDGs envisage. People who expose corruption, advocate for accountability and stand up for the rights of excluded groups are attacked.

In many countries around the world, civil society organisations and activists are being threatened. One-way states are doing this is by misusing anti-terror laws, cybersecurity laws and health emergency laws against them. States such as Cambodia, Egypt, India, Israel, Russia and Venezuela, among others, are subjecting civil society organisations to a complex maze of regressive laws and practices to deny them raising funds from domestic and international sources. This undermines civil society’s ability to push for innovative policies, deliver services to the people who need them most and act as a watchdog over the use of public resources.

Meaningful civil society participation at all levels is crucial for realising the SDGs. However, even within UN platforms like the HLPF, there remains no official way of integrating civil society voices into VNR processes, leading civil society organisations to produce parallel ‘shadow reports’ on the forum’s margins. This current format undermines the potential for meaningful engagement from civil society, leads to duplication of efforts, mismatches data and hinders accountability of states.

If the SDGs are to be achieved, it’s paramount to create a conducive environment where civil society can thrive and participate meaningfully in decision-making and accountability processes, without fear of reprisals. That’s why many civil society organisations have banded together under the Unmute Civil Society initiative to advocate for practical solutions to overcome the challenge of international-level participation. The UN must demonstrate leadership by making more space for civil society at the HLPF.

Jesselina Rana is CIVICUS UN Advisor at UN Hub in New York City.

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UAE Complicit in Sudan Slaughter

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

LONDON, Jul 11 2024 (IPS) – Sudan is the scene of unimaginable suffering. As war between army and militia continues, civilians are paying the highest price. Both sides are killing non-combatants and committing gross human rights crimes.


The country stands on the brink of famine. It’s experiencing its worst recorded levels of food insecurity and over 750,000 are at risk of starvation.

Around 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes, armed forces have stolen and destroyed food supplies, crops and livestock, and many people are no longer able to earn a living or farm. UN human rights experts accuse both sides of using denial of food as a weapon, including by blocking humanitarian deliveries and looting depots.

Many of the worst-affected areas are in Darfur, where the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia has gained territory and is currently besieging El Fasher. The RSF grew out of the militias that committed genocide in Darfur two decades ago, and they’re again accused of genocide, carrying out ethnically motivated mass killings. Meanwhile, the army it’s fighting, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), has blocked the main humanitarian access point on the border with Chad.

Proxy war

The conflict broke out in April 2023, sparked by a power struggle between two men: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, SAF commander-in-chief and leader of the ruling junta, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, RSF head. The two worked together in the 2021 coup that ousted a civilian government. A plan to incorporate the RSF into the SAF was the flashpoint of their battle for leadership and, crucially, control of resources.

But beyond the two warring egos, bigger forces are at play. Several other states are taking sides in the conflict, enabling it to continue. Much of the foreign involvement is opaque and subject to official denials. Egypt and Iran are among states providing military support to the SAF. Meanwhile, forces from the eastern part of divided Libya have allegedly helped supply the RSF, and the Chadian government is accused of cooperating with it.

Another distant war is echoing in Sudan. Russia, which has extensive goldmining interests in the country, initially seemed to be siding with the RSF, particularly through its mercenary fighters. In response, Ukrainian troops reportedly carried out attacks on Russian mercenaries and RSF forces. More recently, however, Russia may be tilting towards the SAF, possibly eyeing the development of a Red Sea naval base. Russia recently abstained on a UN Security Council resolution calling on the RSF to end its siege of El Fasher, which it could have vetoed.

But the biggest player is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Gulf petrostate that’s increasingly asserting itself in many African countries. In countries undergoing conflict, it takes sides. In Ethiopia, when federal troops fought separatist groups from Tigray, the UAE supported the government. In Libya, it’s backed the eastern forces fighting those in the west.

In Sudan, it’s firmly on the RSF’s side. It’s supplying weapons to the RSF, including reportedly through shipments disguised as humanitarian aid and supplies routed through other African counties where it has a presence. Key RSF backroom operations are being run from UAE locations. Wounded RSF fighters are reportedly being treated in Abu Dhabi. Without the UAE’s support, it’s highly unlikely the RSF would be able to sustain its war effort on its current scale. The UAE denies it all, but a UN expert panel found the allegations credible.

The UAE has extensive economic interests at stake. It receives more Sudanese gold than any other country, some of which makes its way to Russia. It has large agricultural investments and a major Red Sea port plan.

There are political interests too. The UAE doesn’t want countries it has a stake in to democratise. It supports several anti-democratic African governments, including in Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. It likely sees backing the RSF as the best way to ensure the democratic transition once promised by the 2019 revolution remains thwarted.

A Middle East power struggle is playing out in Sudan. The UAE has long taken a similar stance to Saudi Arabia’s, but increasingly shows an appetite to contest Saudi supremacy. The two ended up diverging over their involvement in the conflict in Yemen. Its Sudan policy is another way the UAE can demonstrate its independence.

The UAE’s role also accounts for Iran’s pro-SAF position, while Saudi Arabia is trying to distinguish itself from both by brokering peace talks, known as the Jeddah process, which so far have come to little.

The UAE also has powerful friends in the west, not least the UK and the USA, and it’s using them to limit international scrutiny. The British government, which currently leads on Sudan at the UN Security Council, was reported to have pressured African states not to criticise the UAE over its support for the RSF.

Time for action

The people of Sudan deserve better than to be pawns in a proxy war waged by distant states.

But people in the UAE have no way to pressure their government if they’re upset about the blood on its hands. Civic space in the UAE is closed and those who speak out are routinely criminalised.

This means it falls on others to mobilise. States helping perpetuate the conflict should come under greater pressure from other states, the international community and international civil society.

The first and most urgent demand must be for unfettered humanitarian access. Even then, an immediate ceasefire is needed. There must the follow a process of genuine dialogue to build peace and plan for transition, which must involve Sudanese civil society in its diverse forms.

The international community must step up its efforts. The UN’s fact-finding mission, established last October following civil society advocacy, has been severely hampered by funding shortfalls, as has the humanitarian response plan. States must adequately resource the UN response.

States, the international community and civil society must also throw the spotlight on the UAE. There must be consequences. When the RSF eventually faces justice, those who enabled it must also be held to account – and the UAE’s rulers should be first in line.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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AFGHANISTAN: ‘The Doha Meeting Has Raised Concerns the UN Is Indirectly Legitimising the Taliban’

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Education, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Jul 10 2024 (IPS) –  
CIVICUS discusses the exclusion of women from international talks on Afghanistan currently being held in Qatar with Sima Samar, former chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). The AIHRC is the Afghan national institution devoted to the promotion, protection and monitoring of human rights. Its status is now a matter of contention: on returning to power, the Taliban decreed its dissolution, but the AIHRC refuses to abide by the decision due to the illegitimate nature of the Taliban regime.


Sima Samar

The meeting between the Taliban, envoys from up to 25 countries and other stakeholders being hosted by the United Nations (UN) in Doha, Qatar, has sparked an international outcry because Afghan women haven’t been invited. This is the third such meeting but the first to include the Taliban, who aren’t internationally recognised as Afghanistan’s rulers. Rights activists have criticised the UN’s approach, saying it gives legitimacy to the Taliban and betrays its commitment to women’s rights. They are calling for gender apartheid to be recognised as an international crime and for sanctions to be imposed on those responsible.

What’s the purpose and relevance of the third Doha meeting on Afghanistan?

The third Doha meeting was convened following a UN Security Council resolution that mandated an independent assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, with the aim of facilitating Afghanistan’s reintegration into the international community and the UN. The appointed independent expert, a former Turkish diplomat, conducted a comprehensive assessment. While it acknowledged the Taliban’s human rights violations, particularly against women, it did not sufficiently address issues such as the persecution of minorities and the erosion of democratic processes.

The UN sees these meetings as part of a plan for a peaceful Afghanistan that respects human rights, particularly for women and girls, and is integrated into the global community. But the decision to exclude women from these critical discussions is deeply contradictory. By accepting the Taliban’s conditions for participation in the talks, the UN is undermining its commitment to promoting inclusivity and gender equality.

Why are rights groups criticising the meeting and what are their demands?

Rights groups have been highly critical of the UN’s approach to the meeting for a number of reasons. First, they have condemned the exclusion of women from the main discussions. This exclusion directly contradicted the UN’s commitment to gender mainstreaming and its resolutions advocating women’s participation in peace processes. Second, there was a significant lack of transparency about the agenda and proceedings of the meetings, particularly the separate women’s session that followed the main discussions. This opacity fuelled concerns about the effectiveness and sincerity of the engagement.

Critics say the meeting focused mainly on economic issues, ignoring important discussions on human rights and women’s rights. This has raised concerns the UN is indirectly legitimising the Taliban’s harsh policies. Rights groups want future meetings to be inclusive and transparent and ensure women’s voices are heard. They want the UN to stick to its rules and not agree to demands that violate human rights.

What’s the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban?

Since the Taliban came back to power, the situation for women in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically. Women have been almost completely removed from public life, allowed to work only in very limited fields such as health and primary education, and then only under strict conditions.

Afghanistan is the only country in the world that prohibits girls beyond 11 to 12 years old from receiving education. Even below that level, there are severe restrictions, including the imposition of the hijab on young girls and a curriculum increasingly focused on religious instruction, which threatens to radicalise the next generation.

Women working in any capacity face severe economic discrimination. Their salaries are capped at unsustainable levels, making it impossible for them to live independently. When female health workers went on strike over these unfair conditions, the Ministry of Public Health refused to engage in dialogue.

The Taliban’s systematic discrimination places women in an inferior position in all aspects of life, from education to employment, perpetuating a cycle of oppression and marginalisation. There is an obvious gap between the goals of the Doha meeting, which aim to achieve a peaceful Afghanistan with human rights for women and girls, and the harsh realities faced by Afghan women under Taliban rule.

What should the international community do to support Afghan women?

To support women’s rights in Afghanistan, the international community must take a firm stand against the Taliban’s policies.

First, the Taliban should not be recognised as a legitimate government until they comply with international human rights standards, including those relating to women’s rights. Second, existing sanctions against the Taliban should be strengthened to pressure them to comply with human rights norms. Third, the international community should hold the Taliban accountable for their crimes, including rights violations against women, through legal mechanisms and continuous advocacy.

The plight of Afghan women is not just a national issue, but a global one that affects the stability and peace of the entire region. Ignoring women’s suffering will only perpetuate conflict and undermine efforts to achieve sustainable peace and development. The international community has a moral obligation to ensure the protection of Afghan women’s rights and uphold the principles of justice and equality in any engagement with the Taliban.

What should be done to ensure women are included in future talks on Afghanistan?

To ensure the inclusion of women in future international talks, it is essential that their participation is mandated at every stage of the dialogue process. Women must be at the table for all discussions, as their exclusion fundamentally undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the talks.

The international community should strongly reject any conditions set by the Taliban that violate human rights principles, particularly those that exclude women. Transparency is also crucial. Agendas and outcomes of meetings should be openly shared to ensure inclusiveness and accountability.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AfghanistanIHRC and @DrSimasamar on Twitter.

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Myanmar: International Action Urgently Needed

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Crerdit: STR/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Jul 3 2024 (IPS) – Myanmar’s army, at war with pro-democracy forces and ethnic militias, must know it’s nowhere near victory. It recently came close to losing control of Myawaddy, one of the country’s biggest cities, at a key location on the border with Thailand. Many areas are outside its control.


The army surely expected an easier ride when it ousted the elected government in a coup on 1 February 2021. It had ruled Myanmar for decades before democracy returned in 2015. But many democracy supporters took up arms, and in several parts of the country they’ve allied with militia groups from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, with a long history of resisting military oppression.

Setbacks and violence

Army morale has collapsed. Thousands of soldiers are reported to have surrendered, including complete battalions – some out of moral objections to the junta’s violence and others because they saw defeat as inevitable. There have also been many defections, with defectors reporting they’d been ordered to kill unarmed civilians. Forces fighting the junta’s troops are encouraging defectors to join their ranks.

In response to reversals, in February the junta announced it would introduce compulsory conscription for young people, demanding up to five years of military service. An estimated 60,000 men are expected to be called up in the first round. The announcement prompted many young people to flee the country if they could, and if not, seek refuge in parts of Myanmar free from military control.

There have also been reports of army squads kidnapping people and forcing them to serve. Given minimal training, they’re cannon fodder and human shields. Rohingya people – an officially stateless Muslim minority – are among those reportedly being forcibly enlisted. They’re being pressed into service by the same military that committed genocide against them.

People who manage to cross into Thailand face hostility from Thai authorities and risk being returned against their will. Even after leaving Myanmar, refugees face the danger of transnational repression, as government intelligence agents reportedly operate in neighbouring countries and the authorities are freezing bank accounts, seizing assets and cancelling passports.

Conscription isn’t just about giving the junta more personnel to compensate for its losses – it’s also part of a sustained campaign of terror intended to subdue civilians and suppress activism. Neighbourhoods are being burned to the ground and hundreds have died in the flames. The air force is targeting unarmed towns and villages. The junta enjoys total impunity for these and many other vile acts.

The authorities hold thousands of political prisoners on fabricated charges and subject them to systematic torture. The UN independent fact-finding mission reports that at least 1,703 people have died in custody since the coup, likely an underestimate. Many have been convicted in secret military trials and some sentenced to death.

There’s also a growing humanitarian crisis, with many hospitals destroyed, acute food shortages in Rakhine state, where many Rohingya people live, and an estimated three million displaced. Voluntary groups are doing their best to help communities, but the situation is made much worse by the military obstructing access for aid workers.

International neglect

In March, UN human rights chief Volker Türk described the situation in Myanmar as ‘a never-ending nightmare’. It’s up to the international community to exert the pressure needed to end it.

It’s by no means certain the military will be defeated. Adversity could lead to infighting and the rise of even more vicious leaders. One thing that could make a decisive difference is disruption of the supply chain, particularly the jet fuel that enables lethal airstrikes on civilians. In April, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on states to stop supplying the military with jet fuel. States should implement it.

Repressive states such as China, India and Russia have been happy enough to keep supplying the junta with weapons. But democratic states must take the lead and apply more concerted pressure. Some, including Australia, the UK and USA, have imposed new sanctions on junta members this year, but these have been slow in coming and fall short of the approach the Human Rights Council resolution demands.

But the worst response has come from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Ignoring reality and civil society’s proposals, ASEAN has stuck to a plan it developed in April 2021 that simply hasn’t worked. The junta takes advantage of ASEAN’s weakness. It announced compulsory conscription shortly after a visit by ASEAN’s Special Envoy for Myanmar.

ASEAN’s neglect has allowed human rights violations and, increasingly, transnational organised crime to flourish. The junta is involved in crimes such as drug trafficking, illegal gambling and online fraud. It uses the proceeds of these, often carried out with the help of Chinese gangs, to finance its war on its people. As a result, Myanmar now ranks number one on the Global Organized Crime Index. This is a regional problem, affecting people in Myanmar’s neighbouring countries as well.

ASEAN members also have an obligation to accept refugees from Myanmar, including those fleeing conscription. They should commit to protecting them and not forcing them back, particularly when they’re democracy and human rights activists whose lives would be at risk.

Forced conscription must be the tipping point for international action. This must include international justice, since there’s none in Myanmar. The junta has ignored an order from the International Court of Justice to protect Rohingya people and prevent actions that could violate the Genocide Convention, following a case brought by the government of The Gambia alleging genocide against the Rohingya. The UN Security Council should now use its power to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court so prosecutions of military leaders can begin.

China and Russia, which have so far refused to back calls for action, should end their block on Security Council action, in the interests of human rights and to prevent growing regional instability.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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IRAQ: ‘Tolerance for Abuses Against LGBTQI+ People Has Now Been Made Explicit Through Legislation’

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Gender, Gender Identity, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Middle East & North Africa, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Jul 1 2024 (IPS) –  
CIVICUS discusses the criminalisation of same-sex relations in Iraq with Sarah Sanbar, researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.


Sarah Sanbar

The Iraqi parliament recently passed a law criminalising LGBTQI+ people, punishing same-sex relations with between 10 and 15 years in prison and transgender identities with sentences of one to three years. The original proposal included even harsher penalties, but lawmakers introduced amendments in response to strong criticism. Supporters claim the law upholds deeply held religious values, while critics condemn it for institutionalising discrimination and enabling serious human rights abuses.

What led to recent legislative changes criminalising LGBTQI+ people?

On 27 April 2024, the Iraqi parliament passed an amendment to the country’s 1988 anti-prostitution law, effectively criminalising same-sex relations and transgender identities. The amendment states that same-sex relations are punishable with between 10 and 15 years in prison, and provides for one to three years’ imprisonment for those who undergo or perform gender-affirming medical procedures.

The law also punishes those who ‘imitate women’ with a seven-year prison sentence and a fine of between 10 and 15 million Iraqi dinars (approx. US$7,700 to US$11,500) and criminalises the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, a vague and undefined expression.

The passing of this law follows years of steadily increasing hostile rhetoric against LGBTQI+ people. Prominent politicians and media personalities have consistently spread harmful stereotypes, tropes and disinformation. They often claim homosexuality is a western import that goes against traditional Iraqi values.

This rhetoric has increasingly translated into government action. For example, on 8 August 2023, the Communications and Media Commission issued a directive ordering all media outlets to replace the term ‘homosexuality’ with ‘sexual deviance’ in all published and broadcast language. The directive also banned the use of the word ‘gender’, which shows how the crackdown on LGBTQI+ rights is intertwined with broader issues, and is also used to target and silence women’s rights organisations working on gender-based violence.

Sadly, as in many other countries, LGBTQI+ people in Iraq are being used as political pawns and scapegoats to distract from the government’s failure to provide for its people. Tensions are growing between the more conservative and religious groups in society and government and those that take a more secular approach to governance. The fact that conservatives have gained increasing support in successive elections allows laws like this to be passed. Such a law probably wouldn’t have been passed even a few years ago.

What’s the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Iraq, and how do you expect it to change?

The situation of LGBTQI+ people is extremely unsafe. Threats to their physical safety, including harassment, assault, arbitrary detention, kidnappings and killings, come from society at large – including family and community members as well as strangers – and from armed groups and state personnel. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of abductions, rape, torture and killings by armed groups. Impunity is widespread, and the government’s failure to hold perpetrators accountable sends the message that this violence is acceptable.

With the passage of the new law, the already dire situation is expected to worsen. Tolerance for abuses has now been made explicit through legislation. As a result, an increase in violence is to be expected, along with an increase in the number of LGBTQI+ Iraqis fleeing the country to seek safety elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is becoming even harder for LGBTQI+ Iraqis to ensure their physical safety in the country, let alone lead fulfilling lives, find love, make friends and build links with others in their community.

What are the challenges facing Iraqi LGBTQI+ rights organisations?

The space for LGBTQI+ organisations in Iraq has long been extremely limited. For example, in May 2023, a court in the Kurdistan Region ordered the closure of Rasan, one of the few groups willing to publicly advocate for LGBTQI+ rights in the region. The reason the court gave for its closure was its activities ‘in the field of homosexuality’, and one piece of evidence cited was its use of rainbow colours in its logo.

Organisations such as Rasan have previously been targeted under vaguely worded morality and public indecency laws that restrict freedom of expression. By criminalising the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, the new law makes the work of LGBTQI+ organisations even more dangerous. Any action in support of LGBTQI+ rights could be perceived as ‘promoting homosexuality’, which could lead to activities being banned or organisations being shut down. It will be almost impossible for LGBTQI+ rights organisations to operate openly.

In addition, all civil society organisations in Iraq must register with the Directorate of NGOs, a process that includes submitting bylaws, lists of activities and sources of funding. But now, it is essentially impossible for LGBTQI+ organisations to operate transparently, because they can’t openly state their intention to support LGBTQI+ people without risking closure or prosecution. This leaves two options: stop working, or operate clandestinely with the risk of arrest hanging over them.

Given the restrictive legal and social environment, many organisations operate from abroad. IraQueer, one of the most prominent LGBTQI+ advocacy groups, is based in Sweden.

But despite the challenges, LGBTQI+ organisations continue to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights, help people fleeing persecution and work with foreign governments to put pressure on Iraq to roll back discriminatory policies. And they have made significant achievements, facilitating the safe passage of people fleeing persecution and broadening coalitions to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights internationally. Their perseverance in the face of adversity is inspiring.

What international support do local LGBTQI+ groups need?

Global organisations should use their capacity to sound the alarm and advocate for the repeal of the new law and the reversal of other discriminatory measures, and for impunity for violence against LGBTQI+ people in Iraq to be addressed.

An effective strategy could be to focus on human rights violations. Equal protection from violence and equal access to justice are required under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, both of which Iraq has signed. Advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights as human rights can put greater pressure on the Iraqi government to fulfil its obligations.

It’s also essential to provide resources and support to local organisations in Iraq and in host countries where LGBTQI+ Iraqis seek refuge, to ensure people have access to basic needs and community support, and can live full lives without fear.

Civic space in Iraq is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Human Rights Watch through its website, and follow @hrw and @SarahSanbar on Twitter.

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