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United Nations: Rights Office Concerned About Arrests of LGBT Individuals

(Oct. 31, 2017) On October 13, 2017, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) held a press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, expressing concern about the arrests of more than 180 people, thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), in three countries: Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Indonesia. There were 80 such individuals arrested in Baku, Azerbaijan, since the middle of September; 50 arrested recently in Egypt; and 50 arrested in one day, all at a sauna, earlier this month in Jakarta, Indonesia.  All the arrests were based in some part on actual or perceived LGBT status.  National officials in each of the countries have alleged that those detained were involved in sex work, but those arrested have either denied the allegation or stated that they were forced into giving confessions. (UN Rights Office ‘Deeply Concerned’ over Arrests of LGBT People in Azerbaijan, Egypt and Indonesia, UN NEWS CENTRE (Oct. 13, 2017).)

In Indonesia, some of the arrests were based on the 2008 anti-pornography law. (Vincent Bevins, It’s Not Illegal to Be Gay in Indonesia, But Police Are Cracking Down Anyway, WASHINGTON POST (Oct. 12, 2017); Undang-Undang Republik Indonesia Nomor 44 Tahun 2008 Tentang Pornografi [Law of the Republic of Indonesia No. 44, 2008, on Pornography], Indonesian House of Representatives website.) Reports have stated that in Azerbaijan, some of the LGBT individuals were fined and others jailed; those jailed were charged with resisting police orders.  (Shaun Walker, Outcry as Azerbaijan Police Launch Crackdown on LGBT Community, GUARDIAN (Sept. 28, 2017).)

Although being homosexual is not specifically outlawed in Egypt, the government has used a 1961 law against “debauchery” against the LGBT community, and in two recent arrests, the individuals were also charged with membership in an illegal organization, a crime that happens to be used by the government against its Islamist opposition also. (Alexandra Zavis, Brutal Crackdown Has Gay and Transgender Egyptians Asking: Is It Time to Leave?, LOS ANGELES TIMES (Oct. 19, 2017).) On September 30 of this year, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued a statement in which it prohibited “the promotion or dissemination of homosexual slogans.”  The statement went on to say that “[h]omosexuality is a sickness and disgrace that would be better hidden from view and not promoted for dissemination until it is treated and its disgrace removed” and that “for homosexuals to appear in any media outlet whether written, audio, or visual, except when they acknowledge the fact that their conduct is inappropriate and repent for it” is also forbidden.  (Unofficial Translation of Statement by Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation, Human Rights Watch website (Oct. 6, 2017).)

Speaking about the issue, Rupert Colville, an OHCHR spokesperson, called on the three nations to immediately release these individuals and repeal vaguely worded and/or discriminatory laws.  He said that “[a]rresting or detaining people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is by definition arbitrary and violates international law.”  (UN Rights Office ‘Deeply Concerned’ over Arrests of LGBT People in Azerbaijan, Egypt and Indonesia, supra.)

Background

The OHCHR has taken several other steps recently on the issue of LGBT rights. In September, the High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, spoke at a ministerial event held at the United Nations and asked that “all governments … allow individuals to love whom they choose,” and outlaw discrimination, hate crimes, and bullying.  He further said that there should be a ban on “medically unnecessary surgery on intersex infants.”  (UN Rights Chief Urges All States to Outlaw Discrimination Against LGBTI People, UN NEWS CENTRE (Sept. 20, 2017).)  Al Hussein noted that the topic is a difficult one in some countries and that “officials sometimes tell me their hands are tied: the public, they say, will never accept equality for LGBTI people.  But surely this is back to front.  If public opinion is hostile towards LCBTI people, that makes it all the more urgent for governments to act to protect them.” (Id.; the I in LCBTI represents “intersex,” “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”  What is Intersex?, Intersex Society of North America website (last visited Oct. 24, 2017).)

A week later, Al Hussein spoke to business leaders, journalists, and activists in New York, calling on the private sector to promote inclusion in the workplace and issuing a set of standards for ending discrimination against LGBT and intersex employees.  The standards were developed following a year of consultations held with businesses in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe, sponsored by the OHCHR and the Institute for Human Rights and Business.  (UN Rights Office Issues Business Standards on Treatment of LGBTI Employees, Major Companies on Board, UN NEWS CENTRE (Sept. 27, 2017).) The Institute was founded in 2009 and describes itself as “the leading international think tank on business and human rights.”  (About IHRB, IHRB website (last visited Oct. 19, 2017).)

Al Hussein stated that “[s]ocial change requires the active involvement of all parts of society – including, critically, the business community” and added that “[t]he decisions that companies take – whether in respect of human resources, investment supply chains, even marketing – can have a real and, in some cases, profound impact on human rights.” (UN Rights Office Issues Business Standards on Treatment of LGBTI Employees, Major Companies on Board, supra.)