HIV Prevention Hypocrisy Watch: Fight the Virus, Punish the Victim?

Mark Bromley

The U.S. must squarely face the hypocrisy of countries, like Senegal, that support crucial HIV-prevention efforts for men who have sex with men while simultaneously enforcing laws that criminalize homosexual conduct.

Two weeks ago, nine HIV activists
were sentenced to eight years in prison in Dakar, Senegal for "indecent
and unnatural acts" and "forming associations of criminals."
They were arrested in December, just after the 15th International Conference
on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), on suspicion of having engaged in
homosexual acts.  Such arrests are all too common around the world. 
And under the Bush Administration, U.S. foreign policy leaders were
far too reluctant to name such abuses for what they are – serious human
rights violations.     

Finding similar laws in the
United States unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that
they demean the existence of homosexuals. In so doing, such laws limit
the effectiveness of our global commitment to fighting the HIV/AIDS
epidemic.  It is time for the new Obama Administration to take
a principled stand for human rights. 

In Senegal, the ICASA discussions
highlighted the hypocrisy of countries, like Senegal, that support crucial
HIV-prevention efforts for men who have sex with men, while simultaneously
enforcing laws that criminalize consensual homosexual conduct and drive
homosexuals into the shadows – often to a precarious and fearful legal
existence that is well beyond the reach of any effective health intervention. 
There are far too many countries like Senegal, where the rights of LGBT
communities are denied with impunity, and where the efforts of public
health officials are continually thwarted.      

Our existing legal commitments
to human rights, together with our massive global investments in combating
HIV/AIDS, should compel those who represent our country – in Congress,
in the White House, in U.S. embassies and in U.S. corporations – to
use the diplomatic, political and economic leverage available to them
to oppose human rights abuses that are too often directed at individuals
because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. 
Public opposition to international human rights abuses impacting LGBT
individuals was unusual under the Bush Administration.  It will
be sorely needed under the Obama Administration. 

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For example, at the United
Nations General Assembly this past December, more than 60 countries
submitted a ground-breaking statement on human rights, sexual orientation
and gender identity that called on all governments around the world
to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are not subjected
to criminal penalty, and that individuals are not executed, arrested
or otherwise detained because of their sexual orientation or gender
identity.  Despite thousands of individual calls to the State Department
from US citizens, letters from Members of Congress, and requests from
close U.S. allies, the United States refused to join the Statement. 
The United States was one of the only countries in the "Western Group"
at the United Nations that did not sign the Statement.   

In its yearly human rights
report, the State Department last March listed human rights concerns
relating to sexual orientation and gender identity in more than 100
different countries.  The reported violations included murders,
extreme police violence, arrests of individuals based only on their
sexual orientation or gender identity, state-sponsored harassment, extortion,
and abuse in detention, and the denial of health care, housing, education
and other social services.  Reports of violence directed at transvestite
and transgender activists in Latin America were notable.  And the
reports pointed once again to the failure of the police to protect gay
pride marchers in several East European countries.

While the State Department
has been reporting on the growing crisis in abuse against LGBT individuals
and their communities worldwide since 1990, the response ends there. 
Today, nineteen years later, it is time for the State Department to
move beyond a reporting agenda to an affirmative "protection agenda,"
one that recognizes that the rights of LGBT communities are indeed human
rights.  The United States must join the more than sixty countries
from all regions of the world that signed the UN statement in December
by publicly committing to new diplomatic and financial efforts that
will seek to end violence and discrimination against LGBT communities

A new protection agenda will
require a careful examination of how U.S. embassies, funding missions
and diplomatic interactions at the United Nations and elsewhere reflect
the human rights concerns of LGBT people and communities.  At minimum,
the State Department should: 

  • Clarify U.S. policy
    by highlighting sexual orientation and gender identity as important
    components within a broad U.S. commitment to renewing and restoring
    its human rights credibility worldwide;
  • Officially appoint
    a liaison and provide a small budget within the Bureau of Democracy,
    Human Rights and Labor to follow LGBT concerns raised in this year’s
    soon-to-be-released human rights report;
  • Host a roundtable
    for U.S. diplomats (including those abroad), other government experts
    who have taken the lead on these issues, and human rights NGOs to solicit
    feedback on how to move from a reporting agenda to a protection agenda
    in response to documented patterns of human rights violations against
    LGBT individuals;
  • Develop more specific
    instructions and training for all embassies to assist their reporting
    on LGBT-related human rights concerns in future reports, including more
    focused reporting on lesbian and transgender abuses, and distribute
    to all human rights reporting officers copies of the influential "Yogyakarta
    Principles," which provide guidance on the application of international
    human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • Develop appropriate
    mechanisms and opportunities to increase U.S. government funding through
    USAID, the State Department or other institutions for rights-focused
    LGBT organizations internationally.
  • Foster greater diversity
    within the State Department by ending employment-related disparities
    in overseas posting benefits and other employment benefits that limit
    the career options of LGBT employees with spouses or domestic partners. 

Until these steps are taken,
crucial public health interventions in the field of HIV/AIDS will continue
to be undermined by those who are determined – often for political
motives – to deny human rights.  It is time for a new "ABC"
policy to guide our diplomats and other U.S. representatives abroad. 
We need a policy that abstains from siding with those states
in the United Nations that would deny the application of human rights
protections to LGBT individuals; one that will be faithful to
our binding human rights commitments to promote privacy and non-discrimination
for LGBT individuals under the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR); and one that will speak out against any attempt to
consensual homosexual conduct as a matter of human rights,
public health and common decency.   

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