Canada must be a true LGBTQI ally

By Maurice Tomlinson, Senior Policy Analyst, and Richard Elliott, Executive Director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

May 1, 2017

Despite certain advances in some countries, the world remains a very dangerous place for LGBTQI people.

In Chechnya, gay men are being kidnapped, tortured and even murdered by uniformed military. This horrific situation has reignited an urgent global discussion about the treatment of this community by national governments. However, this latest atrocity is just one example of the abuse and harassment that LGBTQI people still face. Today nearly 75 countries maintain laws that criminalize consensual same-sex activity, seven imposing the death penalty. These laws have fostered a slow-burning but now increasingly violent aggression against LGBTQI people around the world.

In the western hemisphere, the last remaining anti-sodomy laws are found in nine former British colonies of the Caribbean. It is therefore no surprise that the region also has the second highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa, and possibly the highest HIV prevalence rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) globally. This is because the archaic statutes which, while varied, help to drive vulnerable individuals underground, away from effective HIV interventions and make them open to anti-gay abuse and persecution.

The micro-states of the Caribbean are quite distinct and a one-size-fits-all strategy to addressing any human rights challenge is therefore doomed to fail. As such, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has partnered with local activists, who recently met with Canadian policymakers to share their experience and discuss the issues faced in their countries, on a nuanced approach to addressing homophobia and HIV in the region. For example, we have: filed legal challenges in Jamaican courts against anti-gay laws and practice; collaborated on police LGBTQI sensitivity training in six countries; worked with diaspora groups in Canada to encourage greater acceptance for LGBTQI people in their home territories; worked to amplify the voices of progressive and inclusive faith leaders; sponsored and helped coordinate visibility campaigns such as Montego Bay Pride and the launch of the Barbados Pride Committee; and have lobbied Caribbean government officials in international fora on behalf of local activists.

But this is just the beginning. Canada can and must do more to be an ally in the fight against repressive laws and treatment of LGBTQI people around the world. In response to the rash of laws and ongoing violence targeting LGBTQI people abroad, the Legal Network has worked with activists and organizations to co-found the Dignity Initiative—a network that aims to strengthen both solidarity work by Canadian civil society groups and Canada’s foreign policy commitment to the realization of human rights for LGBTQI people internationally (www.dignityinitiative.ca). Together, we have made 22 recommendations to the federal government which, if implemented, would position Canada as a true leader on LGBTQI rights. Broadly speaking, the Government of Canada must: reach out to LGBTQI activists and defenders of human rights in countries where such rights are violated, and work to amplify their voices; enhance funding to support organizations here at home and around the world to defend and promote human rights, including those of LGBTQI people; use diplomacy to publicly define and commit to the human rights of LGBTQI people in Canada’s broader foreign policy; and support refugees and facilitate asylum in Canada for LGBTQI people fleeing persecution.

Of course, Canada also needs to step up on the domestic front and address homegrown laws and attitudes that negatively affect LGBTQI people, such as ending the unjust criminalization of people living with HIV, guaranteeing rights for trans people, and repealing harmful criminal laws on sex work that undermine the health and human rights of sex workers. But Canada’s avowed commitment to international human rights, the presence of a multitude of diverse diaspora populations, and—on a less positive note—the fact that some Canadians are engaged in the export of homophobia imposes an ethical obligation to defend human rights for all, not just within our borders but beyond.

As the human rights of LGBTQI people are threatened worldwide, now is the time for swift, but also thoughtful, action. Without leadership by Canada and other countries, supporting human rights defenders on the ground, the carnage to which we now bear witness will only continue. Our LGBTQI community members deserve much better.

Originally published as an op-ed in The Hill Times on May 1, 2017.

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