Human rights activist discusses global LGBT rights

Jobi Cates and Boris Dittrich at Center on Halsted. Photo: Joseph Duggan Lyons.

More than 40 global citizens showed up bright and early at the Center on Halsted Wednesday for a discussion on global LGBT rights with Boris Dittrich, the advocacy director of the LGBT Program at Human Rights Watch.

“Usually when we talk in Europe, Canada or the U.S. about LGBT rights, one of the first questions is always about gay marriage,” Dittrich said. “In most parts of the world, we are talking about physical integrity. Don’t torture people, don’t harm them on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Dittrich was joined on stage by moderator Jobi Cates, the Chicago and Midwest region director of Human Rights Watch. With Cates leading the conversation, Dittrich explored the LGBT rights abroad, recent advances and initiatives to engage the United Nations.

Dittrich used the example of two African nations to further explain the most dangerous places to be gay, as well as how Human Rights Watch has worked to decriminalize homosexuality.

He said Uganda remains a focus for human rights organizations because of its Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which received widespread condemnation in the West after its introduction there in 2009. The bill is still pending after its reintroduction to the Ugandan parliament this year.

“It’s very tough to live there as an LGBT person,” he said. “In this bill is a provision for the death penalty. The [parliamentarian who introduced the bill] was so afraid of the homosexual danger that he thought, ‘How can I eradicate the homosexual danger?’ Well, it’s by introducing the death penalty.”

In addition any person, company or non-governmental organization that knows of a gay person, must report them to the police within 24 hours. Failure to do so can be punished by prison time under the bill’s provisions.

“If you are a parent and your child comes to you and says, ‘I’m gay or lesbian,’ you have to go to the police. Or if you are a priest or a doctor,” Dittrich said. “If you don’t report it, you can end up in prison yourself.”

The role of the United States has been mixed in such countries, Dittrich said. American evangelical Christians have influenced the politicians who have introduced anti-gay bills but American ambassadors and embassy staff have been working to counter anti-gay violence since Barack Obama became president.

The other example Dittrich gave was Cameroon. This country’s penal code says homosexual conduct is criminalized by up to 15 years in prison, but in practice simply identifying as gay can end in imprisonment.

Dittrich told the story of a young man who was dating an older man who worked for the government. They never engaged in any homosexual conduct but the older man had the younger man arrested because he was afraid the younger man might blackmail him.

The younger man was sentenced to three years in prison, even though he had never engaged in homosexual conduct.

Human Rights Watch interviewed victims that were also arrested for identifying as gay, never having engaged in homosexual conduct. The organization brought the report to Cameroon authorities, who paid little attention to its findings. From there Human Rights Watch went to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which then condemned the persecution.

Dittrich said Human Rights Watch tries to use the United Nations, the African Union and other regional bodies to pressure governments. In 2012 Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, came on board, giving a speech at the Human Rights Council in Geneva declaring gay rights to be human rights.

“We’re grateful he came on board,” Dittrich said. “He’s really working to push the agenda when he goes to Africa, the Middle East or Caribbean. His line is, ‘You have the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. What does ‘universal’ mean? It doesn’t mean straight people but all people.”

In the audience was Meera Raja, a support services coordinator with the city’s Department of Family Support Services. She asked about the status of LGBT rights in India. Her parents are from the south of the country in Chennai.

“People always asked me that question, and I didn’t know,” Raja said.

After hearing Dittrich’s response she says she has an answer. “I would say it’s a mixed bag. Even though homosexual conduct used to be criminalized, it’s gone before the Indian Supreme Court. There are so many Indian organizations coming together to support LGBT people. India is the world’s largest democracy, and I’m glad to see it working that way.”

Dittrich, a former Dutch parliamentarian, has worked since 2007 in the human rights arena. In 2007, he opened and moderated a meeting at the United Nations which resulted in 66 countries issuing a joint statement to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The United States, under the Obama administration, has since joined bringing the number to 67.

In the Netherlands, Dittrich initiated the same-sex marriage and adoption bills that led to the country being the first in the world to give same-sex couples civil marriage rights.