Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Gema Pérez-Sánchez and Brenna Munro

International Activism in Practice: Human Rights Watch. 2015 Interview with Graeme Reid, Director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch

A note about this piece.[1]

Video 1: LGBTI Rights Abuses

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: Hi, I’m Gema Perez Sanchez.

BRENNA MUNRO: And I’m Brenna Munro, and we’re both professors from the University of Miami.

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: We’re here at the headquarters of Human Rights Watch to have a conversation with Graeme Reid, who is a director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. He’s an expert on LGBT rights, who has conducted research, taught, and published extensively on gender, sexuality, LGBT issues, and HIV/AIDS. Before joining Humans Rights Watch in 2011, Reid was the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and a lecturer in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at Yale University. Quite a distinguished career. He was an anthropologist by training, and he received a master’s from the University of the Witwatersband, and a PhD from the University of Amsterdam. So, thank you for having us here.

GRAEME REID: Thank you. Welcome.

BRENNA MUNRO: So, our first question is about the Human Rights Watch documents, exposing abuses that are affecting LGBTI people around the world. So what do you think are the most urgent issues and locations at the moment?

GRAEME REID: You know, that’s a tough question, because it’s always difficult to put rights into a hierarchy and I think the recent report by the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights that was presented at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year demonstrates the extent of abuses in all parts of the world and indeed our own research also shows that there are abuses of different nature and different extent, but in all parts of the world. And whether we are looking at the experience of transgender women in US detention facilities, whether we are looking at, coercive conversion therapies for women in Ecuador, whether we are looking at violence against gay men in Jamaica, all of these are examples of issues that we at Human Rights Watch are concerned about. Now, there’s a particular intensity to abuses when those abuses are state-sponsored. So, for instance, we’ve seen a clamp down in Egypt, for example, where they are very high levels of arrest and prosecution of people based on their sexuality. Or in Cameroon, where there are a number of arrests and prosecutions on flimsy or no evidence against people based on their sexual orientation. So that’s a challenge. In some countries, we work in a setting in which policies and laws are in place and there’s a willingness on the part of the government, but there might be high levels of violence, such as in South Africa. And then we’re faced with the situation currently, which is deeply disturbing, of entities such as the Islamic state, that actually relishes the fact that they are executing people under the accusation of homosexuality, and so that’s outside any human rights system, of course, that those types of abuses are taking place. So that’s a kind of spectrum of the kinds of abuses that we’re dealing with. And I think one thing that we also need to be cognizant of is an intensification of the use of homophobia for political ends. So often we see that homophobia is deployed as a distraction from other issues that are going on, and we see this in particular in Russia, using homophobia as a way of consolidating a conservative support base, of Russia positioning itself internationally as the defender of so-called traditional values, and we see ripple effects of that, such as in Nigeria, for instance, the law there is clearly tied up to political developments in Nigeria, and similarly in Uganda. We can’t understand the homophobic legislation there unless we understand something about the political reality within Uganda.

Video 2: Hopeful Developments

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: So, you’ve outlined some of those challenges that Human Rights Watch is now facing in terms of the agenda of fighting for human rights and LGBTQ issues. Are there any developments that give you hope?

GRAEME REID: Yes, I paint quite a bleak picture there, partly because the question is inviting me to do so. But, certainly, that’s not the only picture. And, you know, we tailor our response to a particular setting depending on what is possible to achieve there. So, our work is very impact orientated. So, for example, within a South African context, it’s appropriate to be working with the government, as we have done in terms of the national task team that was set up to counteract violence, and I think there we’ve seen real progress, finally, after a long time in which the national task team was somewhat dormant, somewhat ineffectual, we see government departments being brought together, we see a coordinated effort to do what is possible to address violence. More could be done, but there are steps that have been taken. I think that also in sometimes unexpected contexts, one needs to look at gradual progress, and not necessarily dramatic changes, but small and significant changes, and I’m going to cite a couple of examples from Sub-Saharan Africa, because often there’s a spotlight on Sub-Saharan Africa as being particularly homophobic. Now in the last 18 months, we’ve seen three court cases that, to me, are very promising. One is in Botswana, which gave the right of the organization LEGABIBO (The Lesbians, Gays, & Bisexuals of Botswana) to register as an organization. It’s been something that they’ve been attempting to do for some time, and their application has been rejected because there’s also a sodomy law in Botswana, so it seemed to be promoting illegal activities. But the court is drawing, correctly, a distinction between the law and freedom of association, the right to freedom of association. So that’s an important case that is under appeal, so the end result still remains to be seen.[2] But a similar case in Kenya, in which there was a very good judgment, that also allowed a group there, the Kenyan National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, to register, despite the refusal of the NGO entity that’s responsible for registration, that was a very significant, very broad judgment that again asserted the right to freedom of association. And finally, in Zambia, there was a case in which an activist, who appeared on a television program talking about LGBT rights, was arrested when he left the television program, and the case has just ruled in terms of freedom of expression, that absolutely he has the right to be advocating for change in the law. And, so those are isolated incidents, isolated cases, that I see as significant – but also, the fact that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights passed a resolution not only condemning violence against LGBT people, but, significantly, also calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. I think that again is a very significant development. It’s significant both in substance, because of what it’s saying; it’s also significant in terms of what I would say is a symbolic weight, a symbolic value, because so often it’s contested as to whether LGBT rights are part of a human rights agenda at all. And of course they are, and this is part of an insistence of that. And I’m going to move, then, from that regional context to say that there are two resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council that have been particularly significant for similar reasons. The resolutions themselves are pretty mild in terms of the fact that really they’re just calling for further studies and further investigation, but what they’re doing is firmly putting LGBT rights into the routine work, the routine agenda, of the UN Human Rights Council, and we can see an increased support for the secondary resolution, both in terms of the number of states that voted in favor, but also the regional dispersion of those states that supported the resolution. So, I think all of these are, you know, just glimpses that certainly give me hope. And I’ll end by saying that in some respects, if you look at the situation, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s been an increased level in homophobic rhetoric by state leaders, by government leaders, but that’s also an indication of the strength of a movement within the continent, because 25 years (ago) there was hardly a movement to speak of. Now there’s a robust, vocal, active African LGBT movement. And, so, in some senses the level of reaction against that is also a measure of the strength, the resilience, and the successes of the domestic movement on the continent.

Video 3: Human Rights Watch’s Strategies in Russia

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: Thank you, I did want to do a follow-up comment, or question. You mentioned Russia, and the difficulties, and the sort of strategic use of homophobia to hide other issues at stake. Could you tell us a little bit more about what Human Rights Watch is planning, or is advocating for LGBTQ rights in Russia?

GRAEME REID: Yes, we’ve had two strategies and two approaches in Russia. The one was, of course the propaganda laws took place at the time of the Sochi Olympics, so that was an opportunity in which Russia was presenting itself to the world and so it gave quite a bit of leverage for coalition work with other LGBT groups, both within Russia and internationally, to really bring pressure on the International Olympics Committee to explicitly include sexual orientation as part of the ambit of discriminations that are included within the Olympic Charter, and that will be criteria in the future when cities are considered for Olympic games. And that was a successful campaign; there has been that specific inclusion, and we’ll see how the International Olympics Committee approaches this going forward and in the future. So that’s relating to one specific event, but what about the long-term issue in Russia? And it’s very easy that after an event like that, once the international spotlight is moved away, is that it can be forgotten about, and move on to the next big issue. But I think the advantage of having an LGBT program at Human Rights Watch that’s embedded within a broader human rights program is that Human Rights Watch have had an office in Moscow for 20 years, so there is a way of continuing that work, and what we have focused on is to show the effects of the propaganda law. The Russian version of it is that it’s there to protect children. What our research has shown is how children who are already vulnerable, LGBT children in particular, are subject to extraordinary levels of violence that takes place with impunity. So, what we’ve documented is the homophobic gangs that lure youngsters, some of them children under 18 years old, and then subject them to various forms of abuse, film that, and then upload it onto YouTube. So, it has the effect both of outing people, which has terrible social consequences in Russia, but also humiliating them in a public way. And we did a video around that which, together with our report, was a video that went viral. I think over 4,000,000 people have seen it. So, the idea is to draw attention to and expose the lie that Russia is giving is that this is about protecting children. We’re showing that it’s anything but. Now, do we expect that to bring about change now in Russia? No, but it’s important to be documenting it, and I would say that there is some impact of those, that report. Our advocacy director, and the researcher who did that report, have recently been on a trip to Russia. They meet with all the ombudsmen in the different regions, and on a regional level there’s a different response to the findings of the report, because really what the report on one level is saying, is this violence has taken place with impunity. There needs to be some consequence to these people who are perpetuating this violence, and doing so openly in public, with no consequence. And, you know, there is some leverage there. And in the long term, it’s just to document what’s taking place. Sometimes, you know, you have to be there for the long haul, and to recognize that there are no quick fix solutions.

BRENNA MUNRO: Thank you. And I think that actually leads into a question about social media. You’ve already mentioned several instances of both Human Rights Watch using multimedia and the way in which it’s been used for homophobic purposes. So, how would you say that these new technologies have changed the landscape of activism?

GRAEME REID: I mean, that’s an excellent question, and I’m going to address it in two ways. One is how it’s helpful to us at Human Rights Watch and increasingly important in terms of our work, but also the paradoxical way in which social media has facilitated LGBT organizing. Now, clearly it facilitates a lot of organizing politically, social movements that rely on and communicate through social media, but for LGBT people who often times need to keep their very identities secret, hidden, to live in the shadows, because of the law, because of social attitudes, it’s a really valuable tool for being able to communicate with each other and at the same time maintain that necessary anonymity and necessary invisibility. And, so, it’s enormously helpful in terms of organizing. I know in my own work in rural South Africa, a technology like WhatsApp is fantastically helpful to people organizing across large geographical distances. It makes a huge difference. But paradoxically, social media is also a tool of surveillance. And, so, we’ve seen incidences, such as in Cameroon, where an activist was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail on the basis of a text message that he had sent to someone saying that he had fallen in love with him, and that was used as evidence against him in this court case. And then, we see in Egypt, for example, the use of dating sites as a way of entrapping people and then arresting, and prosecuting. So, it’s a double-edged sword, because there’s that sense of security in the social media world, but there’s also a vulnerability that comes with that. And then the second part is that we’ve seen an enormous growth in social media use at Human Rights Watch. The last time I looked, there’s about one and a half million followers on Facebook and close to two million on Twitter. So, it’s certainly a way of getting our message out there, and doing so in a way that’s effective, and that’s speedy, and that reaches a lot of people.

Video 4: Human Rights Watch’s Methodology

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: Your commentary actually already answers a question that I’m going to ask you now, which is how the strategies that Human Rights Watch has used and is using right now to advocate for LGBT rights around the world may have changed or adapted. You mention that you have to be careful in the long haul, but there’s also sort of small and strategic improvements or victories, so if you could tell us a little bit to give us historical view of how in particular advocacy for LGBT rights across the world has changed for Human Rights Watch in recent years.

GRAEME REID: So, what I think is important in answering that question is to say something about what the methodology is of Human Rights Watch in general and how that works in terms of the LGBT rights program. So, the first part of the work of Human Rights Watch is to do the in-depth documentation, on the ground interviews with the victims of abuse, interviews with the perpetrators of abuse, gathering whatever information, evidence is available, cross-checking that. Our reputation rests on our reliability and the accuracy of information, so an enormous amount of attention goes to getting it right. And then to use that to draw attention to the issues, and to do that through widespread publicity, which is again where social media comes into play, but the point of all this is not to end there, but to bring about change through those strategies, so each report you’ll see has very detailed recommendations that are achievable, that would address the issues that are raised in whatever we do. So, the LGBT program that has been around now for 11 years within Human Rights Watch fits within that over-arching, overall approach to research, but sometimes there are particular challenges, not unique to LGBT, but sometimes highlighted in LGBT. What do you do in a situation where people are not ashamed of what they’re doing? In fact, it gives them a certain political traction, to be seen to be homophobic? Why is it effective to use homophobia for political ends? It’s effective because it appeals to a widespread social prejudice, or whatever it might be. So, we need to adapt our strategies and always to be careful about working in ways that are applicable and appropriate to a country’s setting. And the people who know best are the activists who are working in that setting, and who understand the dynamics of that setting. So, in determining where we work, one of the criteria, of course, is to determine the need and the extent of that need. The other criteria is always where we can partner effectively with local organizations. There are some exceptions to that, but that’s a strong incentive. And thirdly where we can have an effect, and preferably an impact not just in that country, but also more regionally, because we’ve got limited resources. So, I’d say that, overall, that’s a way of using that over-arching framework but adapting it to particular circumstances. The way we would picture our research and follow up with in South Africa, as I’ve mentioned, it would be very, very different from the way we would do it in Cameroon, where we’d be very public, for instance. When would it be better to be much more private? I’ll give you one example of a case in which we drew very little publicity to a particular report because we felt it would be counter-productive. And that was in Liberia. So, in Liberia, there was a proposal to bring in legislation that would have increased penalties for LGBT people there and would outlaw same-sex marriage, which is a redundant piece of legislation because same-sex marriage isn’t allowed in Liberia anyway. And we did research that was essentially saying that life is tough for LGBT people in Liberia as it is and these laws would make it worse. But the issue really there was that the groups that were working under the ambit of HIV and AIDS but also doing some LGBT rights work didn’t have that much access to government officials, to people in power and influence. And, so, what we did is use that report in a very low-key way to hold a stakeholders’ meeting. And we made sure that influential people were invited and agreed to attend that stakeholders’ meeting. The US ambassador herself said she would come. Other representatives from the EU, for example, agreed to participate in the stakeholders’ meeting. Representatives of the LGBT organization came and government officials came to the meeting as well, so there was a civil dialogue around the issue of LGBT rights that wasn’t fraught, it wasn’t under the public gaze, there was no media there, there was no big splash announcement about what was happening. It was a low-key meeting that facilitated that engagement between local activists and senior government officials, and we were able to do that because we could convene such a meeting as Human Rights Watch. So, there’s a way in which we can use that leverage in order to facilitate that dialogue.

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  1. We thank University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences’ Senior Associate Dean for Research, Ángel Kaifer, for his generous funding of the two trips to interview Graeme Reid. [Return to text]
  2. In March of 2016 the Botswanan Court of Appeal found in favor of LEGABIBO’s right to register. See LEGABIBO’s press release, March 16 2016: [Return to text]