By Lyndon Barnett
In the days following July 19 2005, photographs of two teenage boys dangling by the neck in the ironically named Justice Square in Mashhad in north-eastern Iran permeated the internet.
The details behind the public executions are sketchy. According to the Iranian authorities, the teenagers participated in the rape of a 13-year-old boy. Article 110 of the Islamic Penal Code states, Punishment for sodomy is killing; the sharia judge decides on how to carry out the killing.
International organisations condemned the deaths, accusing Iran of fabricating the charges.
Peter Tatchell from the British activist group OutRage said, Whilst we are powerless here to directly affect what happens in Iran the least we can do is raise our voice against this unbelievable cruelty. We urge people not to be complicit in this through silence.
This case is not an isolated event. OutRage reported that 4000 gay and lesbian Iranians have been executed since 1979.
As Sydney prepares for its annual parade, celebrating freedom of expression and diversity, it is vital we remember that homosexual acts are not only punishable by death under statute in some foreign countries, but these laws are acted upon.
According to a report into homophobia commissioned by the International Lesbian and Gay Association in 2008, there are 82 countries where homosexuality is illegal, with a further seven where homosexual acts are not illegal as such, but not entirely legal either.
Of these countries there are seven where homosexuality is punishable by death.
Of the 192 countries currently recognised by the United Nations, a massive 46 percent prohibit homosexual acts.
These statistics accom-pany a much more frightening phenomenon. In some countries, outlawing homosexuality by statute seems to grant vigilantes permission to carry out their own campaign of hatred and bigotry.
In June 2004, a leading Jamaican LGBT activist, Brian Williamson, was stabbed at least 70 times in his Kingston apartment. Again, this is not an isolated incident. The group Williamson founded, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, believe 30 gay men were murdered because of their sexuality between 1997 and 2006.
The year following Williamson’s murder, the European Union called on the Government of Jamaica to repeal sections 76, 77 and 79 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalise sex between consenting adult men and are used as justification for unacceptable harassment, notably against HIV/AIDS educators; asks the Government of Jamaica to actively fight widespread homophobia.
Article 76 of the Act states, Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery [anal intercourse] committed either with mankind or with any animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding 10 years.
The Jamaican Government has not changed the law to date.
The United Nations
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the lofty clause, Article 1, All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
While there are currently no UN documents explicitly outlawing persecution based on sexuality, there have been two initiatives in recent times to rectify the situation.
In 2003 the Brazilian Government proposed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights the -˜Brazilian Resolution,’ which called upon all States to promote and protect the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation.
Brazil was opposed by the Vatican and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a Muslim bloc headed by Egypt and Pakistan who considered the resolution an insult to Muslims worldwide.
After much diplomatic manoeuvring and proposed amendments, the Commission deferred discussions. To date, the resolution has not been placed back on the agenda, effectively rendering the 2003 initiative a defeat.
British European Parliament member Michael Cashman said at the time, Both the Vatican and the Conference of Islamic States should hang their heads in shame for having reduced their beliefs to the gutter of bigotry and discrimination.
The first time homosexuality was discussed on the floor of the UN General Assembly was last year, when France and the Netherlands co-sponsored a declaration calling upon the decriminalisation of homosexuality worldwide.
The Declaration read, We reaffirm the principle of non-discrimination which requires that human rights apply equally to every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The French Human Rights Minister, Rama Yade, drove the initiative. How can we tolerate the fact that people are stoned, hanged, decapitated and tortured only because of their sexual orientation? she asked.
Fifty-seven countries, including the United States, opposed the declaration. The opposing statement read by Syria said the initiative could lead to, the social normalization, and possibly the legitimisation, of many deplorable acts including pedophilia.
Sixty-six countries voted in favour. Although the declaration was non-binding, the initiative was viewed as a significant step forward.
Is there anything we can do here in Australia, to help the gay and lesbian population in countries where there are both laws prohibiting homosexual acts and societies failing to recognise the basic human rights of gay people?
Simon Margan, spokesman for Community Action Against Homophobia said, It is because we have right the right to be gay in Australia that we can speak for the people who don’t have that right in their own country. They can’t demand gay rights, because just being gay is a crime. We should fight for their rights.
Margan said it was CAAH who first alerted the Australian Government to the UN Declaration last December.
We found that the Government didn’t even know about it, so we organised for individuals to send letters to parliamentarians including the Attorney-General lobbying for their support. In the end Australia enthusiastically supported the motion, he said.
It is important that we remind the Government of their international obligations. On this occasion, it wasn’t a matter of demanding they support it, but just a matter of letting them know what was going on.
Margan was recently accepted on to the board of the International Lesbian and Gay Association for the Australia/Pacific Region.
It is by working with ILGA, which is recognised by the UN, that you can make a real difference in countries, he said.
Peter Furness, spokesman for Australian Marriage Equality believes Australia would have more leverage on the world stage if the Australia’s gay population had full legal rights.
How can you urge other countries if you don’t have complete equality yourself? he asked.
One advantage of our organisation is that we are focused on a single issue. Marriage confronts people and challenges them. I believe you’re either equal under the law or you’re not. The law influences attitudes enormously.
To escape persecution, gay refugees are seeking asylum in more accepting countries. Human rights lawyer Jenni Millbank said Australia first began accepting refugees who argued persecution on the basis of their sexuality in 1993.
Australia is second only to Canada in this regard, she said. Lesbian and gay men have a good chance of arguing their case here. Between 20 to 30 percent of cases are successful, which is a pretty good success rate compared with the overall average.
When making a decision, Millbank believes the decision makers aren’t always aware of the extent of the prejudice in foreign countries.
I urge all people to support the efforts of Human Rights Watch and the International Lesbian and Gay Association whose members have risked their own lives to travel into African countries to document the situation there. These documents are vital for the decision makers because they provide the evidence for the persecution, she said.
Our Government could be much stronger in applying diplomatic pressure on countries like Iran and Zimbabwe where state-sponsored violence is known.