Covid-19 used to curtail LGBT+ civil rights, report finds

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Free speech, LGBT+ rights, and freedoms to peacefully assemble have deteriorated during the pandemic. A new study released Dec. 9 finds the coronavirus pandemic has greatly impacted civil liberties around the world, and LGBT+ people have been especially hard hit. The study found that 87% of the global population now lives in countries categorized as “closed,” “repressed,” or “obstructed.”

The pandemic has been used as a pretext to curtail civil rights, which have deteriorated globally, causing a dramatic rise in repressive actions by governments. Governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to limit or even end free speech, peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

The study was put out by CIVICUS Monitor, a global civil society alliance constituting an influential network of organizations at the local, national, regional and international levels. CIVICUS assessed 196 countries for the study.

The detention of protesters, excessive use of force, censorship, attacks on journalists and harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders have all increased, according to the report. Covid-19 has been used to “introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms,” the report said.

The group categorized fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression as either “closed,” “repressed,” “obstructed,” “narrowed” or “open,” based on several data sources.

The worst-rated countries were “closed.” A quarter of the world’s population now lives in these countries where “state and non-state actors” routinely imprison, injure and kill people for attempting to exercise their rights. China, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan are among the countries listed in this category. In all three, LGBT+ can be imprisoned for simple assembly.

According to a statement from lead CIVICUS researcher Marianna Belaalba Barreto, “Our research reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe and highlights how governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to further curtail rights, including by passing legislation to criminalize speech.”

Of the 196 countries assessed for the study, only the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan had improved their rating from last year, moving from “closed” to “repressed.” Eleven countries were downgraded, notably the U.S., Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Iraq, the Philippines and Slovenia. Overall, the report stated, the outlook for civil liberties is “bleak.”

In the U.S., CIVICUS cited the Trump administration’s response to civil rights protests and other treatment of minority groups, noting that the Trump administration “responded with excessive force, police violence and mass detentions” to protests and that states and cities had done the same. The study found in recent years several states have enacted restrictive laws which limit people’s right to peacefully protest, while across the U.S., reporters were increasingly detained or injured while conducting interviews or covering protests, researchers found, emphasizing that journalists of color, women and LGBT+ people were especially at risk.

In Europe, “authoritarian” moves by governments using the pandemic “as a pretext to curtail freedoms” and even arrest and detain LGBT+ people have restricted civil rights in Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Serbia.

In west Africa, four countries — Ivory Coast, Guinea, Niger and Togo — were downgraded from “obstructed” to “repressed.”

CIVICUS also reported the direct targeting of excluded groups such as LGBT+ people, immigrants or refugees, said CIVICUS Monitor researcher Josef Benedict. Among the countries downgraded for their treatment of LGBT+ were Poland, Hungary, Uganda and India.

CIVICUS Monitor is calling for governments to work with civil society and human rights defenders “to halt this downward spiral and push back against the authoritarian forces at work.”

While the CIVICUS Monitor study cited a global trend in repressive actions against protest and targeting of LGBT+ people in particular, the EU is focusing on protecting LGBT+ people in the most repressive EU nations.

Brussels has proposed the criminalization of hate speech against LGBTQ+ people under EU law as well as recognition of same-sex partnerships across the bloc’s borders. This action is in direct response to increasingly authoritarian actions against LGBT+ people in Poland and Hungary — actions which have been supported and even abetted by the U.S. State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

As reported throughout 2019 and 2020 by PGN, Pompeo has supported these repressive governmental actions as well as those of countries cited in the CIVICUS Monitor report through the State Department’s USAID program. USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, is an independent agency of the federal government that is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance.

Speaking for the EU, Věera Jourová, a European commissioner, said in a statement that Brussels was taking these actions to protect LGBT+ people due to new “worrying trends.” The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reported that 43% of LGBT people had declared feeling discriminated against in 2019, compared with 37% the previous year.

The proposals were announced as part of the commission’s first ever strategy to secure equality for LGBT+ people in the EU.

Jourová cited attacks on Pride marches and the move by more than 100 Polish municipalities to declare themselves as “LGBT-free zones” as further evidence of increased discrimination. A so-called “LGBT ideology” was recently described as “more destructive than communist indoctrination” by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.

Jourová also cited events in Hungary, noting Viktor Orban’s right wing government’s proposal that only heterosexual married couples can adopt children.

Jourová, a former minister in the Czech Republic, cited these actions as “belonging to the authoritarian playbook and it does not have a place in the European Union.”

Under its five-year strategy, the commission wants to extend the list of EU crimes to cover hate crime, including that motivated by homophobia, and to bring forward legislation on the mutual recognition of parenthood in cross-border situations.

Only 21 member states recognize some form of same-sex partnership, and only 14 of those allow adoption by same-sex couples, leading to problems for those who move from one EU country to another.

“All of a sudden they will stop being your child once you cross the border,” Jourová said. “This is unacceptable… If one is a parent in one country, one is a parent in all countries… This is not ideology. This is not about being men or women. This is about love.”

An extension of the list of EU crimes and mutual recognition of parenthood will require unanimity of the 27 member states, which would appear unlikely given the attitudes of the current Polish and Hungarian governments.

The EU’s executive branch enraged the government in Warsaw after withholding funding from six towns in Poland that had declared themselves “LGBT-free” but it was suggested that such sanctions could become more commonplace.

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Victoria A. Brownworth
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.