In a groundbreaking announcement this week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) declared that it will create a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons. The news garnered little media attention, but its significance to millions of LGBTI people across the Americas and to the broader struggle for universal human rights is profound.
The development follows years of concerted efforts by activists, international human rights organizations and more recently, world leaders. (The idea to create a Rapporteurship came out of a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a 2011 state visit to Brazil.) The abuses faced by LGBTI people in the Americas and across the globe are among the most systematic and pervasive human rights violations in the world, yet they have often been overlooked and subject to vast impunity.
The importance of this announcement should not be underestimated. It is worth remembering that just six months ago, many feared an end to the IACHR’s 50 years of groundbreaking work. Yet now, the Commission leads the international community once again in creating the world’s first-ever international human rights office dedicated exclusively to LGBTI rights. While other international bodies and governments have taken important steps toward addressing these issues, the IACHR is the first to create a permanent office.
Far more than a meaningless symbolic gesture (something, frankly, that the OAS is notorious for), the Rapporteurship will provide tremendous support to activists by installing a permanent expert to monitor and investigate human rights abuses against LGBTI people across the hemisphere.
This sort of permanent support structure is key because—contrary to popular belief and simplistic media depictions—the legal status, political challenges and identities of LGBTI people vary tremendously.
For example, a recent report by Global Rights: Partners for Justice highlights the severe forms of violence facing Afro-Brazilian trans women in a country that has been celebrated for its progress on same-sex marriage. Similarly, a study released last week by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) finds that LGBTI people of color in the United States—a country known for its progressive stance on social issues—face unique obstacles to gaining stable employment and economic security. And a 2012 report by the Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Personas Trans (Latin American and Caribbean Network of Trans People—REDLACTRANS) finds that trans people across the region are subjected to severe health risks due to limited access to health care and scarce employment opportunities.
Despite these complexities, the pervasiveness of violence against LGBTI people is nearly universal. Just last month, the IACHR issued a chilling press release to condemn a rise in the number of violent attacks against LGBTI people in the Americas. In September and August, there were seven “irate mob attacks” of LGBTI people in the Caribbean, five of which occurred in Haiti and Jamaica. During the same two-month period, 32 trans people were murdered across the Americas—including 22 killings in Brazil. Governments have taken few steps to address the problem, and experts believe limited data and under-reporting strongly underestimate the extent of anti-LGBTI violence.
A limited patchwork of weak legal protections also leaves LGBTI people extremely vulnerable. Currently, Argentina is the only country in the region (and one of the only countries in the world) with a national gender identity law which allows trans people to easily change their names and protects them against discrimination. Uruguay recently legalized same-sex marriage, yet a number of other countries offer unequal or no legal protections to LGBTI couples and their families. Few jurisdictions ban discrimination in schools, subjecting young LGBTI people to widespread bullying and physical abuse. And in Belize, Jamaica and several other Caribbean nations, colonial-era laws that criminalize consensual same-sex relations remain on the books.
Countless challenges remain in the struggle for LGBTI rights, and the new office will not provide a simple solution. Yet this important step toward progress is well worth celebrating. To start, the Rapporteur will carry out existing plans to release a comprehensive report on anti-LGBTI violence in the Americas next year, offering a valuable resource on the subject. Moving forward, it will play a key role in convening activists, experts and high-level government officials to engage in continuous and meaningful dialogue on pressing human rights issues.
Yet perhaps most significantly, it should serve as a reminder to those who have fought tirelessly to defend the rights of LGBTI people in the Americas that their demands for justice have not gone unheard.