“Social discourse about who is worthy of dignity and who is not,” Colombian activist María Susana Peralta Ramón told members of the United National Security Council yesterday, “creates a group of bodies available to be attacked.”
Peralta, who advocates for the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities in transitional justice, and peacebuilding, knows the toll that armed conflict can have on queer bodies and lives. She spent several years painstakingly documenting how all major parties to Colombia’s decades-long civil war targeted victims based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, committing crimes including forced displacement sexual violence and forced labor.
Transitional Justice, as defined by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights), aims to provide recognition to victims, enhance the trust of individuals in State institutions, reinforce respect for human rights and promote the rule of law, as a step towards reconciliation and the prevention of new violations.
Akbary and Peralta were civil society briefers at a Security Council Arria-formula meeting – an informal meeting hosted by a member state – that the United States convened on March 20 on “Integrating the Human Rights of LGBTI persons into the Council’s Mandate for Maintaining International Peace and Security.” It is only the second time the Security Council has discussed violence against LGBTIQ people - a notable gap, given that, as US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield repeatedly emphasized, threats against LGBTIQ people are threats to international peace and security.
The first time the Council discussed anti-LGBTIQ violence was in 2015, when Chile and the US convened a meeting on atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against men suspected of homosexuality and other LGBTIQ people. Only the intense visibility and shocking nature of ISIS’s violence – “throwing men off buildings with their hands tied behind their backs,” as UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Victor Madrigal-Borloz recounted – made it politically palatable to discuss sexual orientation on the Security Council floor back in 2015, before Madrigal’s mandate even existed. ISIS’s gruesome assaults on LGBTIQ people were so aberrant that the case could be seen as an outlier.
In contrast, yesterday’s meeting recognized anti-LGBTIQ violence as a form of conflict-related gender-based violence that is widespread and systemic, inextricably intertwined with patriarchy, and exigeant of durable solutions traversing the Security Council’s broad mandate.
It should come as no surprise that LGBTIQ people are at risk during armed conflict, when gender binaries and hierarchies are reified, armed actors seek easy victims, scores are settled, and impunity flourishes. Yet such violence has long been invisibilized within the international system – dismissed as “too hard” to document, naturalized as an ordinary part of the landscape, or simply overlooked by atrocity prevention specialists or investigators who lack training or a mandate to consider sexuality or gender identity. No Security Council subsidiary body mandate includes language on sexual orientation or gender identity. No one has ever been convicted of gender persecution for targeting queer people. No post-conflict truth-telling mechanism had analyzed violence against LGBTIQ people, until Colombia’s truth commission did so in 2022. But recently, spurred in part by situations in Afghanistan and Ukraine and drawing on lessons from Yemen, Colombia, Peru, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, Outright International, the Independent Expert, the International Criminal Court and others have given greater visibility to the preponderance of anti-queer violence as a form of gender persecution during periods of conflict.
The US asked States attending the Arria-formula meeting to reflect on how the Security Council could better incorporate LGBTI persons’ human rights in carrying out its mandate. Many states rose to the occasion, calling for inclusive implementation of the Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda, protection of queer access to humanitarian assistance, and measures to ensure UN field missions are sensitive to LGBTIQ people’s needs on the ground. A handful of states typically hostile to LGBTIQ people’s human rights objected that the Council should only address “universally” recognized problems and identities, or that it should not address human rights at all – as if “security” goals were distinct from human lives, safety and dignity; as if it were an insufficiently universal precept that no one should be executed, forcibly disappeared, raped, or tortured because of who they are or whom they love.
Madrigal-Borloz described attacks on queer people in conflict settings as the “weaponization of prejudice.” Such violence is subject to a vicious circle: conflict fuels identity-based violence, and, in a process perhaps less well understood, the tolerance of identity-based violence in a society fuels conflict, by diminishing the value of human lives and constructing “expendable” targets for armed actors who are politically savvy in their instrumentalization of violence against minorities.
To break the cycle, Outright offers the following recommendations to the Security Council and UN members states:
“I am a survivor not because I was brave. I am a survivor because I was lucky,” Artemis Akbary of Afghanistan told the Council. LGBTIQ people in conflict settings and situations of mass atrocities should not have to rely on luck nor bravery to escape bias-motivated violence. They should be able to rely on the international community’s commitment to a just and inclusive conceptualization of peace and security, one that leaves no one behind.