Time to have Pride in our Humanitarian Work

Pride is being celebrated around the world, yet protection of the LGBTQ community continues to be neglected in humanitarian affairs

By: /
23 August, 2023
In Vancouver, Vancouver Football Club fans celebrate Pride Season at their match against Pacific Football Club on 19 August 2023. Photo: Chris Kilford. In Vancouver, Vancouver Football Club fans celebrate Pride Season at their match against Pacific Football Club on 19 August 2023. Photo: Chris Kilford.
Spencer van Vloten
By: Spencer van Vloten

August 19th marked World Humanitarian Day, an occasion to celebrate humanitarian workers and ongoing efforts to save lives and alleviate suffering.

Meanwhile, across the world many countries are in Pride Season, vibrantly celebrating to promote the visibility, dignity, equality, and self-affirmation of the LGBTQ community. 

These are major occasions on their own, but why are they so neglected as a pair?

Members of the LGBTQ community occupy a perilous position. They are still criminalized in at least 66 countries, while homosexuality is punishable by death in 12.

In countries which account for massive swathes of the global population and receive millions in Canadian foreign aid, there is virtually free reign to terrorize people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and the situation is not improving.

This year Uganda, which receives tens of millions of dollars in Canadian funding, passed some of the most draconian anti-LGBTQ laws ever seen.  

Lebanon ordered their security services to prevent gatherings which ‘promote homosexuality’.

Iranian parliamentarians pushed a bill to ban publications featuring LGBTQ concerns.

And the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War? Its belligerents – Russia in particular – are rife with systematic harassment of LGBTQ persons.

The vulnerabilities LGBTQ persons already face are intensified in conflict, forced displacement, and other crises, of which there are no shortages: nearly 300 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, over 100 million are displaced, and millions among them are members of the LGBTQ community. 

When countries go through crisis and security crumbles, it is easier for the public and prominent leaders to foment and act out hatred.

To give just two examples, Iraqi Shia political leader Muqtada al-Sadr blamed the legalization of same-sex marriage for the impacts of the pandemic, while armed groups in Ukraine broke into the offices of LGBTQ organizations, attacking staff members who had spent the previous hour locked in trying unsuccessfully to contact the depleted local police force.

But even when it looks like LGBTQ persons have managed to locate assistance during a crisis, the harassment continues. 

Some are excluded from aid distribution that is based on traditional family models or led by religious associations, some are denied access to bathrooms and gender specific shelters, and, in the most extreme cases, some are raped or killed, with LGBTQ aid workers themselves being targets.

LGBTQ persons also face continued discrimination and abuse from other displaced persons, and may be excluded from decision-making structures for displaced communities, leaving them without a voice.

Laggers, not leaders

Despite the brutal realities faced globally by the LGBTQ community, protections and assistance for them is largely unaddressed in international crisis and conflict response. 

Few of the largest humanitarian plans mention protection of sexual and gender minorities, there have been no successful prosecutions at the International Criminal Court related to violence against LGBTQ people, and Canada continues to contribute tens of millions of dollars to human rights abusing countries while doing little to hold them accountable.

Although a growing number of countries have used their National Action Plans on Women, Peace, and Security to support LGBTQ inclusion in their peace and security work, Canada’s plan is devoid of any such focus, containing the most fleeting mention of the issue and failing to make important links between sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. 

So, what needs to happen?

Recommendations 

To start, Canada must be more committed and forceful in protecting the LGBTQ community. One potential avenue to do this is through using our National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security to help outline and implement strategies to further LGBTQ inclusion within our humanitarian work. 

In updating our National Action Plan, Canada should consult civil society organizations and members of the LGBTQ community domestically and abroad, creating a clearer path to address the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ populations through our foreign policy, just like Germany, Japan, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and other countries have.

Second, Canada must build stronger relationships with local organizations on the ground supporting the LGBTQ community in conflict and disaster areas, which can monitor, report, and deliver services.

It is these organizations that are the most knowledgeable of operating within local political and social contexts – which are often extremely hostile to LGBTQ interests – and when needed can draw upon informal networks, such as housing LGBTQ persons in private safe houses rather than government run shelters. 

But the same local groups are short on resources and LGBTQ-specific support in these settings is sorely lacking. Canada can help change this by increasing funding to international partner organizations through which funds flow to the LGBTQ organizations who work closest to the persons affected by crises.

Third, Canada can increase our humanitarian workers’ capacities to support LGBTQ communities through more robust training and education in sexual orientation, gender identity, and inclusive practices. 

The Yogyakarta Principles, which set out to protect LGBTQ rights in accordance with international law, are an example of supportive principles which our humanitarian workers and those they train should be familiar with and ready to implement to the greatest extent they can.

This is especially important considering that local service providers in crisis and conflict areas often hold negative views toward members of the LGBTQ community, showing less compassion and blaming them more when they experience sexual assault.

As part of this effort, we can also help organize consultations bringing together LGBTQ activists, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations from around the world to address the inclusion gap in humanitarian emergencies. 

The Australian government did just that in hosting an event of this kind called “Pride in the Humanitarian System”, which focused on humanitarian work in the Asia and Pacific region. 

As the leader of an LGBTQ led organization in Thailand said during the consultation “If humanitarian actors can’t recognise persons of diverse sexual orientation and identities and what their problems are, they can’t help them in crisis.”

Finally, Canada can play a role in improving the relationship between LGBTQ persons and local police. Canada has provided funding and training to numerous foreign police forces, such as those in Iraq, Egypt, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Mali, which are among the worst abusers of the LGBTQ community. 

Using this influence, Canadian personnel can work with foreign forces to be more tolerant and to react more seriously to incidents of abuse, keeping LGBTQ persons safer while building more trustful relationships that encourage them to seek help when needed.

Time to act

The number of LGBTQ people in forced displacement is likely to increase in coming years as adverse climate events increase and socioeconomic fragility intensifies. 

It is as important as ever that Canada live up to its claim of being a champion of LGBTQ rights internationally, and this requires us to take greater steps to promote inclusion on a global scale by empowering local actors.

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At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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