The Sunday Leader

Thoughts For Pride 2017

  • SOGIESC, Human Rights And Sri Lanka:
by Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana
In June 2016, the United Nations appointed a Special Expert on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) issues. This was a crucial step in the supranational sector, where the emphasis on SOGIESC has long lapsed. The appointment was subjected to two votes, firstly at the UN HRC in Geneva and secondly at the UN Headquarters in New York. It was vehemently opposed by a number of governments (especially African and Middle Eastern states). Yet, the majority of member states voted in favour of appointing a SOGIESC Special Expert.

Indeed, every Sri Lankan citizen can be proud of the decision of the government of Sri Lanka to vote in favour of the Special Expert. In this season of Pride celebrations, it is necessary to reiterate the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka voted in favour of the SOGIESC Special Expert. If anything, Sri Lanka’s SOGIESC vote at the UN is an indication that SOGIESC-related fundamental rights in Sri Lanka can be consolidated by working ‘with’ the Government of Sri Lanka, and not ‘against’ its interests.

Despite Sri Lanka’s vote in favour of the SOGIESC Special Expert, it goes without saying that SOGIESC-related fundamental rights in in Sri Lanka continue to lag behind. The view that SOGIESC issues are ‘non-Sri Lankan’, ‘Western impositions’, or a ‘threat to Sri Lankan traditions and culture’ abound right across the polity and society. In tackling these misconceptions, the local LGBTQI community has launched many campaigns over the years. What such campaigns have been somewhat short of – if not the breakthrough that is yet to be achieved – is the Government’s formal recognition of the vital importance of SOGIESC-related fundamental rights to the national human rights agenda. Even politicians who do understand the necessity of reinforcing these rights (as well as politicians who are themselves LGBQ) maintain very low profiles, preventing SOGIESC issues from getting a fair and formal hearing in Parliament.

 

SOGIESC advocacy in

the global South:long road ahead

Across the global South, what we know as LGBTQIA activism takes place under highly challenging circumstances. LGBTQI citizens often face hostility from their governments, which categorically refuse to acknowledge their own non-cisgender and non-heteronormative citizens. Authorities are even less inclined acknowledge the fact that SOGIESC rights are fundamental human rights, and that national human rights laws and action plans are incomplete in the absence of a strong emphasis on SOGIESC issues. A very common argument from ill-informed quarters is that in places like Sri Lanka, ‘there are more important issues to attend to.’ This is simply a monumental misunderstanding of the very ‘issues’that those who uphold this opinion seek to emphasise.

 

Sri Lankan Queer Liberation:

A local brand of SOGIESC advocacy?

Sri Lanka’s post-war socio-political challenges involve major issues of gender justice. Women, especially ethnic minority women from the lower echelons of rigid socioeconomic, class, and especially caste structures, suffer the most. In a political climate of strong austerity measuresand full-on neoliberal politics, the plight of people from under-privileged backgrounds, especially those from ethnic minorities who have suffered substantively during the war years (and thereafter) is an irrelevance to the political class.

SOGIESC issues, for their part, are at the heart of gender equality and justice. Gender justice advocacy and measures against discriminatory practices are incomplete in the absence of a solid emphasis on SOGIESC issues. By the same token, any form of SOGIESC-related activism and advocacy in Sri Lanka is incomplete and inconsistent in the absence of a concerted effort to contextualise such activism and advocacy in the specific backdrop of post-war Sri Lanka’s socioeconomic and political challenges.

 

Beyond Western templates?

In other words, Pride events with a linear reading of LGBTQIA rights that copy celebrations in Western contexts, are insufficient when addressing specific SOGIESC challenges Sri Lankans face. Seeking creative and innovative strategies of ‘grounding’ our activism in the local context, is a crucial priority. Rather than complaining about the absence of a ‘gay bar’ in Colombo, to give but one example, it is much more important to work towards creating safe spaces for non-cisgender and non-heteronormative Sri Lankans of all social classes, ethnicities and faith backgrounds. It is absolutely vital to ensure that such spaces are non-ablist and are accessible to people irrespective of how much money they have. Visibility is important, but also carries its share of vices. As the public presence of Sri Lankan LGBTQIA citizens increases, it is essential to keep building stronger support networks with providers of essential services, education and public security. In the spirit of Pride, it is an absolute must to commend every single Sri Lankan activist who, irrespective of their level of visibility, financial strength or networks, work hard to achieve these objectives, pursuing approaches of their own.

 

An ideological divide?

Standing in solidarity with every Sri Lankan LGBTQI rights activist, it is also necessary to highlight a gaping problem that impedes SOGIESC rights not only in Sri Lanka, but also across the global South – a shortage of critical thinking.

The Commonwealth and its human rights bodies provide an excellent international example. The Commonwealth and organisations such as the London-based Kaleidoscope Trust advocate a policy on LGBTQIA rights that is reminiscent of one word: ‘colonial.’  This, however, is not to deny the Commonwealth’s forward steps in facilitating LGBTQIA awareness and empowering activists. Just a few days ago, the Commonwealth Secretariat granted the status of ‘accredited Commonwealth organisation’ to The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN). This is a welcome step, as the TECN will now have access to official intergovernmental meetings, and can play a more decisive role in the Commonwealth system.

 

The UK as a ‘model’???

In Commonwealth circles, one often comes across a tendency to speak about the UK and other ‘Old Commonwealth’ dominions such as Canada and Australia, as ‘models’ or ‘templates’ in the provision of LGBTQIA rights. This, for an organisation composed of countries and territories brutally colonised by the British, is more than problematic. In order to sustain their project of exploitation, violence, looting and sociocultural disintegration, British colonisers forcibly implanted laws enshrining the cis-normative gender binary, and notions of Victorian morality upon colonised peoples. From residential schools in Canada that ruined First Peoples’ centuries-old traditions of gender plurality and their family structures, to decimating ancient traditions of gender diversity, sexuality/ies and family life/ves in the Indian subcontinent, Western colonisation was a destructive and toxic force, and is the primary historical cause of persistent homophobic and transphobic violence across the global South.

 

The problem

Approaching LGBTQIA rights from a logic of “The UK has gone this far, and why can’t you lot do the same?” is couched in a tremendous level of contempt, arrogance and neo-colonial superiority.

This is a fundamental reality that Commonwealth human rights bodies, and organisations such as TCEN fall short of adequately taking stock of, and emphasising. In conversations with politicians and officials from many Commonwealth member states, this writer has observed that quite a few government bodies view the Commonwealth’s LGBTQIA emphasis and the UN’s SOGIESC focus as aggressive and colonialist.

 

Solutions: Queer Liberation at NATIONAL levels

This perception can only be challenged by reiterating the correlation between SOGIESC, colonial oppression and power imbalances in today’s international system.Contextualising SOGIESC locally, and NOT in contrast to such and such Western power, is essential. Developing strong links with Queer Liberation movements, especially those wo/manned by people of colour in Western contexts is useful, astheir discourses on Queer Liberation, empowerment, and movement-building are more relevant to Queer Liberation in the global South than the hollow and neoliberal‘West is best’ argument, not uncommon in LGBTQIA activism in the global South.

 

Are the powerful prepared to see through the basics?

The most critical question is whether  funders and controllers of global LGBTQIA advocacy, and foreign policy machineries of some Western powers that perceiveLGBTQIA issues as a meansof pursuing their own agendas, are prepared to come to terms with the moralimperative of standing for Queer Liberation in the global South. The dominant trend at presentis very much one of deploying funding to promote what can be termed an ‘LGBTQIA NGO-industrial complex’, which includes activism that takes place inside the compounds ofembassies andstar-class hotels, and follows a template of neoliberal LGBTQIA advocacy. It alsocreates hierarchies among activists and promotes self-centredelitistism.  It is such overpowering global trends that generatea class of LGBTQIA activists in the global South who systematically see their home governments with contempt and Western governments as the best of role models. Activists who uphold a more critical, national Queer Liberation-focused approach are often left under-funded, invisible, vilified, and marginalised.  Such parameters of activism also discourage LGBTQIA activists in the global South/s from approaching their work in a critical perspective, and of coming to terms with a basic reality – that SOGISC rights and Queer Liberation are simply impossible if LGBTQIA activism is not anticolonial and anti-neoliberal.

On a final note, suffice to note that it is high time for the political classes of places in the global South, including Sri Lanka, to wake up to these realities and take SOGIESC on board, one-hundred per cent.

Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a researcher in International Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, where she is the first Trans woman to hold a research appointment.She is also the LGBTQI Officer of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. She can be reached at c.weerawardhana@qub.ac.uk.

 

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