Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A public dispute: Anniversary of Iran youth hangings

Tomorrow, July 19, 2006, several orgs. & individuals world-wide will be par- ticipating in public demos against the hanging of two teenagers in Iran a year ago for allegedly being gay.

Yet, on the eve of the demonstrations, a public fight has broken out between one-man UK activist Peter Tatchell (who called for the demos) and United States-based human rights advocacy organizations IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

First came an "open letter" from OutRage!'s Peter Tatchell addressed to Scott Long of Human Rights Watch and Paula Ettlebrick of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
14 July 2006

Dear Scott and Paula,

While I have great respect for your human rights work and that of your respective organisations, I am totally baffled by the decision of HRW and IGLHRC to not support the 19 July protests against the Iranian regime's persecution of LGBT people.

The 19 July protests were initiated by OutRage! and IDAHO (the International Day Against Homophobia), with the support of the main Iranian LGBT group, the Persian Gay & Lesbian Organisation (PGLO).

You say you support the PGLO. But you appear to not trust their judgement that the 19 July protests deserve support.

The agreed common, universal demand of all the 19 July protests worldwide is:

Iran: Stop Killing Gays! Stop Killing Kids!

OutRage! has proposed an additional five demands for the 19 July protests, which local protests are free to adopt or not. These five demands have been endorsed by PGLO. They are:

1. End all executions in Iran, especially the execution of minors.

2. Stop the arrest, torture and imprisonment of Iranian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and repeal the Iranian penal code's criminalisation of same-sex relationships.

3. Halt the deportation to Iran of LGBT asylum seekers and other victims of Tehran's persecution.

4. Support Iranians struggling for democracy, social justice and human rights.

5. Oppose foreign military intervention in Iran; regime change must come from within - by and for the Iranian people themselves.

You were both advised of these demands in a news release issued by OutRage! on 26 June.

I fail to see why HRW, IGLHRC and others cannot support these clear, simple demands. They are totally consistent with your human rights commitments.

Perhaps you can explain?

Which of these demands do you disagree with?

Based on their sources inside Iran, PGLO and Afdhere Jama of the queer Muslim magazine Huriyah have concluded that Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were gay lovers and were hanged because they were gay. On this evidence, and on the balance of probabilities, I share their conclusion.

I am not prepared to give the benefit of doubt to the murderous regime in Tehran and to its stooge newspapers like Quds - which have a proven record of lying and trumped up charges against people who are executed.

Nevertheless, when I drafted the main demand of the 19 July protests and the additional five demands, I deliberately omitted reference to Mahmoud and Ayaz to allow the creation of the broadest possible coalition to support the 19 July protests. I wanted the involvement and support of those who had doubts or uncertainties about the Mahmoud and Ayaz executions.

Despite this, you have chosen to not support the 19 July protests. That is, of course, your right. But I find it disappointing to say the least.

You say you respect, admire and support the PGLO, but you seem unwilling to accept its considered opinion that the teens were gay, that they were executed for homosexuality, and that the 19 July protests merit support.

While it is not your fault, your lack of support for the 19 July protests will doubtless be exploited by homophobes and apologists for the Iranian regime.

We already know that HRW's and IGLHRC's equivocation last year on the Asgari and Marhoni executions was ruthlessly exploited by such people to undermine solidarity with Iranian LGBTs and, in particular, to dismiss their reports of homophobic persecution as bogus and to ridicule the claims of Iranian LGBT asylum seekers.

While I am sure your public meeting will be useful, your support for the five demands and the 19 July protests would have been appreciated and valuable.

As for the allegation that some people are obsessed with only gay victims and have long ignored other equally abhorrent abuses by the Iranian dictatorship:

I deplore any such one-sidedness, but this allegation does not apply to me or OutRage!

OutRage! has been supporting the Iranian human rights struggle for 14 years and sees the LGBT rights as part of the global human rights movement. We endorse the freedom struggle of all Iranians, which is why we also campaign for the human rights of Iranian women, union activists, students and persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.

I have personally supported the Iranian democratic, socialist and human rights struggle for 35 years (first against the Shah and then against the Ayatollahs).

My motto is very simple: oppose the oppressors and support the oppressed.

That is why I am backing the 19 July protests.

Yours in solidarity! Peter Tatchell
OutRage! London
Scott Long of HRW responds:
Tue, 18 Jul 2006

Dear Peter,

Thanks for your manifesto. Having hashed through this issue with you and others in a number of venues over the past weeks, I am puzzled by your purpose in turning what until that point had been a private discussion into a public dispute. In doing so you pose many questions, but you also raise some unintended ones. One is why you feel impelled to aim your rhetoric at both Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC, not for anything misguided our organizations may have actively done, but out of apparent pique because we did not endorse, in its pristine form, an Outrage! initiative. It is difficult for me to answer, or indeed fully to understand, demands which are addressed to me in my institutional capacity but which seem, in their impetus, so personal. And I will not try. We should focus on the important things at stake. I will limit myself to rehearsing matters of fact, and then suggesting some implications for how we might think about both strategy and responsibility.

As you know quite well, Human Rights Watch is indeed co-organizing an event on July 19. We'll use the occasion to talk about strategy, because a strategic discussion is crucial right now. As you also know quite well, I've invited you to join us in a further meeting to talk intensively about how advocacy around Iran should be carried forward. Your letter leaves the impression that Outrage! is less interested in discussing strategy than in setting it unilaterally. I hope that is not the case.

Despite what you say, anyone observing what has transpired in recent weeks could see that the demonstrations you have called for do not center around your five demands. They center around the tragic images of two young men hanged in Mashhad. Those images, in flyer and website, poster and powerpoint presentation, have been captioned, branded, harnessed to service in the cause of "gay rights," magnified and manipulated to serve the reputations of the living, transmuted and exalted and refined and deformed by earnest and desperate imaginations, pressed into a politics which would have been beyond the comprehension of the dead. Even in your open letter, you move quickly to what obviously lies for you at the heart of the matter: condemning Paula Ettelbrick and myself for questioning a particular narrative around their deaths.

I do not play games with the dead.

I'll only repeat what I've said to you and others, from the very beginning, about Human Rights Watch's perspective on these executions.

- We do not know what happened: thus far, no one does. As a human rights organization whose effectiveness only extends as far as its credibility, we simply can't endorse conclusions based on speculation.

- The bulk of evidence suggests that the youth were tried on allegations of raping a 13-year-old, with the suggestion that they were tried for consensual homosexual conduct seemingly based almost entirely on mistranslations and on cursory news reporting magnified by the Western press. But the facts remain clouded in claims and counterclaims. I am still concerned that so many activists remain completely dismissive of that 13-year-old boy.

- We know their execution was wrong. The death penalty is wrong. Executing people for crimes committed as minors violates human rights. Their killing deserved the strongest condemnation. (See our letter to the head of Iran's judiciary about the case, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/07/27/iran11487.htm)

- There is no basis whatever for imputing a Westernized "gay" identity to these youths. We have no idea what their behavior was or how they would have identified themselves, given the complexities around identity and sexuality in Iran.

As you also know, Human Rights Watch has spent seven months researching report on human rights abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Iran. We have amassed a great deal of information about the situation there. Our record of documenting and campaigning against human rights abuses in Iran extends over decades; I'm sure you'd agree it's a considerable one. And Jessica Stern and I have written over 50 affidavits for LGBT Iranian asylum-seekers in more than a dozen countries, many referred to us by the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization, as well as providing other forms of direct aid.

I am therefore particularly disturbed when you claim that our public disagreements will damage asylum-seekers' cases and cause. Since you made those disagreements public, the charge is hypocrisy on its face. But HRW would not be supporting the dozens of asylum-seekers we have already worked to help, if we promote claims we cannot verify. The single-minded concentration of so many advocates on the uncertainties around Mashhad has actually distracted attention from what can be documented: the torture and abuse LGBT people in Iran face. It pins refugees' fates and lives on a single undetermined case, rather than on an analysis of the overall situation in Iran. An unfortunate side-effect of the media's obsession with those images has been that, in the eyes of governments, "proving" what happened in Mashhad has become the linchpin for determining states' obligations to asylum-seekers--instead of examining Iran's overall and provable record on sexual orientation as well as other issues, and instead of looking at host countries' absolute obligation not to return people to torture.

Now: as for the questions of strategy and responsibility.

I've never said people should not attend or support the July 19 demonstrations. Some of the organizers are friends I respect highly, and only a fool would fail to appreciate the energy, dedication, incredible work and good will that have
underlain all the organizing. I have only urged people to think very carefully about what the demonstrations are meant to achieve. And no one has explained that. What happens after July 19? How are these demonstrations meant to affect the Iranian government? How are they going to be seen in Iran? Are they only about publicity, consciousness-raising, the self-purifying effect of protest? (Surely you don't want these committed people's work, this dedication dissipated on that.) Do you have a plan for change, or just for catharsis?

Look at the world, not just London and New York.

Months of US pressure on Iran have only inflated the popularity of the Ahmedinejad government. Europe's and North America's claims to promote democracy face violent derision through the Middle East. We met this morning with one of the most famous Iranian human rights activists; he described how the government reviles the least exertion of civil society activists by defaming them as paid traitors, bought and bribed by Condoleeza Rice's $75 million. People afraid of a rain of missiles on their roofs readily believe the warnings. Hysteria there and hysteria here make an inflammatory combination. Images of Western protests on TV screens may only provoke rage and vindicate repression. Iranian democrats, Iranian activists, Iranian gays and lesbians want support. They deserve support. But they want thoughtful support, sometimes quiet and patient rather than loud and proud, content with the background rather than insisting on the spotlight. And they want to lead and guide the calls for change in their own country--not sign on to other people's demands.

After more than fifteen years of working with LGBT activists and movements in countries from Romania to Jamaica to Zimbabwe--in situations of severe repression, in places where governments persecute them while rights defenders ignore or despise them--it sometimes seems to me I know less than when I started.

The complexities of pursuing this kind of work across borders are so
immense, the differences so enormous, the confusions so multiple, the chances of error so great and its consequences so extreme: the only lesson may be that there are no lessons. With each new project or connection, almost with every new e-mail, one embarks on the renewed challenge of conducting oneself responsibly amid the inequities of history and power, and turning good will into useful action. We have to learn, again and again, that our partners are neither infallible experts who can be used to affirm our own authenticity, nor pliant supplicants expecting the gift of our expertise. Accepting our common vulnerability to error, we can create a rough and temporary equality out of the injustices that divide us. Our colleagues will make mistakes, and so will we. But one thing is important to remember. They may have to live through the consequences of their own mistakes. But they shouldn't have to live through ours.

You say that you stand with the oppressed, and against the oppressors.

Peter, none of us stand with the oppressors.

But do you always ask the oppressed whether they want you standing there?

I would like to tell one story.

Over three years in Egypt in this decade, a massive crackdown on men suspected of homosexual conduct saw hundreds--probably thousands--of people arrested and tortured. I spent three years working on those cases. It meant months of building relationships not just with extraordinary gay people but with genuinely heroic mainstream human rights organizations in Egypt, learning about their own needs and crises, listening to their complaints about Human Rights Watch (they had plenty) and trying to see how sexual rights work could be integrated into their slow and isolated campaigning for democracy. "Building relationships" didn't entail going to their cocktail parties. It meant going to the protests they organized during the Iraq war, a hundred people ringed by three thousand armed security thugs; it meant standing in the jails after they or their friends were arrested, facing down police, trying to catch a glimpse of them or just find out where they were or whether (or how) they were being tortured. Those relationships were difficult, fraught with intense and (for me) sometimes personally agonizing conflict. When we wrote a report on the Egyptian crackdown we cleared every word and every recommendation with them--not always easily, but we did. We accepted their advice on framing the report, and produced a book which never suggested this was a "gay rights" issue--but rather a question of privacy and torture, part of the endemic crisis of torture which has afflicted Egypt for twenty-five years. We released the report in Cairo, in Arabic and English, strongly backed by five local human rights organizations, some of which would not have presumed to approach the issue three years before. We didn't use demonstrations to pressure the Egyptian government: we relied on our partners' brave advocacy, on the local press, on the embarrassment of a web-accessible Arabic report read by tens of thousands of Egyptians and revealing the police's sleaziest practices.

On the day we released the report, the arrests, the crackdown, stopped.

One Interior Ministry official said, privately, "It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt, because of the activities of certain human rights organizations."

They meant not just HRW but our allies, secured despite our differences. I'm not suggesting this offers any model for change in Iran. I'm not suggesting it's the only strategy. I'm saying that demonstrations in Milan and Manhattan are not the sole form of activism or barometer of success. I'm saying that long negotiations with our Iranian colleagues, in Iran and in the diaspora, are essential to deciding what might actually move the government in this moment of crisis and impending war, what might change law and policy and persecution. And I'm saying you can't simply assume that those colleagues are waiting for your contributions, uncritically eager for your support. It will require responsibility if we are to deserve their confidence, and it will take time and pain and patience to earn their trust.

I continue to have respect for your work and that of Outrage. We should explore our differences but we need not trumpet or exalt them. And we should continue to work together.


Scott Long
Director, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Rights Program
Human Rights Watch
In the meantime this has resulted in two separate events taking place tomorrow in New York City, on the anniversary of the hangings. The first one is associated with the OutRage! and has some of the flashier local (and international) sponsors:
A reminder: Tomorrow (Wednesday, July 19) is the International Day of Action Against Homophobic Persecution in Iran, called on the first anniversary of the public hanging of two teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, for homosexuality.

There will be vigils and demonstrations on July 19 in 25 cities around the world -- 10 in the U.S. (see DIRELAND for additional information on other demos)

This call to action has been endorsed by -- International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA); International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO); Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO); International Lesbian & Gay Cultural Network; Nordic Homo Council (Scandanavian countries); and the following national LGBT organizations: ARCIGAY (Italy), HOSI (Austria), OutRage (U.K.), Moscow Pride and GayRussia.ru (Russia), COC (The Netherlands), Tupilak (Sweden), Solidarité Internationale LGBT (France -- plus a coalition of 15 gay organizations in Marseille), and BeLonG To Youth Project (Ireland). The July 19 Day of Action has also been endorsed by the following publications and media: MAHA magazine (Iran); Enkidu magazine (Mexico), Gay City News (New York City), Seattle Gay News, Independent Gay News (Fort Lauderdale-Broward County), Gay Egypt (website); and by many local ad hoc committees.

The New York City July 19 demonstration has been called by a committee including: Andy Humm and Ann Northrop, Gay USA cable TV news; Walter Armstrong, POZ magazine; Sandy Rapp, Lesbian feminist singer-writer;Rosario Dawson, actor-activist; Doric Wilson, Playwright; Martin Duberman, Professor Emeritus, City University of New York; Church Ladies for Choice. Allen Roskoff, president, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club; the Stonewall Democratic Club; the Metropolitan Community Church of N.Y.; Darren Rosenblum, Associate Professor, Pace Law School; Larry Kramer, writer-activist; John Berendt, author, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "City of Falling Angels"; Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., physician, writer, activist, co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis; Arnie Kantrowitz, prof. emeritus, College of Staten Island, CUNY, and author, "Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay"; Sean Strub, founder, POZ magazine; Kenneth Sherill, Professor, Political Science, Hunter College, CUNY; Wayne Besen, Executive Director, Truth Wins Out; Rev. Pat Bumgartner, pastor, Metropolitan Community Church; Rick Shur; Andrew Berman; Frank Jump, educator, artist, activist; Vincenzo Aiosa, same- sex marriage activist; State Senator Tom Duane; Ethan Geto, Geto & DeMilly Inc.; Joe Kennedy, Gay Activists Alliance veteran; Dirk McCall, President, Stonewall Democratic Club; Mark Green, former NYC Public Advocate and candidate for Attorney General.

New York -- Location: Iranian Mission to the U.N., 622 Third Avenue (at 40th St.) Time: 5:00 P.M. Contact: Andy Humm, Andyhumm@aol.com
The 2nd event takes place an hour later and has been organized by HRW and IGLHRC:

WHAT: The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) invite all interested advocates to participate in Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Human Rights, Iran, and LGBT Advocacy, a community dialogue about the persecution faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Iran and how activists in the West can responsibly engage in supporting our colleagues in Iran as well as elsewhere.

WHO: Speakers include:

. Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of IGLHRC
. Scott Long, Director of LGBT Rights Program, Human Rights Watch
. Parvez Sharma, Director of the new documentary "In the Name of Allah"
. Ayaz Ahmed, Al-Fatiha Foundation for LGBTIQ Muslims
. Hadi Ghaemi, Iran Researcher, Human Rights Watch
. Kouross Esmaeli, Iranian-American Filmmaker and Activist
. Moderated by Hossein Alizadeh, IGLHRC

WHY: Numerous reports and stories of persecution faced by gay men and lesbians in Iran have been circulating. In particular, the executions of two young Iranian men last year on July 19 have been reported as gay-related deaths, prompting some activists to call for demonstrations in local communities to draw attention to these issues on the year anniversary of their hangings. This call raises important questions for human rights and LGBT advocates concerned about human rights violations globally, but unsure of how best to engage and respond.

. How do we situate campaigns for LGBT rights in the context of other human rights issues such as the death penalty and women's rights?

. How do we respond in situations where facts are contested and documentation difficult?

. What are the responsibilities--and dangers--for Western campaigners wanting to think globally and act locally?

. How do we avoid reinforcing stereotypes and playing into hostilities prompted by our own government?

These are not abstract questions or ones relevant only to activists for sexual rights. While Iran will be emphasized in this discussion, the questions are relevant for all human rights advocates as we grapple with how global calls for justice can be made meaningful in the face of persecution and global hostilities.

While IGLHRC had initially offered to coordinate a public vigil to protest the use of the death penalty as a punishment for sexually-based crimes in Iran and elsewhere, conversations with colleagues have made clear that in New York City, dialogue, not demonstrations, would be the most productive way to build longer term strategies and understandings of how best to respond to human rights violations in Iran and around the world.

WHEN: Wednesday, July 19, 2006
6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

WHERE: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
208 West 13th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues
Room 101
New York, New York

Endorsers: Al-Fatiha Foundation for LGBTIQ Muslims, Amnesty International OUTfront, Assal East Coast, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and SoulforceNYC

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) is the only human rights organization solely devoted to improving the rights of people around the world who are targeted for imprisonment, abuse or murder because of their sexuality, gender identity or HIV status. IGLHRC addresses human rights violations by partnering with and supporting activists on the ground in countries around the world, by monitoring and documenting abuses, by engaging offending governments, and by educating international human rights officials. A US-based non-profit, non-governmental organization, IGLHRC is based in New York, with offices in San Francisco and Buenos Aires. http://www.iglhrc.org

Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and international community to support the cause of human rights for all. Our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program advocates against abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity worldwide. http://www.hrw.org
Tomorrow we will try to be at the IGLHRC event which shows where our loyalties lie. Hope to see you there too!


El Güero said...

Thanks for posting this fascinating debate/dialogue on this issue.

Whatever the circumstances, that photo will always haunt me.

Andrés Duque said...

Whatever the circumstances, no country in the world should ever put young men of this age on the death row, much less hang them in a public space (and I believe there is general consensus on this by these organizations).

Whether they were hung because they were gay or because they committed a crime, it is an utter disgrace and people are right to call the Iranian government on it.

From the details that have come out since the hangings though, there is enough nuance in the limited information available which sometimes can be too easily dismissed by overzealous advocates.

This is why I'll be attending the 2nd of the events and not the first.

I will say, though, that an Iranian lesbian and gay organization (PGLO) which had previously endorsed OutRage!'s calls for today's demos, just published a statement online thanking world-wide advocates participating in today's activities. For more go here.