Judges of the European Court of Human Rights
In its first judgment to directly consider the issue, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that the State authorities’ failure to investigate online hate speech against a gay couple violated the couple’s rights to private and family life and constituted discrimination on sexual orientation grounds under the European Convention on Human Rights. [ECtHR Press Release] In the case of Beizaras and Levickas v. Lithuania, a same-sex couple posted a photo on Facebook of them kissing, and other individuals posted hundreds of homophobic comments in response, including threats of violence. See ECtHR, Beizaras and Levickas v. Lithuania, no. 41288/15, Judgment of 14 January 2020, paras. 6-11. The Court found that State authorities had refused to launch a pre-trial investigation, even though they were aware of the hate comments, in part due to their expressed disapproval of the applicants’ sexual orientation. See id. at paras. 16-23, 121. The Court held that the State failed to meet its positive obligation to investigate hate speech that could incite violence, resulting in harm to the applicants’ “psychological well-being and dignity” and constituting a violation of their rights to private life and non-discrimination. See id. at paras. 113, 117, 129. Because the Lithuanian authorities had routinely failed to address increasing homophobic hate speech, the Court also found a violation of the applicants’ right to an effective domestic remedy (Article 13). See id. at paras. 151-56. The Court’s judgment advances protections for LGBTI individuals, and has been perceived as a victory by LGBTI rights activists. [ILGA-Europe]
Nikolay Alexeyev holding ballot paper which reads “No to homophobes, no to Luzhkov”
Credit: Niko 111 via Wikimedia Commons
On July 16, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rejected a complaint by Nikolay Alekseyev, a well-known Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist, due to posts he made on his social media sites that the ECtHR considered “personally offensive and threatening.” See ECtHR, Zhdanov and Others v. Russia, nos. 12200/08 and 2 others, Judgment of 16 July 2019, para. 83. While the Court went on to find that Russia violated the remaining applicants’ rights to non-discrimination and freedom of association by refusing to register three organizations that advocate for LGBT rights, the Court did not reach the merits of Alekseyev’s complaint. Instead, it found his application inadmissible as “an abuse of the right of application,” pursuant to Article 35 of the European Convention on Human Rights. See id. at paras. 76-86. A majority of the judges agreed with Russia’s argument that Alekseyev abused the right to petition the European Court when he published social media posts describing the European Court’s judges in derogatory, sexist, and threatening terms in response to a previous ruling by the Court in a separate case. See id. In that case, the Court had denied him and others monetary compensation after finding Russia responsible for human rights violations in connection with authorities’ refusal to authorize public LGBT events. See id.
The European Court is not the only human rights oversight body whose rules allow it to reject human rights complaints because of the complainant’s offensive or abusive language, but such provisions and their application to speech made or published outside of the complaint proceeding raise concerns regarding due process, access to justice, and freedom of expression. Three judges on the ECtHR issued a dissenting opinion challenging the Court’s reasoning in dismissing Alekseyev’s application and warning that the precedent set in the Court’s judgment may impact individuals’ ability to access the Court in the future and infringe on their right to freedom of speech. See ECtHR, Case of Zhdanov and Others v. Russia, nos. 12200/08 and 2 others, Judgment of 16 July 2019 (joint partly dissenting opinion of Judges Keller, Serghides, and Elósegui).
IACHR Hearing on LGBT Rights in Honduras
Daniel Cima via IACHR Flickr
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has, for the first time, referred a case involving an alleged extrajudicial killing of a transgender woman to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). The IACHR’s referral, filed on April 30, 2019, indicates that trans activist Vicky Hernández was killed – likely by State agents – during a government-imposed curfew in 2009, amid a broader context of attacks against LGBT persons in Honduras, and that the State subsequently failed to adequately investigate her death. [IACHR Press Release] The IACHR describes the case as an opportunity for the Court to “develop jurisprudence on violence against LGBT people, particularly trans women” and to again consider the human rights implications of the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras. [IACHR Press Release] The IACHR referred the case to the Court after determining that Honduras failed to comply with the recommendations set out in its merits report, which was recently made available in English on the IACHR’s website along with the letter of submission to the Court.
Secretary Pompeo Delivers Remarks on the Release of the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
In another effort to both curtail international human rights oversight and advance a regressive view of reproductive rights, the United States Department of State indicated in late March 2019 that it would reduce its financial support for the region’s human rights bodies, which have urged States to repeal laws that criminalize abortion without any exceptions. [Washington Post; PAI] U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the U.S. would reduce its regular contribution to the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional intergovernmental organization with 35 Member States, in an effort to target the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM). See U.S. Department of State, Remarks to the Press (Michael R. Pompeo, 26 March 2019); Letter from Lankford et al., U.S. Senators, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, United States Senate (Dec. 21, 2018).
The announcement follows other recent efforts by the U.S. to undermine international human rights protections or oversight, including revoking the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s visa to enter the U.S., and efforts to weaken the recommendations on women’s reproductive health and rights during the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. [Reuters: Prosecutor; The Guardian] Read more
Credit: African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (via Flickr)
In December, several universal and regional human rights bodies and experts will assess States’ compliance with their human rights obligations through the consideration of State and civil society reports, country visits, and the review of individual complaints. Two United Nations treaty bodies will continue reviewing States’ progress, with regard to the elimination of torture and racial discrimination, in sessions that began last month. Four UN special procedures will conduct country visits in December, and two UN working groups will hold sessions.
Regionally, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) will be holding public sessions.
The UN treaty body sessions, the public hearings of the IACHR, and the AfCHPR’s public hearings may be watched via UN Web TV, the IACHR’s website or Vimeo page, and the African Court’s YouTube channel, respectively. To view human rights bodies’ past and future activities, visit the IJRC Hearings & Sessions Calendar. Read more
Palais des Nations by night, Geneva. Tuesday 5 November 2013. Credit: Violaine Martin via Flickr
In the month of September, several universal and regional bodies will be in session to assess States’ compliance with their human rights obligations through the consideration of State and civil society reports, country visits, and the review of individual complaints. Five United Nations treaty bodies will meet in September to engage with States regarding their treaty obligations related to the rights of persons with disabilities; the rights of migrant workers; children’s rights; and economic, social, and cultural rights. The UN Human Rights Council will be in session to review communications as well as thematic and country-specific reports. Seven UN special procedures will conduct country visits focusing on States’ international financial obligations, the rights of persons with albinism, the right to food, the independence of judges and lawyers, adequate housing, cultural rights, and LGBTI issues, respectively. Additionally, the UN working group focused on forced disappearances will be in session.
Regionally, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR), and the European Committee of Social Rights (ESCR) will all be in session. Finally, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will hear one case related to the prohibition of collective expulsion of aliens and the right to an effective remedy.
The UN treaty body sessions, the public hearings of the European Court, and the public hearings of the IACtHR, may be watched via UN Web TV, the European Court’s website, and the Inter-American Commission’s website or Vimeo, respectively. To view human rights bodies’ past and future activities, visit the IJRC Hearings & Sessions Calendar.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights
On January 9, 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), the judicial organ of the human rights system in the Americas, published an advisory opinion holding that Member States of the American Convention on Human Rights have an obligation to permit transgender individuals to change their name and gender on identity documents, to recognize same-sex marriage, and to ensure the economic rights of those in same-sex relationships. [IACtHR Press Release (in Spanish only)] See I/A Court H.R., Obligaciones Estatales en Relación Con el Cambio de Nombre, la Identidad de Género, Y los Derechos Derivados de un Vínculo Entre Parejas del Mismo Sexo. Advisory Opinion OC-24/17. 24 November 2017, para. 229 (in Spanish only). In 2016, Costa Rica filed a request for the advisory opinion, asking the Inter-American Court to clarify two questions arising under the American Convention. The first question was whether States are obligated to provide procedures for name, photo, and gender changes in accordance with an individual’s gender identity, and whether Costa Rica’s practices conform with this obligation. The second question was whether States are obligated to recognize the economic rights derived from a bond between same-sex persons. [IACtHR Press Release] See Obligaciones Estatales en Relación Con el Cambio de Nombre, la Identidad de Género, Y los Derechos Derivados de un Vínculo Entre Parejas del Mismo Sexo. 24 November 2017, para. 1. The Inter-American Court answered in the affirmative to Costa Rica’s questions. [IACtHR Press Release] The finding applies to all 23 States parties to the American Convention.
The opinion has received international recognition for its advancement of LGBTQ rights; the recently appointed Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, has expressed that “the protections described by the Court in this Advisory Opinion will have an extremely positive impact in addressing stigma, promoting socio-cultural inclusion and furthering legal recognition of gender identity.” [OHCHR Press Release] Although Costa Rica is one of several Latin American countries that do not currently permit same-sex marriage, officials from the Costa Rican government are willing to embrace the Court’s opinion, with Costa Rica’s Vice-President Ana Helena Chacón quoted as saying that the decision would be adopted “in its totality.” [Reuters; BBC]. Read more
Commissioners Margarette May Macaulay and Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented a report on December 5, 2017 that, for the first time in the region, details Member States’ human rights legal obligations to address the situation of poverty and extreme poverty in the Americas through a human rights perspective. See IACHR, Poverty and Human Rights in the Americas (2017), para. 18 (in Spanish only). The Commission’s report acknowledges that poverty is interrelated with certain rights, both civil and political and economic and social, such as the rights to work, education, health, and access to justice, and, therefore, recommends that States focus on ensuring rights for all, including groups in vulnerable situations, as a method for addressing poverty and extreme poverty. See id. at paras. 12, 98, 494. The report also highlights the disproportionate impact of poverty on groups in vulnerable situations; recognizes the barriers to access to justice that poverty presents; and makes recommendations to Member States, such as taking a human rights perspective over a welfare approach to addressing poverty, among others. See id. at paras. 34, 98. Additionally, the report recognizes different definitions of poverty and extreme poverty, although it does not explicitly decide on definitions for each, but the report does state that extreme poverty is a grave problem that impacts the exercise and enjoyment of all human rights. See id. at paras. 2, 18. This is the first report since the IACHR established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights. [IACHR Press Release: ESCER; IJRC] Read more
On December 4, 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Victor Madrigal-Borloz as the new Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to replace Vitit Muntarbhorn, who resigned for personal reasons. [OHCHR Press Release: Announcement] Madrigal-Borloz is expected to begin his term as the new Independent Expert on January 1, 2018. [OutRight International] The Human Rights Council first created this special procedure mandate in a resolution adopted in November 2016 after a controversial debate. [OHCHR Press Release: New Mandate] The mandate is up for renewal in 2019, at which time, assuming the mandate is renewed, Madrigal-Borloz will be able to serve an additional three years. [OutRight International] In addition to being the current Secretary General of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, Madrigal-Borloz has served on the Board of Directors of the International Justice Resource Center since 2011. Read more
UN Palais des Nations
Credit: Risuciu via Wikimedia Commons
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recently announced the publication of the Standards of Conduct for Business to fight discrimination against lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. [OHCHR Press Release] The Standards of Conduct for Business build upon the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the UN Global Compact – which collectively contain UN standards directed at businesses to respect and protect human rights, and remedy rights violations – to offer guidance to companies on how businesses should treat LGBTI people in the workplace and how businesses can promote LGBTI rights in the marketplace and in the community. See UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Tackling Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, & Intersex People: Standards of Conduct for Business (2017), 1, 5-6. Several businesses, including Accenture, Baker McKenzie, BNP Paribas, The Coca-Cola Company, Deutsche Bank, EDF, EY, Gap Inc., Godrej, IKEA Group, Microsoft, Oath, Orange, SAP, and Spotify, have already shown public support for the Standards of Conduct for Business. [OHCHR Press Release] The commentary from the OHCHR accompanying the Standards of Conduct for Business explains that domestic legal reforms alone are not enough to create inclusive communities, and, therefore, the OHCHR notes that the corporate sector not only has an obligation to respect human rights but also holds significant influence in curbing human rights abuses. See UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Tackling Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, & Intersex People: Standards of Conduct for Business, 15. The standards also bring together two areas in human rights protection that the international community is increasingly recognizing – businesses’ responsibility to respect, protect, and remedy human rights and violations thereof, and the human rights of LGBTI persons. [IJRC: SOGI; IJRC: Forum] Read more