Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2000-2001

At the heart of man’s cruelty to man lies discrimination, believes Colin de la Motte-Sherman, who campaigns for Amnesty International. Such discrimination, he argues, whether it be on grounds of gender, ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation, attacks the very roots of human rights.

Striking at the Roots of Justice and Tolerance

by Colin de la Motte-Sherman

“For half an hour to an hour they were constantly bombarded with water from a hosepipe, alternately on the temple, the eyes, the mouth and the naked chest, sitting with their feet and bottom permanently in a foot-wash-basin filled with water.”

This describes a torture method used against homosexuals within a stone’s throw of Berlin, Germany. Even if Europe is not yet torture-free, those of us who live in Western Europe can be happy that the text above describes something that took place nearly sixty years ago.

But torture is still practised in 132 countries around the world – countries such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, India and Turkey. And, as we know from the recent Amnesty International “Urgent Action” for the transvestite Vanessa Ladesma, fifteen years after the end of the military dictatorship in Argentina, torture is still being used there, too.

The prejudices against sexual minorities – and especially the criminalisation of homosexual relations – strengthen social stigmatisation and make these groups susceptible to violent attacks and human-rights violations.

In a recent document Amnesty writes, “Violations [of human rights] based on sexual orientation/identity have traditionally been neglected and under-reported because of the taboo surrounding homosexuality in many parts of the world and the risks facing those who speak out. The marginalisation of the victims and the prejudices of official and non-governmental institutions responsible for denouncing and investigating abuses means that these violations are often shrouded in silence. In some cases the authorities even seek to justify them in the name of religion or morality.”

Discrimination, whether it be on grounds of gender, ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation, lays the grounds for torture, and attacks the very roots of human rights. Whether it be the Catholic Church led by the Bishop of Rome or other fundamentalist bigots, religion has historically played, and still plays, a basic role in preparing the ground for human-rights violations. This applies especially to the “social atmosphere” engendered by the ranting of some priests and evangelist Christians.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, in a recent report drew attention to “[a]n increase in the number of policies and practices of intolerance and discrimination against women as such, deriving from interpretations and traditions attributed by men to religion. No religion or belief is safe from this trend, which is apparent in various forms throughout the world.”

The Special Rapporteur added, “Extremism, whether or not it has a genuinely religious basis, is not limited to any one faith and must be given no quarter.”

Much of what the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance writes about women applies to homosexuals – especially in “fundamentalist countries” – but also where major religious groupings are fundamentalist-dominated. Precisely because religion is male-dominated and old-fashioned ideas of manhood abound, the social status of women in a given society, illustrated by the so-called “passive role” in sex, has a close relationship to the status of homosexuals and transsexuals. One needs only to think of southern Europe, where the “passive” partner is widely regarded with scorn. It is therefore not just chance that the three main groups covered in Amnesty’s third Anti-Torture Campaign are women, children and people with a different sexual orientation from the majority.

Romania’s Orthodox Church condemns homosexuality as a sin, and petitioned the country’s parliament against moves to decriminalise gay sex. “Our Church does not say a sexual minority should be sent to jail”, says Archbishop Nifon. “But we must speak out loudly against sin.” He then urges that the law that sends people to prison on the basis of their sexual orientation should be retained!

Archbishop Casian adds to the poison: “Everybody should know that homosexuality is a sin against religious, and against family and social values, which are at the core of our Church.”

So much for Christian charity.

An Amnesty report dated 1995 states that torture and ill-treatment of arrested persons is common in Romania. A Romanian lesbian who obtained asylum in Germany in 1998 reported gross ill-treatment while in prison, and had to be treated in a centre for the victims of torture.

In October 2000 Amnesty International launched its worldwide campaign set to last fifteen months to attempt to make a dent in these widely used inhuman practices of torture.

Through publicity, education and special actions Amnesty wants to put pressure on governments to end torture, with special emphasis on children, women and members of the LGBT minorities, and seeks to place the issue firmly on the human-rights agenda.

An instance of the third point is that the Federal German Government is being asked to ratify Article 22 of the Anti-Torture Convention. This would allow individuals to ask the UN for help. Although Article 22 is weaker than the existing European laws against torture, it would be a signal to other countries outside Europe, and would not replace the European laws.

The training of the police and security forces all over the world in human rights and methods of interrogation that are within the law should be greatly extended. The importance of this aim is made clear by the following text from a recent Amnesty “Urgent Action” on Saudi Arabia.

“Torture and ill-treatment are on the daily agenda; executions and whippings, as well as amputation are carried out in complete disregard of the basic rules for a fair trial ... Among the torture methods used are falaqa’ (blows to the sole of the feet), the use of electric shocks, stubbing of cigarettes on the body, and the tearing out of finger nails. In many cases people who are accused of a crime experience torture from the moment of arrest.”

Flogging is used for alcohol offences, prostitution and suspicion of homosexual activity.

Nine gay Saudi Arabian transvestites in the western city of Qunfuda were jailed and sentenced to be lashed twice monthly for two years. Five of the men were sentenced to six years in prison and 2,600 lashes at the rate of 52 lashes per session. The police determined the men were dressing in women’s clothing and having sex together, a violation of Islamic law.

Those who torture others are generally quite normal people. The commonly held idea that they are inhuman, perverse sadists is seldom the case. Although the chain of command frequently extends up to governmental offices, the perpetrator is often from the poorer classes, has been a victim of violence and humiliation, and believes he is acting from higher motives and defending eternal values such as nation, people or religion.

“Impunity of the torturers is one of the important causes of torture and ill-treatment”, writes the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. If torturers go unpunished, then the whole legal system is brought into disrepute. This is one reason why it is so important to find them, bring them in front of a court and pass a just judgement. The arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in London is seen as an important step forward and a clear warning to all potential torturers, that they are nowhere safe, and it is hoped that it will be but the first step towards bringing more torturers before a court.

“Electricity is one of the favourite methods of the torturer in the last half of the twentieth century”, said the Director of Amnesty International USA, Dr William F Schulz, in launching the Amnesty International report on the use of stun belts within the US system of justice. Amnesty demands the suspension of the use of all electroshock instruments until a thorough scientific examination of their use has been carried out, since their use has been linked to health dangers, and even suspected of causing deaths.

The German Amnesty expert on weapons exports, Matthias John, writes, “Electro-shock weapons are increasingly used. They are euphemistically called ‘modern security technology’, ‘close-range defence methods’ or ‘non-deadly weapons’ ... The spread of technology that is used for torture and ill treatment is especially assisted by trade shows for small arms and the security industry.”

“Physical pain, psychological pressure, isolation and humiliation in many forms are the means ... of breaking the victim and robbing them of their identity.” That of course applies not only to sexual identity, but it does include it. Even in the last decade cases of “brainwashing” were reported from the USA, and electroshock “therapy” used to attempt to change people’s sexual orientation. The Sunday Morning Post (Hong Kong, 8 January 1995) reported: “The clients – who attend the sessions on a voluntary basis – are asked to sit on a chair with positive and negative electrodes attached to the back of each hand. Slides of sexually arousing images beginning with pin-up pictures of muscular male models ... are shown.” The voluntary aspect has to be considered against the stark social discrimination and pressure from families in many countries.

One of the major problems in opposing and ending torture against the three major categories Amnesty has taken on in its Anti-Torture Campaign (women, children and LGBT people) is that such victims are often too socially weak or insecure to oppose their torturers. These tormentors, incidentally, may not always be state “employees”, but this is no longer an excuse: an Amnesty publication says: “Under international human rights law, states also have an obligation to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish abuses of human rights, including acts by private individuals.” Due diligence includes taking effective steps to prevent such acts by private individuals as well as state employees.

Torture has not only disastrous physical and psychological effects on the victims themselves, but dreadful repercussions are visited on relatives and friends, and can extend to the children of victims. They may suffer almost the same experiences as their parents: depression, lasting anxieties, attacks of almost uncontrollable aggression, disruption of social contacts. The effects on a country and its society as a whole are also not negligible. People who are “broken” as a result of torture are a permanent warning, a living monument, to what can happen to those who “resist” a political trend.

Amnesty’s latest Anti-Torture Campaign needs and deserves support because torture not only strikes at the roots of justice and tolerance, but is an expression of the inability to cope with differences, including those of colour, beliefs and sexual orientation.

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Created : Sunday, 2001-04-15 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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