Life Only Gets Worse for LGBT Iraqis :: Part 2

by Seth Michael Donsky

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 9, 2009

Part One of this series investigated the purported death squads that were targeting gay or effeminate men.

Now, in Part Two, we take a look at claims that neither the occupying army of the United States and its allies, nor the new Iraqi government, is doing enough to stop the killings. In fact, human rights groups are claiming that these street gangs often with the tacit consent, collusion or encouragement of official Iraqi police, judiciary and ministries.

Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Program, substantiates the claim that Iraqi government is tacitly encouraging the violence by ignoring the victims and overlooking the perpetuators. "It's true," he says, " that the government has been unable to restrain violence in the past, particularly during the virtual civil war of 2004-2007--but it has a vested interest in denying widespread violence directed at any group is returning in the supposedly 'stabilized' Iraq."

In early April, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, in response to questions from the Western media and from Western embassies in Baghdad, acknowledged that gays were being killed, but claimed that is was all the consequence of familial, or tribal, violence.

"It was a pro forma acknowledgement," says Long. Long believes the acknowledgement was primarily meant to distract attention from the organized nature of the killings and the involvement of the militias.

As recently as two weeks ago ABC news reported, in conjunction with the murder of the two young, gay men in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, that an unnamed Iraqi military source linked the killings to tribal violence and not militias. They quoted their source as saying that the men who were killed were "sexual deviants," saying that their tribes killed them to restore "family honor."

"Unfortunately," says Long, "much of the Western press, as well as LGBT activists in the US and Europe, have bought the Ministry's version and have stopped asking systematic questions about the militia's involvement or even the government's own role."

While the Minister of Human Rights has made some noise to Western NGO's about responding to the situation, the more powerful Ministries, such as the the Ministry of Justice, have not responded in any serious way. "The clear message," says Long, "is that they would prefer the issue to go away."

Long tells of a man who testified to him that he was kidnapped by the Ministry of Interior Forces in February and brutally tortured over a period of weeks in an attempt to extort money from him because he was believed to be affiliated with a gay group in the West.

Long believes that a significant factor in the resurgence of militia violence against gays in recent weeks is U.S. policy on releasing suspected militia members from detention as part of the reconciliation process. Camp Bucca, one of the largest detention camps in Southern Iraq, has reportedly gone from over 17,000 detainees to under 9000 in a matter of months. Moreover, Long speculates that the U.S. is doing little or nothing to provide reintegration services for those released, making it all the more likely that those who had militia ties will go back to them.

"The recrudescence of violence," states Long, "raises serious questions about the long term effectiveness of the 'surge,' so praised by supporters of the war. It's been a stopgap solution to the civil war; but what is happening now is that the atmosphere of war is returning and the killers are finding new categories of victims."

John T. Fleming, who heads public affairs for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told EDGE, "The U.S. has been an outspoken defender of human rights and we condemn human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity whenever they occur. The U.S. provides training to Government of Iraqi security forces as part of our ongoing transfer of security responsibilities back to the Iraqis."

In the email to EDGE in response to a previous article, Fleming said that whenever such training is conducted, "it includes mandatory instruction on the proper observance of human rights." Fleming did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.

Long counters Fleming's assertions. "None of the U.S.'s trainings have any component relating to sexual orientation or gender identity." Long said. "Moreover, the U.S. has a very limited record of condemning violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity--in Iraq or elsewhere."

Several gay organizations have been trying to apply pressure to U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to include gay rights when talking to governments known to suppress their gay citizens. Thus far, however, Clinton hasn't confronted any foreign leaders or ministers.

Finally, Fleming wrote to EDGE, "The need for Iraqi forces to respect the human rights of all Iraqis is continually emphasized by the U.S. because we know the persecution of minorities--including LGBT's--is a core motivator of sectarian violence."

In response to Fleming's assertion, to EDGE, Long counered that, as far as the statement "This is an issue we frequently raise with Iraqi leaders and officials" goes, "If the 'this' in his sentence refers to persecution of minorities, it's possible the U.S. raises it with Iraqi authorities. If 'this' refers to violence against LGBT people, it is unlikely it has been raised at all."

"It's frustrating," Long shrugs. "But we need to recognize that the U.S. can only do so much in response. Urging the U.S. to investigate the violence and to condemn it directly to Iraqi forces is key, but the violence can only be stopped by the Iraqis themselves. Meanwhile, there are between 2.5 and 4 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced by violence since the US-led invasion, of which the US has accepted some 20-30,000 as refugees. LGBT refugees would be a drop in the bucket of that larger number but they have specific vulnerabilities--not the least the fact that all the surrounding countries to which the might flee, or have fled, have legal penalties or social strictures against homosexual conduct. It's incumbent on the U.S. to recognize that vulnerability and, as a matter of express policy, to accept LGBT Iraqi refugees for accelerated resettlement here."