Headline — 04 April 2014 — by Adele Ramos

Sanctions for “hate crimes” and “hate speech” against LGBTI persons: UNIBAM

In addition to facing legal challenges from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community to the country’s sodomy laws in the Supreme Court and its immigration laws before the Caribbean Court of Justice, Belize is now facing a human rights challenge before the Inter-American Commission on Humans Rights (IACHR) – a challenge led by United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), the same NGO which had petitioned the Supreme Court to have the law criminalizing sodomy struck off the country’s law books.

The State of Belize was summoned to appear in Washington, DC, USA, before the IACHR—an instrument of the Organization of American States (OAS)—on the morning of Friday, March 28, 2014, after UNIBAM petitioned for a human rights hearing in which the NGO is demanding that the Government of Belize implement measures to protect the rights of the LGBTI community in Belize.

UNIBAM is also demanding legislation to sanction persons for what it calls “hate crimes” and “hate speech” against LGBTI persons. It claims violation and discrimination in health, education and employment, and major security concerns for LGBTI persons – citing the recent January 2013 murder of Joseph Sanchez, a transgender individual who police said was killed in the process of an aggravated robbery by two men, although UNIBAM had wrongly called it a hate crime.

The summons to Belize from the IACHR was not made public by Belize officials, and neither did the Government of Belize report on the Washington hearing.

In his presentation before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, UNIBAM’s executive director, Caleb Orozco, spoke of the hanging of a UNIBAM effigy at one of the constitutional marches against the Revised Gender Policy 2013, and he congratulated the state on being steadfast in its position of not withdrawing that gender policy—notwithstanding strong opposition from thousands, including leading clergy in Belize, who marched and issued public calls for its retraction.

Orozco furthermore cited Amandala for comments penned by editor-in-chief Russell Vellos, and he also decried comments included in the newspaper’s coverage of their Supreme Court trial.

Orozco said that Amandala’s editor had written the following in the November 17, 2011, edition of his opinion column, Of this and that: “Well, I’ve got news for these homos. I won’t budge a millimeter from my stand against them. They can call me anything they like, as many times a day as they feel like, and theirs will still be a nasty, despicable, God-forbidden way of life until the heavens crumble, and even afterward.

“An individual wrote me a very short note in support of my previous article, and his remark against homosexuals was, ‘not even my dogs do this!’”

In citing the newspaper coverage of the constitutional challenge to Belize’s sodomy law in November and December 2011, Orozco alleged that there was a comment in the Amandala (or one of its forums) that suggested packing them up and dropping them out to sea past the reef, but he, Orozco, was unable to specify where and when that comment was made.

The UNIBAM director told the IACHR panel that LGBTI persons suffer constant threat of violence from “both state and non-state actors,” and he went on to cite allegations of police abuses against LGBTI persons. He said that on April 30, 2011, two cops detained transgender persons at a bar and asked them a “derogatory question”: “Are you girls? Why are you dressing like that if you are a man?”

He claimed that the officers detained them and when they were asked to explain why the persons were being detained, their reply was: “You look suspicious” and “You confused me,” and one officer went further to suggest that the transvestites should be murdered and dumped, while one of the transgender individuals was forced to expose himself/herself.

Orozco also claimed that a transgender student, 19, was threatened with dismissal from the Belmopan Baptist School in October 2009, because he was told he acts like a girl, dresses effeminately and uses the female bathroom.

None of Orozco’s claims were backed up by official reports.

The hearing was led by the 2nd Vice President of the IACHR, Felipe González, who is also the rapporteur on the rights of migrants and the rapporteur for Brazil, Cuba, United States and Venezuela.

Both UNIBAM and the State of Belize were given 20 minutes to deliver their presentations to the IACHR panel, after which they were asked questions and given a chance to reply to further queries.

UNIBAM told the panel that it wants the Government of Belize to implement Resolution 2807, adopted at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States held in Antigua, Guatemala, in 2013, and to sign and ratify the Inter-American Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance—which reflects the hotly debated shift from including merely one’s “sex” to including one’s “sexual orientation” under provisions guaranteeing fundamental rights and freedoms.

In the first footnote to Resolution 2807, it was stated that “The Government of Belize is unable to join consensus on this resolution given the fact that several of the issues and principles addressed therein, directly or indirectly, are at present the subject of legal proceedings in the Supreme Court of Belize.”

This point was reiterated by Belize’s Ambassador to the OAS, H.E. Nestor Mendez, in Washington Friday, who appeared before the panel on Belize’s behalf. Mendez received Belize’s position papers shortly before the meeting, and so, he was evidently not very well prepared to answer queries during the question-and-answer segment.

“Belize is a democracy in which the will of the people has to be respected,” Mendez asserted, in his presentation to the panel.

He told the Commission that the Government of Belize has not encountered what is referred to as hate speech, and under section 12 of the Constitution of Belize, persons have a right to freedom of expression, predicated on the need to defend public safety, order, morality, and health.

In the case of Joseph Sanchez’s death, Ambassador Mendez said that, “There is no determination by the investigators that the crime was a hate crime. The investigation is a general homicide investigation, and it is headed by very senior investigators in the Police Department.”

He added that the Government of Belize remains committed to protecting the fundamental human rights of all its citizens.

According to the Ambassador, Belize had approached the UN’s resident representative in Belize and asked for assistance to engage a consultant for a sensitization and education campaign to measure Belizean’s attitude on gender issues and anti-gay perception.

Stephen Diaz, executive director of the recently established NGO, Belize Youth Empowerment for Change, appeared as petitioner with Caleb Orozco, UNIBAM’s executive director.

Diaz said that they are calling on Belizean authorities to condemn hate speech generally and specifically against LGBTI persons, and to institute civil and criminal penalties for engaging in hate speech that incite violence against LGBTI persons.

Diaz said that they want Belize to adopt legislation that imposes proportional criminal sentences for violent hate crimes and crimes committed because of the real and perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity of the victims, and also to ensure that hate crimes are investigated, prosecuted and where applicable, punished.

“It is worthy to note that if any hate speech is being propagated on television or radio that the Broadcasting Authority established under the Broadcasting and Television Act, Chapter 227 of the Laws of Belize, can address those issues, and if it is found and established, the authority can suspend and revoke licenses that were issued,” said Ambassador Mendez.

Mendez also noted that the legal challenge at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to Belize’s Immigration laws—and a claim by LGBT rights activist Maurice Tomlinson that the law prohibits homosexuals from entering Belize—is still unresolved.

While Mendez—who had just received Belize’s position paper before the hearing—was unable to articulate the Government of Belize’s stance in the Tomlinson case at the CCJ, Belize’s counsel Nigel Hawke, at the CCJ hearing, asserted that the Immigration Act only bars homosexuals who derive financial gain from homosexual activities; however, this was not conveyed to the IACHR panel on Friday.

Orozco said that LGBTI persons are subject to high levels of violence in Belize, compounded by the problems of impunity and distrust. He said that “complicating the issue” was an internal memo from the Catholic Bishop forbidding UNIBAM and the National AIDS Commission (NAC) from making presentations in their denominational schools, and the State of Belize, Orozco said, “remains unresponsive to the blacklisting” of the organizations.

“We remain concerned that the state has not implemented any public policies or legislation that would rectify the extreme public stigma against LGBTI individuals in Belizean society, or counter the homophobic speech and misinformation spread by proponents of the criminalization of same-sex conduct,” Diaz said at the hearing.

He added that they welcome “…the directive from the Cabinet for the development of a knowledge, attitude and perception study [and] the PM’s commitment of not withdrawing the gender policy—which speaks to five pillars of the principle respect for diversity,” but he added that “we are, however, concerned that the intersecting issues of discrimination, violence, hate crimes, remain insufficiently addressed in the national response in supporting human dignity and rights of LGBT citizens in any specific way.”

Commissioner James L. Cavallaro, rapporteur for Barbados, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago, and rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, said that while Prime Minister Dean Barrow made statements at the last Independence Day celebration in support of human rights of all Belizeans, they hope his comments are indicative of some concrete efforts moving forward, as they are not aware if the Government of Belize has taken any steps to implement “concrete measures” to ensure the safety of Orozco and the institution for which he works—that is, UNIBAM.

Mendez told the IACHR panel that the dispute over Belize’s sodomy law is now sub judice, and the state has refrained from speculating on the outcome. He said that a fundamental aspect of the case is a question of equality under the law, discrimination and whether Belize’s Constitution includes a person’s sexual orientation as a fundamental right.

Last May, the IACHR had called on Belize to take precautionary measures to ensure the protection of Caleb Orozco as a human rights defender for the LGBTI community, and González, the 2nd Vice President of the IACHR, said that the Commission stresses the importance it assigns to the work of human rights defenders. He said that it is very important for the Commission to ensure that precautionary measures are adopted for the protection of Orozco and are fully implemented by the Government of Belize, because in its view, Orozco’s role as a human rights defender is “indispensable” and if anything were to happen to him as a defender, it would have an impact on the rights of others.

González told Mendez that the Commission considers the sodomy issue to be “very important” for the purposes of “evaluating the protection” of LGBTI persons in any country, and notwithstanding the ruling pending by the Belize Supreme Court, they will follow up on decisions taken at the local level and they might eventually issue a statement considering international standards, as a way to provide for a full resolution of this matter.

He also said that the immigration rights of LGBTI persons should “be fully enforced as well…”

Mendez told the Commission that migrants who come to Belize are offered all the human rights protections offered to every individual – the same as resident Belizeans, and Belize does not have particular provisions for LGBTI migrants.

Mendez said that Belize is serious about protecting the human rights of people, and any shortfalls are not due to a lack of political will or the absence of legislation – but the dearth of resources needed to effectively implement required actions.

González insisted that information provided to the panel by Fanny Gómez-Lugo, a Venezuelan attorney and the human rights specialist for the IACHR’s Unit for the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Bisexual and Intersex Persons, says that a ban does exist, and this will remain an important issue to be addressed by the Government of Belize, he said.

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