The OAS, of which the US is a member, is the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere. The annual assembly, which is intended as a civilised forum attended by governments and civil society, dissolved into a vulgar display of extreme homophobia when secretary general Luis Almagro asked participants for a moment of silence for the Orlando victims. When Almagro called the act a hate crime, the audience booed, waving flags demanding “No to gender ideology”.
Human rights are at a risk, and the animosity displayed in Santo Domingo connects to the massacre in Orlando.
In the US, significant progress has been made protecting the human rights of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer) people, but it has not gone unchallenged. The proliferation of proposed and approved anti-gay bills, based on religious exemptions, outmatches gains made.
The few human rights mechanisms available to protect vulnerable populations are under attack by religiously motivated groups that insist rights for women, gay people, trans people, among others, are a direct threat to their faith. The OAS, precisely because it is willing to consider – and in many cases advance – rights for women and LGBTQ people, is a main target for religious conservatives, many based in the US, who want to shut it down.
The OAS is already in crisis.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which is responsible for addressing human rights violations in Latin America and the Caribbean, is on the verge of collapse. Member states are not paying their dues, and last month the IACHR announced the suspension of its hearings, country visits, and cuts to 40% of its staff. All of this serves the purposes of the religious right, which aims not just to delegitimise the institution, but simply wants it gone.
On the day of the Orlando massacre, the hatred within the general assembly (GA) was matched by protesters outside. Organised by the Catholic Church, with support from evangelicals, marchers dressed in white formed a huge procession down the beachfront in Malecón, waving flags and posters condemning the OAS, abortion and LGBTQ rights. Protesters said the OAS was trying to impose an international gay agenda, which was a direct affront to their family values. The inclusion of gender, they insist, is the basis for promoting abortion and same sex marriage, all threats to their religion and their children.
Forums run by civil society groups, the day before the OAS met, some of which focus on women, LGBTQ people, democracy, and human rights, were heated and disruptive, and security had to be called to remove some participants. The three previous GAs, held in Washington DC, Asunción in Paraguay and La Antigua, Guatemala, were similarly marked by incivility, hostility, and polarisation.
The peak of intolerance came the day news of the massacre broke.
Civil society was given the opportunity to ask Almagro questions related to the advancement of human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Almagro fielded questions about Haiti, a man got up shouting, “Men are trying to get into the women’s bathroom!” The audience streamed out of the conference room and into the hallway to watch a trans woman being denied entry into the women’s bathroom. Many trans women reported similar treatment throughout the conference.
What happened in Orlando, and what is being played out at the OAS, is the result of a climate of hatred, fostered for decades, by religious conservatives. Hate rhetoric, accompanied by hate legislation, marginalises gay and trans people and, as we saw in Orlando, leads to unimaginable violence.
The presence of religious conservatives with an anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-trans agenda at the OAS is not new. But it is of increasing concern as they continue agitating to dismantle human rights while scenes of unprecedented violence play out across the world. The OAS is the place to set the tone, and the standard, for human rights protections in Latin American and the Caribbean. As Orlando demonstrates, any setback to human rights, as designed by these groups, will only lead to more violence.
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