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UU-UNO Director’s Letter

Bruce Knotts

January 2014


Canadian Unitarians have had a long and very close relationship with the UU-UNO.  Elaine Harvey is one of the co-chairs of the Canadian UU-UNO advisory board.  She led the faith based caucus at the United Nations to establish the International Criminal Court and she was in Rome for the negotiations that established the ICC.  Frances Cosstick works for the Canadian International Development Agency, which is part of the Canadian Department of International Affairs and Trade.  Tudy McLane’s late husband was a Canadian ambassador and she maintains excellent contacts in the diplomatic community.  Katrin Nagelschmitz is the other co-chair of the Canadian Advisory Board and she works for the Canadian Department of Agriculture.  Rev. Frances Deverell has excellent connections with Canada’s FirstNations leaders.  All these together with Ottawa First Unitarian Senior Minister John Marsh worked together with others I’ve not been able to name to put together an outstanding program for my recent visit.

First Unitarian Congregation Ottawa                                           First Nations Leaders Meeting at First Unitarian Ottawa

On Saturday, January 18, we met with outstanding First Nations leaders, including world renowned indigenous architect, Douglas Cardinal, who has agreed to speak to our April seminar.  On the following Sunday, I was honored to speak at two services.  A Canadian official from the Foreign Ministry attended the service to hear my remarks.  The following day we met for coffee and he was very impressed with what he experienced at the Unitarian service and he intends to visit the congregation again.

Entrance to the Canadian Foreign Ministry

On Monday, I had a series of meetings at the Foreign Ministry and ended with a meeting at Amnesty International Canada.  I began with a brown bag lunch in a room that was packed with officials from various ministries, including the Prime Minister’s office.  I also met with a special assistant to Canadian Foreign Minister and ended with a meeting at Amnesty International.  My briefings were very much as listed below in my SOGI report and my Canadian hosts said that their thinking was moving in much the same direction.  The one area where I provided a new idea, was emphasizing freedom of religion.  In the context of freedom of religion, I said that freedom of religion included progressive religions whose faith calls them to provide tolerant, open, and affirming places of worship.  Such openness to LGBTI people could violate some of the laws discussed above and I’ve heard at least one UU minister in Africa express fear that he is risking jail by providing services to all regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.  In a follow-up email, an official of the Canadian Foreign Ministry asked to be connected to UU ministers in Africa who fear religious persecution due to our liberal open and affirming faith. I had a previous conversation with Canada’s newly appointed ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett, when he visited the UN last year.  My message to him was the same and he reiterated Canada’s determination to protect the rights of progressive affirming religions.  

Read more on this office of the Canadian government here

We often hear conservative faith groups claim it is their religious right to be homophobic.  I feel that blade can cut both ways and we need to use the important freedom of religion to claim protection for our churches, members and ministers who practice our religion of tolerance, welcome, affirmation and equality. 

Amid Progress, Serious Disappointments for SOGI* Equality (*Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity)

For an interactive version of this map click here

While 20 countries have some level of recognition of same-sex marriage and protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  With the amazing progress over the past six years, backlash has also gained momentum.  Four countries deserve our attention.  I’m listing these from the least to most alarming, in my opinion:

Protestors of the Indian Supreme Court Decision
  1. India:  In 2009 the High Court of Delhi declared the British colonial era anti-beggary law unconstitutional, thus decriminalizing same sex relations in India.  In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision, thus recriminalizing same gender sexual relations.  There is mounting pressure in India to have this decision reviewed with the goal of having the Supreme Court reverse its decision.  The Indian Supreme Court said, in its decision that it is most appropriate for the Parliament to decide this matter.  Therefore, having the Indian Parliament consider the issue, is also possible.  The Indian decision does not seem to threaten international progress towards equality

  2. Uganda: In December 2013, the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, brought the anti-homosexuality to a quick and unexpected vote, passing it with only one dissenting vote.  Kadaga had promised this vote as a Christmas present to Uganda in December 2012, a year earlier.  Pundits see this as a political maneuver to the right of President Museveni in Kadaga’s own bid for the presidency.  
President Museveni  Speaker of Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga      
President Museveni                                                 Speaker of Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga

President Museveni has said a number of very conflicting things since the vote.  He accused Kadaga of   bringing the bill to a vote without a quorum present.   It seems that a quorum was present, but it is highly unusual in any country for the speaker to bring a bill up for a vote without the country’s president knowing about it.  Museveni also gave a very insulting speech about homosexuals being converted into this lifestyle for money, or influenced by the West, or the subject of poor “breeding” typical of Western nations.  He has also said that he will only sign the bill after careful study or when the Parliament can prove to him that homosexuality isn’t determined at birth.  The bill as passed, has substituted the death penalty with life imprisonment for repeated homosexual acts and long prison sentences for LGBTI activism or advocacy or even for not reporting a known homosexual to the police.  With pressure from the President, it seems likely further modifications to the bill will be made.  Impact on International efforts towards equality will be, I believe, slight, especially given President Museveni’s public difficulty in signing the bill.  

         Read more here

   Gay protestors in Russia after beatings which police failed to prevent

3. Russia: There are two laws which seriously impinge Russian moves towards equality.  One is the anti propaganda law which makes it illegal to say or do anything which may be construed as promoting homosexuality to a child.  The law is badly written.  It is ambiguous and allows police to interpret it in very arbitrary ways.  It also has the effect of censoring LGBTI advocacy in Russia.  It also does nothing to protect children from homophobic bullying, which is on the rise in Russia with some 150 YouTube videos of skin heads torturing teenaged gay young men and no way to legally hold them to account.  The second law forbids organizations from accepting funds from outside Russia unless they register as a “Foreign Agent.”  Russian LGBTI organizations are effectively prevented from accepting foreign assistance.  These organizations have suggested that international advocacy focus on the basic rights of expression, speech and assembly for all Russians and not solely in the rights of the LGBTI community.  All Russians are suffering ever shrinking freedom to oppose the government and to express views and organize for change.  

Ukraine is currently convulsed by a conflict fueled by the people’s desire to move the Ukraine into social and trading relationships with the West and the Ukrainian President signing a trade deal with Russia, enacting an anti-gay law and moving his nation in line with Russia to shut down free expression, assembly and speech.

Ukrainian protestors, who want their nation to turn towards the West facing off against the police

 4. NigeriaThe Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives have passed and Nigerian President Goodluck Johnathan has signed into the law one of the most comprehensive anti-gay and anti-free speech laws ever written.   

     The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay described it in a press release which said: 

     The Act includes a provision for a 14-year prison term for anyone who enters into a same sex union, and a ten-year prison term for anyone who ‘administers, witnesses, abets or aids’ a same sex marriage or civil union ceremony. The law states that ‘a person or group of persons who … supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.’ “Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights,” Pillay said. “Rights to privacy and non-discrimination, rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention: this law undermines all of them. In addition, the law risks reinforcing existing prejudices towards members of the LGBT community, and may provoke an upsurge in violence and discrimination.”

       Read the full press release here

       Read a Nigerian opposition opinion that I highly recommend here 

Nigerian President Goodluck Johnathan

What’s changed and what do we do about it?

For centuries in the name of religion, national governments have instituted laws forbidding anal sex and sexual relations with someone of the same gender.  The Catholic Church states that sex is only permitted within marriage and for the purpose of procreation of children.  Sex for fun is not allowed and certainly any sex with someone of the same gender, which certainly cannot produce children is not allowed.  Other religions have much the same attitudes, with some minor variations.  It is interesting to note that in order to convict a Muslim man of performing anal sex with another man, four male eye witnesses are required. Some have interpreted this as the Prophet Mohammed’s way to ensuring that it would be nearly impossible to convict.  

As democracies have developed and become separated from religious dogma, they have instituted basic freedoms, which include freedom of religion, speech, assembly, expression and freedom from arbitrary arrest.  Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech which advocated for Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear, developed into the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  All these freedoms have provided an environment where change can happen and greater equality can be realized.

The laws we have discussed above, particularly the Russian, Ugandan and Nigerian are all direct attacks on basic freedoms which allow a free exchange of ideas.  There is a basic shift from criminalizing homosexual acts to criminalizing conversation and advocacy related to sexual orientation and gender identity.  There is also a defensiveness in these laws which are telling Western democracies that they will not be told what to do, no matter how reasonable it is nor how consistent it is with international law and their own constitutions.  Nigeria, Uganda and Russia are trashing their commitments to international law and to the tenants of their own national constitutions by forbidding discussion and advocacy.  They are doing so in a fit of pique designed to show they will not be told to accept homosexuality when they don’t want to.

I believe we also need to change our advocacy.  It is clear that greater pressure on a handful of nations which are clearly out of step with international trends towards equality will produce ever more defensive behavior.  In line with what we are hearing from Russian LGBTI groups, I believe our advocacy must not headline our support for LGBTI groups, but rather make the headline our defense of basic human freedoms for everyone, everywhere without exception.  Everyone has the right to freedom of religion, speech, expression, assembly and freedom from want, fear and arbitrary arrest.  All human rights defenders must be protected and all minorities groups must have their freedoms guarded most carefully, including minorities of religion, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and political views. This shift keeps our advocacy for LGBTI groups in the picture, but does so within the context of basic human rights as they are enshrined in the world’s basic human rights agreements and constitutions.    

Some of my views were reported in the Toronto Star and can be read here

Congregational and other visits

Visits Past: 

October 6th: Kingston, ON Unitarian Church

October 13th: White Plains, NY Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

October 20th: Toronto, ON First Unitarian Church

October 27th: New York, NY, 4th Universalist Society

November 10th: San Francisco, CA Unitarian Universalist Church

December 1st: Montclair, NJ Unitarian Universalist Church 

December 8th: Warrington, PA Bux Mont Unitarian Universalist Church

January 8-10th: LGBT Asylum Seeker Conference, Washington, D.C. Read the blog post here

January 19th: Ottawa, ON, Unitarian Church

Future Visits: 

February 7-14: ECOC Project Visit, Ghana, West Africa

February 20-22: Climate Change Conference, West Palm Beach, FL

February 23: Shelter Rock, NY

March 1: Kansas City, MO


 March 13: CSW Panel on Climate Change Hindering the Achievement of Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.

 March 14: CSW Panel on The Role of Women in Post-Disaster Reconstruction and Recovery.

March 16-17: Conejo Valley, CA

March 18: Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA

If you have questions or concerns, please write us at unitednations@uua.org.

To support this important work please visit https://giving.uua.org/UU-UNO

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