Three months after arriving in the U.S. as a refugee once persecuted for his sexual orientation, Subhi Nahas is still grappling with the transition from his former home in Idlib, Syria, to life in San Francisco. “When you resettle you have lost everything in the country of origin that you came from,” he told reporters at the U.N. on Monday. “It means that you’re going into the unknown, that you don’t know where you’re going, that you don’t know what’s going to follow.”
Nahas never could have predicted that so soon after being granted refugee protection he would become one of the first people in history to address the U.N. Security Council on LGBT persecution. The historic meeting, an informal session known as an “Arria,” was prompted by attacks by ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq against LGBT individuals.
“I was so nervous, but then it feels like that you’re empowered and you have a message that you want to deliver,” Nahas, who now works for the Organization for Refugee, Asylum, and Migration, said of his address to the Security Council. “It feels like you’ve done something really good for the community and for the people that I want to help.”
The meeting, organized by the U.S. and Chilean delegations, was held behind closed doors to protect the privacy of an anonymous Iraqi gay man who used the pseudonym “Adnan” and delivered testimony via telephone. It was attended by 13 of the 15 member nations of the powerful chamber, with only Chad and Angola refusing to participate. Four countries with troubling LGBT rights records of their own — China, Russia, Nigeria, and Malaysia — declined to speak, but remained present for the entire meeting.
“This is the first time in history that the council has held a meeting on the victimization of LGBT persons,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said in her remarks. “It is the first time we are saying, in a single voice, that it is wrong to target people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It is a historic step. And it is, as we all know, long overdue.”
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Of course, LGBT individuals in Iraq and Syria had endured violence and discrimination long before ISIS emerged last year from the chaos of the Syrian civil war. However, the group’s unique brand of barbarism — executing those suspected of sodomy or homosexuality by stoning, beheading, firing squads, or throwing them from buildings, and then actively promoting the killings on social media — prompted urgent calls for the historic Security Council meeting.
Power recounted one video in which a man found to be having a gay affair was blindfolded and pushed off a building, only to survive the fall and be stoned by a mob of bystanders. “Kids in the crowd were reportedly encouraged to grab stones and take part,” she said.
“ISIS are also professional when it comes to tracking gay people,” Adnan said in his remarks. “They hunt them down one by one. When they capture people, they go through the person’s phone and contacts and Facebook friends. They are trying to track down every gay man. And it’s like dominoes. If one goes, the others will be taken down too.”
Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said activists had documented at least 30 instances of gay men being executed by ISIS since June 2014. However, she cautioned that lesbians and transgender individuals have also endured sexual assault and fatal violence.
Stern noted that the killings her group was able to document were due in large part to the sophisticated social media propaganda machine ISIS uses to disseminate news after each gruesome execution. “I never imagined that I would say that a militia is my main source of information, but they are,” she said.
With ISIS known for using targeted violence against individuals and communities it knows will generate shock value and lead to news headlines, concerns have been raised over the potential danger involved in shining such a powerful spotlight on the Iraqi and Syrian LGBT communities.
“At best, the meeting will be useless,” former Human Rights Watch advocate Scott Long wrote in a blog post critical of the Arria. “It’ll lead to that indolent repletion where people feel they’ve acted when they’ve actually done nothing.”
“At worst, it’s going to cause more killings,” he cautioned.
Stern acknowledged these concerns as valid: “Could association with a U.N. mechanism potentially actually increase vulnerability for LGBTI Iraqis and tar them as associated with the West?” she asked. However, she argued that given the Security Council’s past discussion of ISIS’s treatment of women, the minority Yazidi community, and Christians, it was important not to exclude LGBT individuals in order to truly document the brutality of ISIS.
“Given the extreme constant forms of attack by ISIS on LGBTI Iraqis and Syrians, we think it’s of the greatest importance that the international community be informed about the issue, be seized with the issue, and take action,” she said.
Power, too, responded to the worry in a call with reporters Monday afternoon, saying she believed the opportunity to raise concerns about LGBT rights in the U.N.’s most powerful body “would do [good] for LGBT rights writ large.”
Exactly what the Security Council can do to help isn’t clear, though. While Stern’s group is calling in part for greater protection and services for LGBT refugees from the U.N. and international community, the Security Council is not a humanitarian body. A referral to the International Criminal Court also seems unlikely, Long wrote, as it might also open up Syrian or Iraqi authorities, and their various international backers, to potential prosecution.
“We don’t have a series of next steps mapped out in relation to the Security Council. In the 70-year history of the U.N., it’s never addressed this,” Stern said. “[But] today a door has opened, and we have to find out what happens when we walk through that door.”
Speaking to reporters after she addressed the Arria, Stern said she had been encouraged by the response of member nations. She noted she’d been informed that Jordan’s statement in the meeting condemning ISIS violence generally was the first time an Arab country had said something explicitly positive in the context of LGBT violations.
Ambassador Power said that in recent years the U.S. has resettled 75 to 100 LGBT refugees annually, but did not support calls for the government to dedicate spots for LGBT refugees or fast-track their applications. She called on Congress to raise the cap on the number of refugees resettled to the U.S. each year — which is now 70,000 — in response to the unprecedented 60 million people currently displaced worldwide. “The main thing is we need to work together to insure that there’s more political support up on the Hill to fund and to accommodate a larger pool of refugees,” she said.
Subhi Nahas, who fled Syria after facing threats from militants with Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as physical violence from his own father, said he is still struggling to make sense of a foreign culture and language. He said he has found it difficult to make conversation and communicate, but on Monday his voice was forceful, clear, and determined.
“There’s a community in the Middle East that is now standing up, and we want to push back,” he said. “We want our voices to be heard, we want our rights to be acknowledged, and we will prevail in the end.”
David Mack, BuzzFeed