Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2014.
Karla Avelar’s steady voice filled the room at the Inter American Commission in Washington. The transgender activist from El Salvador described the horrors she has survived: three assassination attempts, 14 bullet wounds, countless scars from stabbings, years of psychological, sexual and physical abuse.
The attacks are hate crimes, said Avelar, executive director of the Association for Connecting and Training Transgender Women of El Salvador (COMCAVIS, for its name in Spanish). But what Avelar wanted to emphasize at the October 2014 hearing was that her case is not unique.
There were 128 homicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals in the country between 1998 and 2011, according to a report by Kathryn Greenman, a British lawyer who has worked with the Inter American system in Central America. Almost all of these victims were transgender women, and Greenman’s report found no evidence that any of the crimes had been solved. “I speak for thousands of transgender women in El Salvador, who suffer multiple forms of violations of their rights, derived from generalized, deep-rooted transphobia,” Avelar said at the hearing.
Some experts argue that thematic hearings are an important step toward improving the lives of people like Avelar, because the political pressure they put on negligent governments can help spur change. However, these hearings can also make a significant impact on victims by plugging them into a system that seems otherwise impalpable, and publicly recognizing the ways they have been wronged.
The administration of former president Mauricio Funes was the first to create a specialized cabinet dedicated to the wellbeing of LGBTI individuals, the Sexual Diversity Directorate. The directorate came into being in 2010 and has overseen the implementation of Executive Decree 56, which prohibits discrimination in the public sector for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, despite the Funes administration’s apparent intentions, the track record on violence and impunity against LGBTI citizens has not improved. “We recognize that violence against transgender women, and the lack of an effective response to their denunciations by the justice system, are among the largest problems that we face in the country,” said Carlos Urquia, undersecretary for social integration in the Funes administration, at the hearing.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, elected president on March 9, 2014, has not publicly stated whether he will maintain his predecessor’s initiatives. Because the Funes administration’s advances were all based on an executive decree, they can be undone if President Ceren simply chooses not to renew the decree. But El Salvador is a country with fiercely conservative political and economic power centres, so taking a pro-LGBT stance can be costly.
Nonetheless, activists believe there is ample reason for the new president to follow his predecessor’s path. For instance, the incident that pushed Avelar and her peers to solicit the October hearing happened ten months ago, when 24-year-old Tania Vasquez, a transgender activist and member of the COMCAVIS board of directors, was gunned down in downtown San Salvador. In the aftermath of Vasquez’s murder, all but two of the COMCAVIS staff went into hiding. There are still no answers from Salvadoran authorities about the crime. Activists hope this will change with the Inter American Commission’s pressure on the state, combined with sustained pro-LGBT public policies from the executive branch.
Lacking protection at home, some decide to flee. Cristina Herrera, the gender identity project counsellor at the New York LGBT Center, says that the majority of her Central American clients sought safety in the US after being tortured and abused in their native countries. “Living conditions in Central America have gotten worse in the past few years, and LGBT people are at an especially high risk of violence,” Herrera said. She emphasized that the aggressors often are government authorities, including the police and the army, or gang members.
At the October hearing, representatives from the Salvadoran government listened to the activists’ report and answered questions from the commission. This was an important part of the process, said Allison Davenport, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was present at the hearing. “I was particularly moved to see a number of (immigrant) transgender Salvadorans in the audience – mainly women who had sought asylum for the very same issues that were being discussed,” said Davenport, who also was the lead author on Berkeley’s 2012 report on LGBT rights in El Salvador. These women “finally saw these issues spoken directly to the government.”
The Inter American Commission is a resource for citizens of the Americas who are left vulnerable to human rights violations because their governments are unwilling or unable to protect them. Thematic hearings do not produce binding resolutions that force immediate solutions from the offending governments. Instead, hearings serve as information-sharing forums about the state of human rights protections in the region. The reports issued by the commission post-hearing put political pressure on the governments, and help place individual violations within wider patterns of abuse. They can serve as evidence for a future trial in the Inter American Court if the problem is not solved soon.
Hearings also provide a powerful podium for publicizing human rights violations, says Greenman. “It’s very important that these activists had the opportunity to stand up and speak. They see that this system isn’t something alien or out of reach… it’s a tool that is realistically within their grasp,” Greenman says. “LGBTI civil society in El Salvador is no longer isolated on the margins of the human rights movement, but instead is becoming part of the wider network.”
The structural nature of violence against people like Vasquez and Avelar is evidenced in reports by the United Nations Development Programme, the University of California, Berkeley, and the human rights ombudsman of El Salvador. The ombudsman found that half of transgender women surveyed had received death threats.
In the past few years, prominent international actors have reprimanded the Salvadoran government for high levels of violence against LGBTI individuals. In November 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights included El Salvador in a report about countries with “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence” against this population. In June of that same year, the US ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, called for an “elimination of prejudices” against LGBTI people in an op-ed published in La Prensa Grafica, a prominent Salvadoran newspaper. And in December 2012, the Inter American Commission published a statement calling on regional governments to investigate crimes against the population as potential hate crimes – a label that the Salvadoran justice system currently does not use.
Andrea Ayala, a Salvadoran lesbian activist who was at the hearing, said: “This was a transcendental moment for our little country, because for the first time in our history, we had space to talk about this daily violence that happens against transgender women. There was so much emotion in that room.”
Images from the hearing available on Flickr, courtesy of Oliver Contreras/Eddie Arrossi Photography