The Asia-Pacific region is home to 60% of the world’s population – almost 4.5 billion people – including the most populous (China and India) and least populous (Pacific island states) countries in the world. The diversity of the inhabitants of this region is vast, covering a range of religions, ethnicities and cultures, and residing across an abundance of geographical and climate variation.
Crucially, it is also home to vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer people’s organizations, 74% of which operate without a legal status – the highest percentage of unregistered LGBTIQ civil-society organizations in the world, according to OutRight Action International’s recent report, “The Global State of LGBTIQ Organizing: The Right to Register.”
An active and engaged civil society is the beating heart of a healthy democracy. Civil-society organizations, groups and activists are key to amplifying the voices of people who aren’t always heard, to ensuring access for the excluded or marginalized, raising awareness and accountability of governments, and achieving sustainable progress. Yet increasingly, governments across the world are seeking to restrict the activities of civil-society organizations by imposing legal or administrative barriers, or, indeed, by restricting their ability to register in the first place.
The Asia-Pacific region is no exception. The CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2018 highlighted that space for civil society in the region is largely closed (such as in China, Laos or North Korea), repressed (such as in Bangladesh, Myanmar or Cambodia), obstructed and narrow, with only a few champions of democracy. In the rest of the region, economic might and increasingly open markets have not brought with them democratic spirit and respect for human rights. On the contrary, imprisonment of journalists and human-rights defenders, barriers to registration and operation of civil-society organizations, harsh clampdowns on expressions of freedom of assembly, and barring of political opponents are common.
LGBTIQ organizations are strongly affected by the clampdown on civil-society space in the region. Of the 864 LGBTIQ organizations that responded to OutRights’ survey for “Right to Register” report cited above, 524 – the largest pool of data for a specific region – were in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet only 8% of them are officially registered, while 18% are registered without explicitly mentioning LGBTIQ issues as part of their mandate, and 74% have no legal status – the largest proportion of unregistered LGBTIQ organizations in any region of the world according to this study. This points to vibrant LGBTIQ activism, but strong barriers, or risk associated with registration.
Why does registration matter, one might wonder? It matters a great deal. Organizations that are officially registered have greater access to funding and other resources. They can rent offices, open a bank account, and interact with other organizations in an official capacity, and thus be better placed to serve and improve the well-being of the communities they serve. Registration enhances legitimacy and recognition, and, depending on the context, should provide greater access to and opportunities to be consulted by, or even partner with, authorities in the pursuit of the protection of each individual’s human rights. Crucially, registration is like a stamp of recognition of the importance of the work of the civil-society organization.
In the Asia-Pacific region, LGBTIQ communities receive this stamp of approval in a handful of countries. A glance at those shows that the countries more open to civil society are also more open, or becoming more open, to recognition of the human rights of LGBTIQ people.
- Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics is banned in Taiwan, which is also en route to allowing same-sex marriage this year.
- The Supreme Court in India recently struck down the colonial-era ban on same-sex relations.
- Cambodia has had a visible Pride March for more than a decade.
- Vietnam passed a landmark bill to protect the rights of transgender people in 2015 and was one of the few Asian countries to vote in favor of the establishment of a UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
This is no coincidence, as open civil-society space leads to vibrant democracies with activists successfully pushing for progress in social justice, community organizing, and equality in diversity.
Sadly, the study shows that in the majority of the region, despite a strong drive for organizing and civic activity, LGBTIQ organizations have to face societal prejudice, stigma, harassment and discrimination and also navigate the intricacies and challenges of operating in a restrictive environment.
For this, they deserve our admiration and our unwavering support. In order to achieve policy and legislative change that will enable LGBTIQ people to live their lives without fear or harassment, free to love whomever they choose, to be who they are, they will first have to be able to operate freely and openly – starting with the most basic: legal registration for community organizations.
This article was co-authored by Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International.