Graeme Reid is director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.
"Take them to Canada," Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov said when renewing his cynical vow to rid the North Caucasus territory of gay people. This week, the Canadian government announced that nearly 30 victims of the anti-gay purge in Chechnya have been safely resettled. Canada deserves praise for standing up – in word and deed – to Kadyrov's gruesome purge by publicly condemning his actions, pressing the Russian government to intervene, and now providing safe haven in Canada to individuals who were stranded in Russia, at risk from Chechen security forces and even their own families. The Canadian group, Rainbow Railroad, provided safe passage for these men out of Russia where they were under the temporary care of the Russian LGBT network.
It is a humanitarian gesture that echoes the words of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to the Canadian Parliament in June. She observed: "It is our role to provide refuge to the persecuted and downtrodden, to the extent that we are able." At that time, plans were already under way to provide sanctuary to gay men fleeing arbitrary arrest and torture in Chechnya. In the same speech, Ms. Freeland noted the U.S. abdication of its traditional role defending the postwar liberal order, and asserted Canada's role in defending it. Just two days later, on June 8, Canada joined Chile as co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, a global network of LGBT friendly states.
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LGBT and intersex organizations around the world need supportive states, like those in the Equal Rights Coalition, to provide moral and material support, monitor and report on human-rights abuses, condemn discrimination, follow court cases, provide meeting spaces, mediate with hostile governments and do the heavy lifting at international forums where LGBTI issues are hotly debated. Much of this work is already undertaken by the missions of LGBTI friendly states around the world.
As co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, Canada is well-placed to play a more proactive role on the international stage. Canada has taken significant steps domestically – apologizing for past mistreatment, committing to expunge criminal records, creating a non-binary gender option on passports and passing legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Randy Boissonnault as special adviser on LGBT issues, although his international reach is curtailed by a huge portfolio, weighted toward domestic policies. Within the Commonwealth, where 36 of 52 member states still criminalize same-sex activity, Canada supported the recent accreditation of the Commonwealth Equality Network, an umbrella group of LGBTI organizations from 39 countries – the first LGBTI advocacy group to receive such status, which will allow it to participate in next year's Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London.
Canada's leadership comes at a critical time, when the U.S. – which exercised significant international leadership on LGBT issues under the Obama administration – has lost much of its moral authority. In contrast to the Obama administration's "gay rights are human rights" foreign-policy doctrine, bolstered by domestic progress including military reform, marriage equality and the expansion of federal employment protections, the Trump administration has backtracked: implementing a transgender military service ban, arguing that federal employment protections do not bar discrimination against LGBT people and appointing staunch homophobes to key government positions.
In her speech, Ms. Freeland said: "It is our role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians, transgender people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities and of course Indigenous people." Canada is well-placed to take on this mantle, following well-established best practice, including quiet diplomacy, building bridges with allies and neutral states, supporting the work of civil-society organizations and advocating for the rights of LGBT people. The resettlement of the Chechen refugees represents a concrete example of standard-setting. In order to ensure the safety, equality and dignity of LGBT people throughout the world, Canada should continue to stand firmly for their rights both at home and abroad.