[Oct 26, 2015] More than 300 LGBTI activists from 40 countries and territories in the world at the sixth biennial regional conference of ILGA-Asia, the Asian chapter of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), from this Wednesday to Friday in Taipei, Taiwan, turning a new page for Taiwan’s “NGO diplomacy” despite Taiwan’s international status in limbo.
Organizers of the conference, including the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association (台灣同志諮詢熱線), ILGA-Asia and ILGA, a worldwide federation of 1,200 organizations dedicated to rights promotion for LGBTI people accredited by the United Nations and with NGO Consultative Status with ECOSOC consultative status, jointly expressed their hope on Monday that the event in Taipei would offer an opportunity for Taiwanese activists’ sharing of their best practices with other participants while benefiting from the international perspectives presented in the conference.
Taiwan’s international status has limited local activists’ participation at the international and regional arenas levels, explained Ashley Wu (巫緒樑), co-chair of the conference this year and a board member of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, adding that the association would like to take the opportunity of the regional event to urge Taiwanese policy makes, especially all presidential candidates for Taiwan’s upcoming elections in January next year, to make public their stance on major issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) discussed in the conference, such as marriage equality.
Bringing Asia’s activists together
As part of ILGA’s efforts to build a worldwide movement with regional representations from different continents, ILGA-Asia began to hold a regional conference for experience sharing among activists since 2002. “Creating a network of support and breaking isolation of activists from different countries is important,” said Ruth Baldacchino, ILGA’s co-secretary-general, who emphasized on the value of equal representation of all regions for a “proper global LGBTI movement”.
Describing Asia as the world’s largest continent with the biggest population featured with significant religious, ethnic, cultural, language, political diversities, where homosexuality is still punishable by death in some countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Qatar, while Communist-run Vietnam on the other hand repealed a law banning same-sex marriage last year and Thailand’s junta-appointed government enacted the nation’s first law specifically protecting LGBTI people earlier in March, ILGA-Asia’s co-chair Kaona Saowakun said the regional conference is a platform for activists in Asia to learn from each other, and for the world to learn about regional challenges in case timely support is needed.
The conference this year is expected to receive participants from 30 Asian countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Cambodia, a remarkable breakthrough for Taiwan considering its diplomatic relations.
An opportunity for both Taiwan and the region
After taking place respectively in Mumbai, Cebu, Chiang Mai, Surabaya and Bangkok, the ILGA-Asia conference set its foot in Taipei this year, paving way for Taiwan’s sharing of its pioneer experiences in fighting for LGBTI movement. “Asia’s largest pride parade is held in Taipei. Having the conference in Taipei to learn more about Taiwan’s LGBTI movement and joining the pride parade afterwards on Oct 31 will certainly inspire many participants,” said Saowakun.
Although Taiwan’s international status has posed challenges to the conference preparation, such as on participants’ visa arrangements, the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association regarded the efforts as worthwhile－because local activists could gain insights from regional and international perspectives with convenient and hassle-free access to the conference.
“Many activists here with rich experiences in advocacy and campaigns are not used to or lack access to international exposure, owing to Taiwan’s persistent diplomatic predicament under the “One-China” policy between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China, or namely China and Taiwan. That’s why we were particularly keen to bring the conference to Taipei,” explained Jennifer Lu (呂欣潔), former Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association’s public affairs director, referring to the strong pressure from Beijing to bar Taiwan NGO’s international involvement. Lu lobbied in 2013 with Wu for Taiwan to organize the regional conference.
Specifically, Wu hoped that the conference held in Taipei could help open up local activists’ views. “For example, those working to promote persons living with HIVs can consider collaborating with regional activists on issues regarding the patent extension of drugs arising from trade pact negotiations, which could affect access to HIV/AIDS medication ,” he suggested.
LGBTI rights promotion a diplomatic asset
Extensive support at international and regional level, such as EU’s strong assistance in visa processing for participants from countries where Taiwan has no diplomatic presence was “indispensable and tremendously helpful” in bringing all participants to the conference, stressed Lu and Wu.
Speaking on why EU not only sponsored the event but provided further support to the local organizer, Madeleine Majorenko, Head of the European Economic and Trade Office (EETO), said that as EU brings together 28 member states to jointly solve common challenges and problems on the basis of respect for human rights, it believes that all are equal and should be entitled to enjoy their rights. “Taiwan has been a positive example of LGBTI rights protection and promotion. We hope Taiwan can always be the leader and stay at the forefront in the region in this regard”, Majorenko elaborated.
Lu, who is now one of Taiwan’s first Legislative Yuan candidate for the upcoming elections in January next year on the ticket of the Green Party and Social Democratic Party Alliance, cited EU’s support for Taiwan NGOs in organizing the conference as an example of how LGBTI issues could transcend political boundaries. “The government of Taiwan should approach LGBTI issues more progressively and leverage Taiwan’s achievements in LGBTI rights protection and promotion for its international space,” Lu suggested.
Broad range of issues for discussion
Two draft bills concerning same-sex marriage and partnership were put forward to the legislature of Taiwan for legislators’ deliberation respectively in 2006 and 2013, making marriage equality a “hot topic” in the regional conference held in Taipei. Immediately after the conference, Lu is also going to organize a same-sex wedding banquet with her partner on the street to raise awareness on the issue, which the EETO is expected to join with at least 50 delegates from UK, France and the Netherlands.
While recognizing the importance of marriage equality, Baldacchino reminded that LGBT rights should not “start from and end on marriage issues”.
“There are many other issues, such as LGBT youth, discrimination within the education system and at the workplace, that deserve attention,” said Baldacchino.
Several issues that were rarely often addressed before in regional conferences, including LGBT vulnerability and resilience in disaster risk reduction following the catastrophic 2004 tsunami in Aceh, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and Nepal’s earthquake six months ago, LGBTI rights and disability, presentations and discussions concerning middle-aged or older LGBTIs, could all be of interest to participants, Wu pointed out.
Previous achievements of the ILGA-Asia Conference included strengthened coordination and capacity of ILGA members in making use of the United Nations (UN) mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a unique process involving a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States, for LGBTI rights protection and promotion. More specifically, the development of the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (ASC), a strong and vibrant network of human rights activists from 10 ASEAN countries working for issues regarding sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE), was partly inspired in the previous Conference, according to Saowakun.
The organizers expressed their hope that this year’s conference, with the theme of “Independent souls and bodies”, could mark a new milestone for activists’ solidarity and joint efforts in the region, with the supports of the Arcus Foundation, the American Jewish World Services, the Being LGBT in Asia (UNDP), the Common Language, EU, the Ford Foundation, the Ministry of Foreign affairs of Finland, the Open Society, and the Taipei City Hospital.