Throughout Central Asia, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people must hide their sexual orientation for fear of violence, extortion by the authorities, and even arrest. The lack of protections for this population creates a human rights issue. In the Soviet era, homosexuality was criminalized and could lead to several years in prison. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the situation for LGBT people in Central Asia remains precarious, with homosexuality still criminalized in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and discrimination and marginalization throughout the region. The Central Asian countries can come into line with international law, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and emerging norms by decriminalizing homosexuality and combatting social norms stigmatizing people based on their sexual orientation.
Article 9 of the ICCPR defends against arbitrary arrest and protects everyone’s rights to liberty and security of person while Article 17 protects people from unlawful interference with privacy. Article 26 of the ICCPR and Article 2 of the ICESCR both guarantee protection against discrimination on any grounds. In 2012, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explained that although the non-discrimination guarantees listed in the ICCPR and the ICESCR do not explicitly include “sexual orientation,” they all include the words “other status.” The OHCHR explained that the inclusion of the words “other status” affirms that the lists of discriminations were intentionally left open to include future grounds for discrimination, such as sexual orientation, which were not considered when the documents were written.
In 2009, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) confirmed that the non-discrimination guarantee of the ICESCR includes sexual orientation. The CESCR explained that states should ensure that a person’s sexual orientation is not a barrier to realizing ICESCR rights. In June 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted the first UN resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity, expressing “grave concern” at violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, leading to the first UN report on this issue.
Discrimination against LGBT people is the prevailing standard throughout the Central Asian states. Article 120 of Uzbekistan’s criminal code outlaws sexual intercourse between two men, as does Article 135 of Turkmenistan’s criminal code. Since 1998, homosexuality is no longer outlawed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Despite this legal change, the lack of specific protections for LGBT people and an environment where LGBT individuals cannot approach authorities for fear of blackmail or violence has led to societal discrimination, which functions as if it is institutionalized by law. In Kyrgyzstan, lesbian and bisexual women are often subjected to forced marriages and rape in an effort to “cure” them. Homophobia is widespread in Tajikistan, where many view homosexuality as a sin or a disease and the general population is intolerant of homosexuality because of traditional attitudes and Islam’s strong influence on the population. This discrimination implicates the rights to privacy and expression because LGBT people are forced to hide their identities for fear of government and societal reprisal.
According to the organization Civil Rights Defenders, “[T]here are no legal safeguards against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in any of the Central Asian countries.” The organization also claims that human rights organizations in the region have been unwilling to defend LGBT rights and that if LGBT issues are addressed, it is usually in a manner that creates further stigmatization, such as in conjunction with HIV-prevention initiatives. These initiatives, in and of themselves often carry their own cultural stigma, further marginalizing LGBT issues. In 2009, an Uzbek HIV-rights activist was sentenced to seven years in prison for seducing minors; the court used the activist’s safe sex campaign as evidence that his activities contradicted the national traditions and culture of Uzbekistan. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, however, there are initiatives and organizations working openly for LGBT rights and HIV prevention. As a marginalized population, LGBT people in Central Asia need government protections to ensure that they enjoy the rights offered to all persons under international law.
By arbitrarily arresting, blackmailing, criminalizing, physically and verbally abusing, and engaging in general discrimination against LGBT people, the Central Asian countries are not upholding the ICCPR and the ICESCR. These documents are both binding on the Central Asian countries because Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are all States Parties. The only way for the Central Asian states to come into line with the ICCPR and the ICESCR is to decriminalize homosexuality and to establish laws protecting their LGBT communities from discrimination. Even where homosexuality is decriminalized, societal discrimination and marginalization deprive LGBT people of their basic rights, which are guaranteed by the ICCPR and ICESCR.