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Hate Crime in South Africa Gets International Scrutiny

Resource type: News

Human Rights First | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Paul LeGendre
Fighting Discrimination

A May 28 article in the New Yorker and a May 31 United Nations review of South Africa’s human rights record bring much-needed scrutiny to the problem of hate crime violence in South Africa and shortcomings in the government’s efforts to respond.

In her article, “Violated Hopes: a nation confronts a tide of sexual violence,” Charlayne Hunter-Gault describes the widespread discrimination and violence faced by South Africa’s LGBTI community, focusing in particular on the problem of “corrective” rape, which has had a tragic impact on lesbians.

The article also discusses the challenges of confronting the problem in a country where, despite a democratic constitution that extends non-discrimination provisions to sexual orientation, deep intolerance toward LGBTI people persists. As Hunter-Gault notes, this means that LGBTI people face discrimination from members of their communities and even families and sometimes face further victimization when they seek police assistance.

Despite welcome prosecutions in some of the highest profile cases, the government response to violence against LGBTI persons remains inadequate. The creation of a national task team to focus on crimes targeting LGBTI persons, involving both government officials and LGBTI community activists, is a step in the right direction, and can provide some useful lessons for further collaboration between government and civil society.

Violence targeting LGBTI people, like other forms of hate crime, needs to be addressed in a consistent manner with leadership from senior government officials. In a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council in advance of its review of South Africa’s human rights commitments, Human Rights First, with members of South Africa’s Hate Crimes Working Group, describe “a disturbing pattern of violent attacks, ranging from race-related attacks and targeted mob violence in residential and commercial districts occupied by foreign nationals, to severe beatings of LGBTI individuals and ‘corrective’ rapes and murders of lesbians, to arson and graffiti incidents targeting houses of worship.”

The May 31 Universal Periodic Review resulted in questions and recommendations from nearly 80 Member States. Recommendations included the need for the government of South Africa to step up efforts to combat homophobic and xenophobic violence as well as other forms of intolerance.

One step that various members of civil society are calling for – and which Hunter-Gault mentions – is the development, adoption, and implementation of hate crime legislation. Drafts of such legislation are currently under development by the relevant government agencies, but will need to be shaped and advanced with significant involvement of civil society actors like those in the Hate Crime Working Group. Additional recommendations include:

  • Senior government officials should speak out consistently against all forms of hate crime, and the relevant authorities should thoroughly investigate hate crimes and hold perpetrators accountable.
  • Law enforcement agencies should develop the capacity to use police and justice statistics to monitor both hate crimes and the police response to them. This will help police, justice officials, and prosecutors overcome barriers to successful prosecutions.
  • To increase the likelihood that victims are willing to report hate crimes, law enforcement should build ties to community groups, and authorities should ensure thorough investigations and prosecution of police misconduct and abuse.

The United States can support South Africa’s efforts. The U.S. government has long supported the training of police and prosecutors in South Africa in combating sexual and gender-based violence, and this effort could be expanded, in consultation with the government of South Africa, to more explicitly focus on homophobic, xenophobic and other forms of hate crime violence. This would be in line with the December 2011 Presidential Memorandum on International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons as well as other U.S. commitments to combat intolerance globally.

Human Rights First is an Atlantic grantee.