Morocco and LGBTQI rights
A number of people have raised concerns about Morocco as a conference venue. The issues raised are twofold: the appropriateness of holding a conference in a country that criminalizes same sex relationships and the
Appropriateness of Morocco as a venue
A strength of the IAWJ has always been that it has accommodated divergence of views on many issues on the basis that, as women judges, we can learn from, respect and support each other even if we do not always agree on everything. We are still able to work together to enhance gender equality and the rule of law and work towards ensuring a diverse judiciary that reflects the society it serves.
In the past we have relied on the power of education and exposure to international human rights norms to effect change, starting with our focus in the early stages of the organisation on domestic violence and more recently on HIV/AIDS, trafficking and sextortion. We have also had programs on leadership for women, including traditional leaders (such as the Queen Mothers in Ghana).
In many countries our efforts and those of our affiliated associations have contributed to real and lasting changes of law and practice. We have achieved these results not through exclusion but through inclusion and dialogue. And patience. Changes to laws, and more importantly changes to attitudes and long engrained practices, do not occur overnight.
Hosting conferences in jurisdictions like Morocco creates an opportunity for dialogue, both formal and informal, on LGBTQI rights. By staying away, we would forgo the chance to have these important conversations.
The IAWJ currently has a project in Botswana on promoting inclusive justice for LGBTQI individuals. In Botswana, the criminalization of same sex sexual acts was declared unconstitutional as recently as June 2019, a decision that was upheld in November 2021 after an appeal by the government. The inclusive justice programme in Botswana will be part of the Morocco conference program. It will be a very important session. The program exemplifies how the IAWJ and our national chapters can work within socially conservative societies to progress LGBTQI rights.
It is worth noting too that laws decriminalizing same sex acts are relatively recent in many countries. For example the decriminalization of sexual activity between men (sexual relations between women were never subject to the same legal restrictions) only occurred in 1967 in England and Wales, in 1969 in Canada, in New Zealand in 1986 and Australia between 1975 and 1997. Prior to 1962, all 50 US states criminalized same-sex sexual activity and it was only in 2003 that the majority of the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas explicitly overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 decision that found sodomy laws to be constitutional. Prior to Lawrence v Texas same-sex sexual activity was illegal in fourteen U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. military.
Change is clearly underway. According to UNAIDS, in 2018, the proportion of the world’s population that lived in countries that criminalize same-sex sexual relations plummeted from about 40% to 23% following the Indian Supreme Court’s decision that decriminalized all consensual sex among adults. This was the largest annual decline since China decriminalized same-sex sexual relationships in 1997.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s 2020 State Sponsored Homophobia Global Legislation Review Update there are 67 UN nations with laws criminalizing same sexual acts, down from 72 in 2017. Half of these states were in Africa. And there are cogent arguments that at least some of these laws are in themselves a legacy of colonization. More recently the hardening of attitudes in some countries in Africa has been blamed at least in part on anti-gay United States visiting activists. This in itself suggests the wisdom of continuing dialogue and not avoiding having conferences in these countries (as long as it is safe for all our members to attend).
It is also worth considering where would we stop if we decided it would be inappropriate to hold biennial conferences in some jurisdictions. Should we restrict venues to countries that do not have discriminatory laws and/or to those which respect and protect human rights generally?
If we restricted conferences to countries not having discriminatory laws, this would leave few conference venues available. The World Bank, in its 2022 Women, Business and the Law report, said that, under its index, only twelve economies score 100, meaning that women are on an equal legal standing with men across all areas measured. On average across the world women have only some three quarters of the legal rights men do.
If we restricted conferences to countries where human rights are fully respected and protected, it is unlikely we could hold a biennial conference anywhere. One of the topics at the biennial conference held in Auckland in 2021 for example was the long lasting effects of colonization on the position of indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Also worth noting is the continuing discrimination (often including violence) against LGBTQI, disabled and minority communities even in countries with no overtly discriminatory laws.
Policies which restrict conference venues to certain countries would risk some of our members feeling excluded and likely in those countries where women judges are most in need of our support. This would seem counter productive for the promotion of lasting change.
Safety of attendees
It is the policy of the IAWJ (as set out in the conference guidelines) that all our members must be able to attend the biennial conference if they wish to do so. When the Board decided on Morocco as a venue for the biennial conference, the issue of lesbian judges was raised. The Board was assured by Judge Mina Sougrati (a current Vice President of the IAWJ and the person who presented the Morocco proposal) that Marrakech is a modern tourist city and that there would be no issue with lesbian judges and their wives or partners being able to attend the conference safely.
We have since asked Mina to expand on her advice. She has assured the Board that, despite the legal position, there is a large degree of tolerance extended to the LGBTQI community (and in particular towards foreigners and tourists) in Morocco. As an example, Yves Saint Laurent, with his partner Pierre Bergé, bought a house in Marrakech in the 1960s where they spent most of their vacations. Morocco has listed their house as part of the Moroccan patrimony and has opened a museum as homage to the life of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé and the time they spent in Marrakech. Mina also notes that Elton John performed at the Mawazine music festival in 2010 and that there is an annual international film festival held in Marrakech with industry guests from around the world.
Numerous international conferences have in recent (pre covid) years been held in Marrakech. These include the International Women’s Forum, which met in Marrakech in 2012, the climate change conference (COP 22) held in Marrakech in November 2016 and the 61st annual meeting of the International Association of Judges held in Marrakech in October 2018.
A recent LGBTQI travel safety index (https://www.asherfergusson.com/lgbtq-travel-safety/), while placing Morocco at 170 out of 203 countries, said: “Morocco only sporadically enforces its anti-LGBTQ+ law and does not enforce it in resort towns like Marrakech. It’s mostly a law that still exists because of Islamic morality. Morocco even has an LGBTQ+ rights group and is largely viewed as tolerant.” There are several travel tourist operators that run dedicated LGBTQI group tours of Morocco, such as TravelGay, Out Adventures, Out of Office and Venture Out. In general, tourism is a major industry in Morocco and cities like Marrakech are accustomed to catering for a diverse range of visitors.
All the above means that lesbian judges and their wives or partners will be able to attend the Moroccan biennial conference in safety. Our members should note, however, that in Morocco public displays of affection are not considered appropriate. This applies to all, including heterosexual couples.
Executive Council of the International Association of Women Judges
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