September 26, 2018 Articles

Justice Works: Strengthening Global Anti-Violence Initiatives to Protect LGBTI People

The American Bar Association Justice Works Program, a joint endeavor between the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and the ABA Center for Human Rights, strengthens comprehensive responses to bias-motivated violence that utilize multi-stakeholder, cross-sector approaches.

By Jordan Thompson Long

Originally published on ABA Rule of Law

Everyone should be free from violence, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. When someone is targeted because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI), the justice system often fails to respond effectively to that bias-motivated violence. Offenders walk with impunity. By allowing that impunity, authorities send the message that violent crime against LGBTI people is tolerated. In extreme cases, government officials actually call for violence against already vulnerable communities.

Effective responses to this type of violence exist, and the American Bar Association Justice Works Program, a joint endeavor between the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and the ABA Center for Human Rights, strengthens comprehensive responses that utilize multi-stakeholder, cross-sector approaches to respond to bias-motivated violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. By bringing together representatives from LGBTI civil society, psychosocial support organizations, police departments, prosecutors’ offices, and ministries of justice, Justice Works emphasizes that open communication between the LGBTI community and justice sector actors should be fostered prior to the occurrence of violence. Establishing and cultivating these relationships leads to the successful prosecution of offenders and, importantly, sends the message that violence against LGBTI people is not tolerated.

During the first year of Justice Works, we identified successful initiatives through which LGBTI civil society worked effectively with justice sector actors to ensure comprehensive, survivor-centered responses. Through the life-cycle of violence, from occurrence to community responses in documentation, police responses in investigation, and prosecutor responses in litigation, one stakeholder group is predominantly responsible for each action. We found that the most effective responses brought a collaborative approach with each stakeholder group complementing the efforts of others.

Under the Justice Works program, the ABA is currently producing a Comprehensive Anti-Violence Response Framework that will elaborate the theory that multi-stakeholder, cross-sector approaches to violence are the most effective way to fight impunity that often surrounds bias-motivated violence targeting LGBTI people. Additionally, the Framework will provide descriptions of interventions from around the world that have resulted in successful responses to violence. Some stakeholders involved in comprehensive responses are:

LGBTI Civil Society Organizations: These organizations — often community led — represent the needs and interests of LGBTI people and are often the first place a survivor of violence reports an incident. In many contexts, these organizations are staffed by volunteers who do not have the capacity or training to provide technical support to a survivor of violence, including the creation of a record that could contribute to a police report. Because of the history and legal status of these organizations, authorities might not recognize the legitimacy of these organizations. However, in places such as Lima, Peru, efforts of those like the UNIXAS project utilize existing networks of transgender sex worker to create a reporting system through which violence was reported to police.

Psychosocial support services: In many countries, organizations with trained social workers and other staff or volunteers provide support for survivors of violence throughout the process of seeking justice. Support services emphasize a survivor-focused approach that puts the needs of the person at the center of the criminal justice system. However, these services often lack competency around sexual orientation or gender identity. Risk of revictimization and retraumatization is present if a survivor must disclose their identity to someone who lacks awareness of the specific issues surrounding bias-motivated violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity; this risk of retraumatization and fear of further stigma can have a chilling effect on an LGBTI survivor of violence accessing psychosocial support. Successful collaboration exists in Portugal, where the national LGBTI organization has partnered with the national survivor support service to build competency across their responsive staff and volunteers and to ensure that a record created by either organization is recognized by police and prosecutors.

Police departments: Police are responsible for the investigation of all crimes, and when violence targeting LGBTI people goes unexplored by authorities, police are failing to meet that duty to investigate. Contrary to that duty, throughout the world police are or have historically been antagonistic or outright hostile to the LGBTI people. In many countries, police officers are the perpetrators of violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Community relations and communication is integral to build trust between the LGBTI community and the police officers who handle investigations of violent crimes. In Washington, D.C., an LGBT Liaison Unit trains members of the police force, ensuring that at least one competent officer is within every tactical unit and that any call regarding an LGBTI person is directed to the LGBT Liaison Unit.

Prosecutors’ offices: After the investigation by police, prosecutors are responsible for bringing perpetrators to justice by utilizing all means available to them in criminal justice system. This prosecution should be zealous, demonstrating the government’s stance not to let violent offenders walk with impunity when their crimes are motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Prosecutors should be aware of both the criminal law that pertains to all types of interpersonal violence, as well as any laws that treat bias motivated crime differently in their jurisdiction. By applying hate crime laws that either create a substantive offense or allow for sentence enhancement, prosecutors send the message that these crimes are not tolerated and that LGBTI people are respected and valued in society. In Berlin, Germany, a devoted LGBTI team in the prosecutor’s office not only pursues any crime that has a bias motive through the entire criminal justice system, but also regularly conducts year-round outreach to the LGBTI community, including attending Pride events, holding community fora for updates on cases, and regularly communicating with leaders of the LGBTI movement.

To provide substantive input into the Comprehensive Anti-Violence Response Framework, Justice Works convened 35 experts in Lima, Peru November 2017 to discuss the program’s theory of change and to provide the opportunity for each expert to describe how their cross-sector initiatives came about, challenges to implementation, and possibilities for replication in other contexts. What brought these experts together is that despite numerous challenges in their jurisdictions, including structural violence, a lack of strong legal institutions, and widespread homophobia and transphobia, they had aligned the roles of different actors to respond to bias-motivated violence. 

These experts recognize that when violence against a particular group goes unchallenged by the justice system, governments send the message that this type of violence is tolerable, and that due to histories of inequality and stigmatization, coordinated efforts need to exist to build bridges between the LGBTI community and justice sector actors. When the most vulnerable members of society do not have recourse to a responsive justice system, impunity prevails. When violence against one community goes unchallenged, all of society is less secure.

Jordan Thompson Long is Director of the ABA Justice Works Program, Director of ABA ROLI Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Programs, and Senior Counsel to the ABA Center for Human Rights.


Jordan Thompson Long is the Director of Justice Works, a program within the Center for Human Rights that addresses violence against LGBTI persons around the world. To learn more about Justice Works, please visit www.ambar.org/justiceworks or contact Jordan Thompson Long at  justiceworks@americanbar.org