Summary of September 17th Roundtable, “LGBT rights in Russia: an affront to human rights”:
On September 17th, the Center for Transatlantic Relations (the Center) welcomed LGBT/human rights organizations, government officials diplomats,scholars and private sector representatives to a high-level roundtable event entitled, “LGBT rights in Russia: an affront to human rights.” The roundtable launches a series of events the Center will be pursuing in the future under the banner, “Walls Still to Fall,” that will highlight outstanding human rights abuses including backsliding taking place in democracies within the greater transatlantic community.
Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has initiated a brutal and widespread crackdown on human rights not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Specifically, Putin’s autocratic and illiberal measures against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community embody discriminatory and marginalizing policies that may be considered a ‘canary in a coal mine’ for other groups including political opponents, civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the immigrant community. The 2014 Sochi Olympics offers the transatlantic community a unique opportunity to bring attention to Russia’s discriminatory policies and mobilize support for Russian civil society. The abuse against LGBT persons in Russia signals a democratic deficit and backsliding, as well as the difficulties Russia faces towards long-term social change. The Russian government and people supporting these policies must be held responsible for measures that criminalize individuals for living, denying them dignity of life and an ability to embrace their core identity.
Most recently, the Russian campaign against the LGBT community has included a law forbidding the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples and a measure that in effect criminalizes the act of coming out or participating in a lifestyle indicative of homosexuality. The law has been couched in terms that make it appear to be a benevolent act seeking to protect Russian youth from the scourges of homosexuality. Participants clearly noted that the Kremlin’s actions are antithetical to international human rights norms and the actions of a ‘modern country,’ western or not. The Russian authorities tacitly support violence against LGBT persons, who in turn have little or no legal remedies or protection.
A general consensus emerged that the worsening situation of human rights in Russia is based upon Putin’s need to appeal to his political base, including the Russian Orthodox Church, and a traditional, conservative and mostly rural electorate (which comprises about 15-20 percent of Putin’s support). Regarding the LGBT community in Russia, experts noted that there is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality among Russian elites, silencing downward focused pressure to change the norms and standards for the LGBT community in Russia. Even today, there is a continued conflation of gay rights with pedophilia, marginalizing the issue further, and making LGBT rights a difficult task to address widely in Russia. It is important to note that while attendees focused on Putin’s role in enacting the harsh laws against the LGBT community, Russian society as a whole is responsible for continued homophobia. According to surveys mentioned, 51% of Russians would not want gays as neighbors or co-workers, and 72% do not consider homosexuality acceptable (an increase of 12% since 2002). Participants noted that not just Russia is guilty of discriminatory acts, and that more than seventy nations have laws that are equal or worse than those in Russia. It was stressed however that none of those are members of the Council of Europe. Legal reforms in Russia are required to address the institutionalized stigma that pervades local police and hinders hate crime reporting and resolution. Many believe that the Russian “model” of governance can be contagious; its actions could be a precursor for other states to embrace similar laws exacerbating the state of LGBT rights and other human rights worldwide.
All participants addressed how the international community can support LGBT rights in Russia, especially in the context of the Sochi Olympics. There was general agreement that the Olympics should not be boycotted, with the majority concluding that the Sochi Olympics offer the West unique leverage over the Kremlin, since it is considered a “prestige project” for Putin. Participants primarily divided the responsibility to protect and act among three actors: government, business, and individual/civil society. Some very concrete actions came up, to be further discussed and refined.
It is universally recommended that government officials of western democracies need to continue addressing the issue of LGBT rights and human rights at top-level bilateral and multilateral meetings, and hold the Russian government accountable to international human rights norms. It is also encouraged that national leaders publicly decry the abuses taking place in Russia. Western capitals can further provide financial assistance to LGBT organizations in Russia as well as work with/encourage private enterprise to “do the right thing”. Alerting individuals to abuses is not enough. The means and methods must be carefully chosen: advertisements for potential threats against LGBT persons in countries hostile to the LGBT community limit the ability to change the debate. Inviting Russian LGBT leaders to events and on official visits to western countries would draw attention to the abuses taking place against the LGBT community, while offering institutionalized support to grassroots groups in Russia that are able to affect the ‘Russian discourse’ on LGBT rights.
The private sector
Private enterprise can also be an effective voice for LGBT concerns. It was noted that with the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Olympic sponsors are able to influence the debate and take a clear stand in support of human rights. Simple activities such as encouraging ‘pride’ labeling or supportive campaigns for LGBT rights can encourage publicity and normalization of homosexuality in Russia through consumer activity. Furthermore, it was stressed that businesses are not only faced with challenges in Russia, but in the more than 70 countries that have legislated against LGBT rights. Illiberal and discriminatory laws make it difficult for multinationals to do business and limit the opportunities for entrepreneurism. Western governments ought to back businesses that support LGBT rights and human rights and demand that countries such as Russia adopt legislation that accommodates every individual and consumer.
It is important to recognize that any sustained campaign to promote LGBT rights must be a combined government/citizen movement. Generating true change in Russia, including respect for the individual, will take time; however, steps can be taken to accelerate this change, including providing solidarity, funds, and tactical support. It was noted that at points the international community could cripple the LGBT rights movement, and internal Russian actors must be supported in order for success to be registered. Therefore, leading human rights organizations and non-profits are encouraged to work with local groups and, where possible, finance local LGBT individuals and organizations. It was widely cited that individuals, governments and enterprises possess “the power to irritate” and that they should leverage this power at the Sochi Olympics to draw attention to the plight of the Russian LGBT community. By creating a situation in which Putin is unable to act on his rhetoric, Putin will be faced with a “lose-lose” situation.
The keynote panelists concluded the conference by addressing the principal concerns of the attendees going forward. Firstly, should LGBT rights be absorbed into wider human rights abuse complaints in Russia or remain a standalone issue? Secondly, how should different stakeholders communicate and develop strategies to address these common concerns, especially among government, private sector, NGOs, and the media? Thirdly, how can the international community be an effective partner to human rights organizations in Russia?
There was clear agreement that this high level meeting should be continued and even intensified leading up to the Olympics and beyond.