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While viewers across the United States watched the Olympic closing ceremonies, Jason Collins became the first publicly gay male athlete to compete in a major North American professional sports league as he took to the basketball court in Los Angeles.
NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games over the past two weeks dedicated less than two hours to LGBTI issues. It’s a critical moment in the fight for LGBTI rights in Russia.
But first–just for a moment–let’s talk hardware. Openly bisexual Dutch speedskater Ireen Wüst was the most decorated competitor at the Sochi Games, with two gold and three silver medals. She’s only the eighth athlete ever to win five medals at a Winter Olympics, and with plans to compete in 2018, she’s only two medals away from the career record for female competitors at the Winter Olympics. When Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz took silver, she commented, “When you are in the media, many people maybe knew my name and also knew that I am married with a woman. And now the Olympic Games are here in Russia and . . . . I hope for the future that the people now can see the sport as a chance to change something.”
— RUSA LGBT (@rusalgbt) February 23, 2014
Athletes spend years training, practicing, and building strength and skills before they are ready for the Olympics. In a sense, human rights work is much the same. We have to take the long view on achieving success. LGBTI activists around the world may see the recent successes in the United States and think they happened overnight. But the first U.S. lawsuit for marriage equality was filed here in Minnesota in 1970–it took 43 years for our state to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.
What can we do to help with Russia, and other countries that do not respect LGBTI rights? It can seem overwhelming, but there are a variety of strategies that human rights advocates can use to push for reform. And each strategy can be a piece of an overall solution. But human rights victories–like Olympic athletes–don’t happen overnight.
In the run-up to the Olympics, activists suggested a variety of strategies to promote LGBTI rights in Russia: showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians, holding perpetrators of anti-LGBTI violence accountable, challenging laws in court, engaging in advocacy at the United Nations, and pressing businesses to condemn the propaganda law and send a message of tolerance.
Which strategies are best? When The Advocates for Human Rights works on human rights issues, we use a set of steps to identify effective strategies. Let’s take a look at four of those steps, and see how six strategies measure up. (And even though this post is specific to LGBTI rights in Russia, this same analysis applies to LGBTI rights in other parts of the world, or to other human rights issues.)
Step 1: Understand the context
We need to look closely at the context in which the human rights violations occur. For example, much of the anti-gay sentiment in Russia is fueled by nationalism. So direct diplomatic advocacy from other countries may backfire. For example, journalist and free expression advocate Cathal Sheerin “interviewed a number of Russian journalists, filmmakers, writers and activists,” some of whom “suggested that protests made by cultural groups, students, artists and NGOs have much more influence than demands made by governments. This is partly because Putin switches into defensive ‘Cold War Mode’ when foreign governments criticise him. Pleas made by non-governmental groups, however, are much harder to dismiss as self-interested, political machinations. And for that reason, they have more chance of influencing the hearts and minds of Russian citizens.”
But even direct collaboration with international organizations may backfire. In October, Russian authorities bugged a private strategy meeting between Russian LGBTI activists and several international human rights organizations. The state-run television channel broadcast audio from the meeting, presenting it as an expose of western “homosexualists who attempt to infiltrate our country.”
In addition, LGBTI people in Russia are vulnerable, facing discrimination, bullying, threats, and physical attacks. The first principle of human rights work is “Do no harm.” We need to make sure that our actions don’t put LGBTI Russians in more danger.
In Russia, there are additional legal considerations. Russia’s Foreign Agents law requires groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” Another law bans funding from the United States that supports “political” activity by non-governmental organizations, and bans NGOs that engage in work that is “directed against Russia’s interests.” The Russian Government also recently expanded its definition of treason to potentially criminalize participation in international human rights advocacy. So groups in Russia might not be able to collaborate directly with their counterparts in other countries. The Russian groups who were victims of bugging last year fear they may now be sanctioned under the Foreign Agents law.
Step 2: Work in partnership
The Advocates for Human Rights works to promote human rights in the United States and around the world. When we do human rights work concerning other countries, we work in partnership with either local, in-country groups or with diaspora groups that want to influence human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. These partnerships are critical, because our partners understand the local context–they have a good sense of what types of strategies would be effective, and which ones might backfire. They also have a clearer understanding of the legal context in which they operate and the types of actions that may result in fines or other penalties for violating Russian law.
Step 3: Identify goals and strategies
It is important to set goals before deciding on a human rights strategy. An over-arching human rights goal might be that all LGBTI people in Russia are safe and live with dignity. We look at a variety of strategies to achieve this goal, such as:
Our Discover Human Rights training addresses in greater detail how to identify goals and the steps to achieve them.
Step 4: Use tactical mapping
In looking at these goals and strategies, we need to figure out who we need to influence, such as:
How do proposed strategies measure up?
When Russia passed its propaganda law last summer, some of the first responses were calls for boycotts. LGBTI activists in Russia responded with requests not to boycott the Olympic Games. In the context of the Olympics, boycotts can do more harm than good, because they cause the most harm to athletes–people who are not in a position to change a country’s laws. An effort to boycott Russian vodka had some limited success. It helped raise awareness about the propaganda law, and prompted one vodka maker to speak out against the law and donate to the cause.
Although boycotts can sometimes be powerful tools to promote human rights, but it’s important to think broadly and listen to the in-country advocates to evaluate which strategies will be most effective. Last month, The Advocates published Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities. It’s a 400+ page toolkit of resources for human rights advocacy. We developed these resources in response to requests from diaspora groups, but they are equally valuable for other individuals and groups who want to be more effective advocates for human rights. Paving Pathways explores many strategies that have been proposed for promoting LGBTI rights in Russia:
1. Showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians: When asked what people around the world can do to support LGBTI people in Russia, Дети-404 founder Elena Klimova suggested, “we are always very pleased when we receive letters and photos from abroad . . . . Then we understand that we are not alone, and that gives us strength and hope for a better future.” You can reach the Deti-404 team at email@example.com. You can like Дети-404 on Facebook, or set up a VK.com account and join the Дети-404 community there. If you don’t speak Russian, you can read some translated Deti-404 submissions here.
Openly gay Olympian Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff has denounced Russia’s propaganda law, and openly gay Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas displayed a rainbow and unicorn glove to the cameras after one of her runs in Sochi. Several athletes are part of the Principle 6 Movement, using the non-discrimination language of the Olympic Charter to show solidarity with LGBTI Russians without violating the Olympic ban on political speech.
Brian Boitano, one of the openly gay Olympians who was part of the U.S. delegation to Sochi, reported that during a press conference, “[m]ost of the questions that were posed to me were about Obama’s message” in including him in the delegation. “Everywhere we went, people knew our message, and they were congratulating us,” he continued. “It was amazing: everyone in Russia knew exactly why we were there.”
Social media can be a great advocacy tool. On Twitter, you can follow Russian LGBTI groups and individuals like RUSA LGBT, the Russian LGBT Network, Gay Russia, Rainbow Association, Straights for LGBT Equality, Elena Kostyuchenko, and Nikolai Alexeyev. And you can monitor developments on Queerussia and Gay Russia and check out Mads Nissen’s striking photo essay of LGBTI activists in Russia.
Kirill Maryin is a 17-year-old from Novosibirsk who tweets about his personal experiences as well as the Russian propaganda law and how it is being enforced:
My classmates have ceased to mock me. Psychological atmosphere has not changed. Homophobia, homophobia, homophobia and homophobic again.
— Gay Teen from Russia (@ru_lgbt_teen) September 12, 2013
“I wanted people who live abroad to hear the true story of life for LGBT teenagers from Russia,” Maryin told the Guardian. “I am an ordinary LGBT teenager, and in this country, that is incredibly dangerous.” You can follow Maryin on Twitter and send him a message of support.
The It Gets Better Project has a campaign to show support for LGBTI youth in Russia; people can submit their own videos and add their names to a message of support.
It’s important to understand how critical our expressions of solidarity and support can be. Over the last two weeks, eight LGBTI Ugandans have attempted suicide over that country’s harsh new law. Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe.
“I don’t like being an activist,” journalist Elena Kostyuchenko told a reporter. But “[i]t’s a long time until there will be some kind of magical Russian Harvey Milk who will defend my rights. I have been waiting, but he is not coming.” If you know a human rights defender or LGBTI person in Russia like Kostyuchenko who may be at risk, show them support on social media and give them a link to our Resources for Human Rights Defenders.
2. Shutting down vigilante groups: My fourth post in this series described how vigilante groups use social media to hunt down LGBTI youth and publicize their attacks. Sometimes their activities violate the terms of service of these social media providers. After inquiries from the Guardian ealier this month, В Kонтакте (VK.com) pledged to remove violent content and delete the accounts of offenders, but five days later only one video had been removed. If you use Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, or VK, report these violations and help get the groups shut down. Instagram recently pulled the accounts of two Occupy Pedophilia leaders. One activist is asking for help to use social media to track down the identity of people involved in anti-gay violence in order to prompt Russian authorities to bring charges.
3. Accountability: Russian authorities have been slow to take on the vigilante groups that are largely responsible for violence against LGBTI Russians. But last week, a Russian court sentenced three Russian men for killing and robbing several gay men in Moscow in 2012. And authorities have brought charges against at least two participants in the Occupy Pedophilia vigilante group. Advocates can work with their Russian counterparts to determine the most effective ways to encourage further prosecutions for these crimes.
There are also opportunities to hold the U.S.-based architects of Russia’s anti-LGBTI laws accountable. As I noted last week, Scott Lively is being sued under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The Center for Constitutional Rights is considering bringing a similar suit against Lively for his work in Russia.
4. Litigation: Domestic courts and regional human rights mechanisms can be effective avenues for advocacy. Russian LGBTI activists Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko are setting up a legal challenge to the propaganda law. They have been fined 4,000 rubles each for picketing a children’s library in Arkhangelsk while holding up banners saying, “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” “The verdicts open the way for appealing the ban on gay propaganda at Russia’s Constitutional court and later at the European Court of Human Rights,” Alexeyev told GayRussia. Russia’s courts have shown some signs of independence, throwing out charges against Deti-404‘s Klimova and rejecting some prosecutions for violations of the Foreign Agents law. But the Constitutional Court has upheld convictions of regional anti-propaganda laws, and the Russian Supreme Court has rejected similar appeals.
Even though the prospects for success in Russia’s courts aren’t promising, activists first need to exhaust their remedies in their own domestic legal system before taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Paul Johnson at the University of York has done a thorough analysis of the prospects for a challenge to the propaganda law in the European Court of Human rights. The European Court is already considering a case challenging a local propaganda law, and the court has expressed interest in adding consideration of the newer federal law to that case.
5. Advocacy at the United Nations: Most of the UN human rights treaty bodies have “communications mechanisms” that individuals can use to bring a complaint alleging that their government has violated the treaty text. In 2010, Irina Fedotovna submitted a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee to challenge a local law banning “gay propaganda” in Ryazan, Russia. She had been charged under that law after displaying signs saying “Homosexuality is normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality” near a secondary school. In 2012, the Human Rights Committee concluded that her conviction amounted to a violation of her rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and found that Fedotovna was entitled to compensation. Yet despite this ruling, in 2013 Russia adopted its federal propaganda law.
UN advocacy may pose risks to Russian organizations; Russian authorities have cited advocacy with the UN Committee Against Torture as evidence that the St. Petersburg anti-discrimination group Memorial is a “foreign agent.” Moreover, Russia routinely ignores the resolutions and findings of UN human rights bodies, so it’s important to weigh the potential positive effects of successful UN advocacy with potential risks and costs at the national level.
6. Corporate influence: Some Olympic sponsors have faced sharp criticism in social media for not condemning Russia’s propaganda law. Activists have generated visibility for those issues by spinning social media promotions by Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to raise visibility about human rights. Activists transformed McDonald’s #CheersToSochi campaign into a social media tool to raise awareness about the propaganda law. And these campaigns had impressive spillover effects, prompting other major companies like AT&T and Chobani to show their support for LGBTI rights. Chevrolet and Coca-Cola also committed to broadcast television advertisements during the Olympics with diverse casts, including gay families. Advertising can help shape public opinion in other countries, too. Advocacy targeting businesses is also a particularly important tool when business practices themselves are directly responsible for human rights violations.
The games are over, the fight goes on
Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Over the next four years, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the next major international sporting event in Russia takes place in a climate of safety and dignity for competitors, fans, and for all LGBTI Russians.
What will you do to promote LGBTI rights? Which strategies do you think would be most effective? How would you tailor strategies to combat LGBTI persecution in other parts of the world, like Cameroon, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Uganda? Are there in-country or diaspora partners you can work with? Will you spread the word and help build a movement to promote LGBTI rights around the world?
This post is the last in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 examined the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries.
More posts in this series: