Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

UN flags_HighRes

Update: This blog post was updated on May 30, 2014, after the Armenian Mission to the UN in Geneva contacted The Advocates with the final, official version of the statement that was delivered on May 6. The changes do not have any particular relevance to the substance of this post. To see the statement that was uploaded to the UN website and included in the original post, please click here.

We often say at The Advocates for Human Rights that making progress on human rights is running a marathon, not a sprint. For example, the United Nations’ newest human rights mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), takes place just once every four and a half years for each country.

The Ethiopian Government's delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos
The Ethiopian Government’s delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos

So it was particularly fortuitous that the UPR of Ethiopia took place this morning, as Oromo students continue a second week of demonstrations across the federal state of Oromia to protest the Ethiopian Government’s plans to annex that state’s lands in order to expand the territory of Addis Ababa, and as the Oromo diaspora gears up for protests around the world on Friday to show their support for the students on the ground.

Despite the UPR’s early hour–2:00 this morning here in Minnesota, or “Little Oromia” as the diaspora calls it–social media have been buzzing about the review. And as the 3 1/2 hour review progressed, the Oromo diaspora reported on breaking news of more student protests in Oromia.

A quick primer on the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review
Every country that is a member of the United Nations participates in the UPR once every 4 1/2 years. Unlike the opt-in treaty-body review processes, where independent human rights experts conduct the examination, the UPR is a peer-to-peer diplomatic process. Governments comment on the human rights records of other governments. As you might expect, some governments shower their allies with praise, while other governments use the UPR to offer sharp criticism. Each statement typically includes some words of praise, some statements of concern, and some recommendations for the government under review. Later, the government under review must respond to each recommendation, stating whether it accepts or rejects it.

Like other UN human rights mechanisms, the UPR process has a role for civil society. Last September civil society organizations around the world submitted “stakeholder reports” about human rights conditions on the ground in Ethiopia. These reports are supposed to cover: (1) what progress the government has made on any recommendations it accepted during the last round of review; and (2) any developments since the last review.

Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014
Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014

Diaspora civil society groups play critical role in UN reviews
Diaspora advocacy is critical when the UN reviews the human rights records of closed societies like Ethiopia, where local groups may not feel free to criticize the government openly. The Advocates worked with the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota to prepare a stakeholder report for Ethiopia’s UPR, just as we have done for some of the UN’s treaty body review mechanisms. Other diaspora groups are also engaged in the process. For example, groups like the International Oromo Women’s Organization, the UK and Australia and branches of the Oromia Support Group, and the Toronto-based Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa also submitted stakeholder reports for today’s UPR.

Earlier this year, we did in-person and email advocacy with the Geneva missions of governments that we thought might be receptive to the issues we raised in our report. And over the weekend, we followed up with an update on the student protests and government crack-down in Oromia. Watching the live webcast this morning, we were relieved to see that many governments took up some of the Oromo diaspora’s concerns.

The Advocates’ new diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways, includes a chapter on how to conduct advocacy at the United Nations, and another on advocacy with regional human rights mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Armenia draws attention to diaspora ties, recent casualties in Oromia

Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia's statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014
Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia’s statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014

A whopping 119 governments signed up to make statements during the review. Because of the limited time and intense interest, each government had just 65 seconds to make its points.You can watch the full review here.

The Armenian government offered the most direct commentary on the student protests in Oromia, and also referenced the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia:

We would like to stress the friendly relations existing between our 2 nations. The presence of the Armenian community in Ethiopia has a centuries old history. Armenia particularly appreciates the generosity of the Ethiopian people and government, who hosted and integrated the survivors of the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

Armenia commends the commitment of Ethiopia to the promotion of human rights, including respect for minority rights, cultural diversity and tolerance. In this regard, we are concerned about the reports of recent casualties in the state of Oromia. Armenia hopes that Ethiopia will continue to make efforts to further promote human rights, as a basis for encouraging tolerance and diversity in the country. . . .We have 2 recommendations for Ethiopia:

1) To further promote tolerance and dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups.

2) To further develop and expand human rights awareness-raising programs in the country.

Perhaps reflecting last-minute changes to incorporate a reference to the government’s use of lethal force against student protesters in Oromia last week, the version of Armenia’s statement originally uploaded to the UN website includes the words “New Version” in handwriting at the top.

Governments press Ethiopia to address inter-ethnic conflict, allow free expression, open up civil society
Governments raised a variety of important human rights issues, many of which directly concern the Oromo people, as reflected in our stakeholder report. (Click the country name to read the full text of the country’s statement.)

  • Violence and mistreatment by security forces
    • Costa Rica urged Ethiopia to take urgent measures to investigate torture and extrajudicial killings committed by the national defense forces of Ethiopia.
    • Finland and Montenegro recommended that Ethiopia ensure that is has clear, independent, and effective complaints mechanisms in place for individuals to raise allegations of mistreatment by security, military, and law enforcement authorities and prison officials.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to set up police and military training on human rights.
  • Forcible resettlement of farmers and pastoralists
    • Austria recommended that Ethiopia’s national human rights institutions be equipped with the resources and capacities needed to independently investigate, and provide appeals and redress for, alleged human rights violations in relation to the resettlement of communities through Ethiopia’s Commune Development Program. The United Kingdom also expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of abuses by special police in relation to relocation programs.
    • Bolivia encouraged Ethiopia to protect the rights of farmers and other rural workers.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to strengthen measures to ensure food security.
    • Malaysia and Thailand urged Ethiopia to step up efforts to improve health services, especially in rural areas.
    • Morocco recommended that Ethiopia ensure that all segments of society benefit from economic growth.
  • Ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution
    • Namibia urged Ethiopia to enhance the institutional and financial capacities of the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission to effectively carry out its mandate, especially with regard to its working relations with the Oromo, Ogaden, Gambella, and Somali communities.
    • The Holy See urged Ethiopia to improve its outreach to all ethnic communities to actively participate in the political process.
    • Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua urged the Ethiopian Government to combat racism, intolerance, and other forms of discrimination directed at vulnerable groups.
    • Burundi and the Holy See, like Armenia, recommended that Ethiopia expand activities to promote inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Canada made a similar recommendation to address inter-religious tensions.
    • Tunisia called on Ethiopia to address education discrimination, and Sudan recommended that Ethiopia expand primary education in students’ mother tongue.
    • Malaysia, the Maldives, and Namibia encouraged Ethiopia to improve the quality of education for children, especially in rural areas.
  • Freedom of expression and association for opposition political parties, human rights defenders
    • Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia fully implement its constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, expression, and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups, and non-governmental organizations.
    • Canada urged Ethiopia to fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists, and journalists from arbitrary detention. Estonia called on Ethiopia to end harassment of political opposition party members, journalists, and human rights defenders. Finland recommended that Ethiopia take further measures to ensure the safety and freedom of action of human rights defenders.
  • Restrictions on civil society, media; anti-terrorism measures
    • Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia abolish or amend its Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow non-governmental organizations to operate more effectively and to receive funding from outside the country.
    • Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland urged Ethiopia to narrow its definition of terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and exclude the practice of journalism from the definition, to ensure protections for freedom of expression and assembly, and to better allow non-governmental organizations to function. The United States called for Ethiopia to ensure that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is applied apolitically.
    • The Czech Republic also called on Ethiopia to immediately release all journalists detained for their professional activities, including the bloggers and journalists arrested in April 2014 and those jailed earlier, such as Mr. Nega and Ms Alemu.
    • Estonia, Ireland and South Korea urged Ethiopia to stop online censorship and respect freedom of the press. Ghana recommended that Ethiopia decriminalize defamation.
    • Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France encouraged Ethiopia to amend its Mass Media Proclamation to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
  • Due process and judicial independence
    • Botswana expressed concern about intimidation, harassment, threats, and firing of judges who resist political pressure, and called on Ethiopia to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
    • Switzerland called on Ethiopia to ensure the right to a fair trial.
  • Disappearances, torture in detention facilities
    • Argentina, France, Japan, Paraguay, and Tunisia recommended that the Ethiopian Government take further actions to address enforced disappearances, such as ratifying the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.
    • Austria and recommended that Ethiopia train all personnel in detention facilities to investigate and prosecute all alleged cases of torture. Paraguay and Spain also called for efforts to prevent torture in detention. The United Kingdom expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of mistreatment of prisoners. Bhutan and Russia recommended that Ethiopia improve prison conditions. Kyrgyzstan called on Ethiopia to add a definition of torture to its criminal code that includes all elements contained in the Convention Against Torture.
    • Hungary, Paraguay, and Tunisia urged Ethiopia to grant the Red Cross and other independent international mechanisms immediate, full, and genuine access to all detention facilities in Ethiopia, and Hungary expressed concern about allegations of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of detainees, including torture, rape, and prolonged incommunicado detention.

Recommendations to engage with UN Special Procedures

Some of the recommendations had to do with other United Nations procedures:

  • Ghana and Hungary, Japan, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Uruguay recommended that Ethiopia permit visits from all UN special procedures mandate-holders.
  • The United States called on Ethiopia to allow the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association to conduct a country visit, and the United Kingdom recommended that Ethiopia invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country.
  • Spain also urged Ethiopia to respond to individual communications from special procedures mandate-holders.

The Oromo diaspora may want to use some of these special procedures, described in more detail in our chapters of Paving Pathways on UN advocacy and capacity-building, to submit urgent action letters and request country visits to investigate the situation on the ground in Oromia.

What’s next?
The Ethiopian Government will have several months to examine the recommendations, but then it will have to say definitively whether it accepts or rejects each one. Civil society in Ethiopia, with support from the diaspora, can then lobby for implementation of any accepted recommendations. And the diaspora can engage in remote monitoring of rejected recommendations to continue to shed light on ongoing human rights violations.

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for advocacy at the United Nations specifically relating to the rights of children in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and July 1 is the deadline for civil society groups to share information with the human rights experts on the Committee on the Rights of the Child as they prepare for their 2015 review of Ethiopia. Oromos in the diaspora who are concerned about students in Oromia who are under age 18 and who have faced violence, threats, and arrests because of their participation in protests may want to engage in more systematic remote monitoring and then write a report to bring the issue to the attention of the Committee. They may also want to raise other human rights concerns relevant to children in Ethiopia.

Advocacy at the UN is a long process, but when governments stifle dissent and ignore civil society, sometimes international pressure can prompt incremental reforms. Persistent advocacy from diaspora groups is essential to the process.  The Oromo diaspora is up to the task. We know, after all, that the Oromo people are particularly talented distance runners and can run the marathon needed to improve human rights in Ethiopia.

This post is the second in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 1 describes the important role the Oromo diaspora is playing in remotely monitoring recent human rights developments in Ethiopia. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Members of the Oromo diaspora line up to share their ideas for showing support for the student protests in Oromia. Photo credit: Big Z, facebook: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10104545944303110&set=a.10104545941633460.1073741836.13914917&type=1&theater
Members of the Oromo diaspora line up to share their ideas for showing support for the student protests in Oromia. Photo credit: Big Z, facebook.

The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed yesterday afternoon. Twice we scooted our chairs forward to make room for the crowds at the back; our knees were pressed up against the backs of the chairs in front of us. And when community members took the microphone, we could hear a pin drop. People I spoke with said the turnout and show of unity were unprecedented. The Oromo diaspora in Minnesota was gathering together to develop strategies to show support for the student protests that have been breaking out over the past two weeks in their homeland.

Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo people are near and dear to my heart. I learned about them first-hand when I taught social studies for English Language Learners at Minneapolis South High School. Most of my ELL students were newly arrived refugees from Ethiopia. But many bristled at being called “Ethiopians.” They identified themselves as Oromos, and their homeland was Oromia—the largest of nine federal states in Ethiopia.

The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and there are Oromos in northern Kenya and parts of Somalia as well. Oromos speak Oromiffa, or Afan Oromo, a Cushitic language that shares approximately 35% of its vocabulary with Somali. Approximately 47% of Oromos are Muslim, and a similar percentage are Christian. As a civics teacher, I was fascinated to learn that the Oromo people had a sophisticated traditional system of democratic governance called the Gadaa system.

The Oromo people have long faced persecution from the Ethiopian Government and in Ethiopian society. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave teaching and become a human rights lawyer was to try to play a role in stemming the systematic human rights abuses that had driven my refugee students away from their homelands. The Advocates for Human Rights highlighted some of the persecution that Oromos face in a stakeholder report for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia, which takes place tomorrow in Geneva.

Oromo students are mobilizing for change in Oromia

Last month, the Ethiopian Government announced a controversial “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” The Ethiopian capital, which Oromos call Finfinnee, is surrounded by the state of Oromia. The Master Plan would expand the territory of Addis Ababa, annexing thousands of hectares of Oromia’s fertile agricultural lands, and then selling or leasing them to commercial agricultural enterprises.

Oromo students sounded the alarm about the Master Plan, recognizing that it would displace Oromo farmers and leave them without a livelihood or access to their traditional lands.

Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com. http://gadaa.com/oduu/25775/2014/05/02/breaking-news-oromoprotests-buraayyuu-oromiyaa/
Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com.

Students have been staging protests at 12 universities in Oromia. Last week, federal special forces opened fire on what seems to have been a peaceful student demonstration at Ambo University. The government has confirmed 11 fatalities, but people on the ground say the toll is closer to 50. The Ethiopian government asserts that the protests have been led by “anti-peace forces.”

One Oromo diasporan based in London told me that his sister fled Meda Welabu University in Oromia on Sunday after military forces took control from the local police and then began beating students. She saw one student killed.

Students in several universities have been under lock-down, ordered confined to their dormitory rooms and not allowed to leave campus. There are reports that officers come through the dorms at night and arrest people. One female student leader is being kept incommunicado, raising concerns that she is being ill-treated. At transportation check-points, officials check passengers’ identification and detain people with student IDs. Students who have fled are not allowed back on campus.

Getting the word out: The power of remote monitoring
Ethiopia has one of the most restrictive governments in the world. There are no independent local media organizations. No Ethiopian non-governmental organizations work openly on controversial human rights issues, and international human rights groups have been expelled from the country.

In these circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to safely conduct human rights monitoring on the ground. Oromos in the diaspora have expressed frustration that major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been silent about the protests.

Remote human rights monitoring is a critical tool for diaspora communities like the Oromo who want to show support for and solidarity with human rights defenders on the ground in their countries of origin. In 2009, The Advocates published a report based on a remote fact-finding project here in Minnesota called Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora. The report has been used for advocacy at the United Nations and in support of applications for asylum. In our new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, we expanded on the human rights monitoring we did with the Oromo diaspora to develop an entire chapter on remote monitoring strategies.

Oromo diaspora mobilizes to conduct remote monitoring
Over the past two weeks, the Oromo diaspora has mobilized to shine an international spotlight on the protests. Like many diaspora groups, Oromos outside of Ethiopia maintain contacts with friends and family “back home,” some of whom have been victims of police violence or have witnessed events. Through telephone calls, text messages, email, and social media, Oromos in the diaspora have their fingers on the pulse of the student protest movement in Oromia.

Oromos in Minnesota held a candlelight vigil to remember the Oromo protesters who were killed last week.
Oromos in Minnesota held a candlelight vigil to remember the Oromo protesters who were killed last week.

The Oromo diaspora has been buzzing on social media, quickly adopting the #OromoProtests hashtag to allow people around the world to follow and contribute to the remote monitoring process. People are posting photos of victims on twitter and uploading video of some of the demonstrations to YouTube. The Oromos I’ve talked to have also recommended following certain prominent Oromos on facebook and twitter who have the trust of Oromos on the ground and feed them breaking news. Ayantu Tibeso has compiled a list on facebook of ways that diasporans can support the Oromo protests and get involved in raising awareness. Paving Pathways includes an appendix on effective human rights advocacy using social media platforms, and the Oromo diaspora is deploying many of these tactics. I’ll be using one of my favorite social media strategies—live tweeting—during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia tomorrow morning.

The Oromo diaspora also has more traditional media, including the newly launched Oromia Media Network, Oromo Voice Radio, as well as diaspora blogs and news websites like Gadaa.com, Ayyantuu News Online, and O-Pride. These media have helped consolidate information into useful posts, first-hand accounts, and broadcasts for people who are unable to keep up with the flurry of activity on twitter, facebook, and YouTube. And they have started a more systematic effort to verify reports of deaths and injuries, maintaining lists of victims and connecting photos with dates and locations.

The diaspora’s efforts are beginning to get traction with mainstream media, with some initial coverage from the BBC, Voice of America, Think Africa Press, and an editorial piece in Al Jazeera America. Human Rights Watch just published a statement. A Minnesota-based radio program called Reflections of New Minnesotans just released a podcast of a show it did with two members of the Oromo diaspora talking about recent developments in Oromia.

Oromo youths prepared a video showing photos and YouTube clips of the Oromo student protests and government crack-down.
Oromo youths prepared a video showing photos and YouTube clips of the Oromo student protests and government crack-down for the Oromo Community of Minnesota forum on Sunday.

Momentum is building, and Oromos in the diaspora are pressing mainstream media and human rights organizations to raise visibility on the issues. They’re planning protests around the world on Friday, May 9. But diasporans who want to pitch stories and lobby policymakers will need to undertake careful remote monitoring to find receptive audiences. With the restrictions on civil society in Ethiopia, reporters, lawmakers, human rights organizations outside of the country will need to work with the Oromo diaspora to verify sources and confirm reports coming out of Oromia.

This post is the first in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 2  highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts in this series:

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skies

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.”

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:

  • Showing sympathy and support for LGBTI Russians
  • Getting the “gay propaganda” law repealed
  • Stopping violence and persecution based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Holding perpetrators of violence and persecution accountable

Our Discover Human Rights training addresses in greater detail how to identify goals and the steps to achieve them.

Tactical map Photo credit: aniquenyc, flickr
A tactical mapping exercise
Photo credit: aniquenyc, flickr

Step 4: Use tactical mapping

In looking at these goals and strategies, we need to figure out who we need to influence, such as:

  • Concerned individuals and groups around the world
  • Russian lawmakers
  • Russian civil society
  • Russian courts
  • Russian law enforcement officials and prosecutors
  • Companies that do business in Russia

How do proposed strategies measure up?

August 2013 protest in Berlin calling for boycott of the Sochi Olympics Photo Credit Adam Groffman, flickr
August 2013 protest in Berlin calling for boycott of the Sochi Olympics
Photo Credit: Adam Groffman, flickr

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:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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 404deti@gmail.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.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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:

“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.

ch10 european courtEven 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.

UN flags_HighRes-25. 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:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Ludovic Bertron, Wikimedia Commons (modified).

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

LGBT_activist_attacked_in_St.-Petersburg

When I was in high school, U.S.-Soviet “space bridges” were popular: a studio audience of Americans would connect up live with a studio audience in the USSR, and they’d pose each other questions with assistance from celebrity hosts like Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner. In July 1986, during a “women to women” space bridge between Boston and Leningrad, a middle-aged Boston woman asked the Soviet audience whether their TV commercials were sexually suggestive, as American ads were. In Leningrad, a blonde woman took the microphone and responded solemnly: “Cекса y нас нет, и мы категорически против этого.” (“There is no sex here, and we are categorically opposed to it.”) You can watch the exchange here:


Her response prompted howls of laughter from others in the Leningrad audience, but the phrase stuck. Even today, you can hear Russians repeat the saying, “In the USSR there is no sex.”

So in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, when the mayor of Sochi proclaimed, “У нас в городе геев нет,” (“In our city there are no gays,”) I’m sure plenty of Russian speakers joined me in a nostalgic chuckle. Russians have long been a bit prudish on matters of sex. But Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda” reflects more than mere prudishness. It is part of a concerted effort to deny the very existence of Russians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI). And some Russians have taken it upon themselves to actively and openly persecute people who are LGBTI, or who support LGBTI rights.

Times have changed

When I lived in Moscow, from 1990-1992, LGBTI people were generally left alone. One of my good friends, a gay American studying at Moscow State University, wore a pink triangle pin all the time and never faced any negative repercussions. “No one ever bothered me for the triangle or for being gay,” he recalled. “In fact, it seems harder to be gay in Russia now than it was then. Sure it was all sort of underground, but people weren’t all whipped up like they are these days.”

Indeed, much has changed since then. In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. But in recent years, “anti-gay sentiment has exploded in Russia . . . , fed by economic woes, government corruption, and crumbling infrastructures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After the Russian Duma passed laws last summer prohibiting “gay propaganda” and banning some international adoptions to countries that recognize marriage equality, LGBTI advocates in Russia reported a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence.

Vigilante violence incited

Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons
Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square
Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons

The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has fueled private acts of violence directed at government critics, as well as at LGBTI people and their allies. In Sochi on Wednesday, for example, as members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot prepared to perform, a group of men surrounded and attacked them with traditional Cossack whips. (A Duma member from the Zabaikalsk region of Siberia recently called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.) Pussy Riot has long been critical of the Putin government and has spoken out against the gay propaganda law.

Although the popular Russian social media site В Kонтакте (VK.com)–especially the VK-based online LGBTI teen support group Дети-404 (Deti-404)–can be a lifeline for gay youth, homophobic harassment is commonplace on the site.

With the help of VK and other social media, and spurred by prominent Russians like Putin who repeatedly conflate gay people with child molesters, Russian neo-Nazi groups and other gangs have taken it upon themselves to go on “safaris” to “hunt” gays. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released this graphic, disturbing video explaining how some of the vigilante groups operate:

Occupy Pedophilia, one of the neo-Nazi groups featured in the video, claims to have 30 branches and to have kidnapped and assaulted nearly 1,500 gay Russians over the last 18 months. The group asserts that it is targeting child molesters, but most of its targets are young gay men, and anti-gay rhetoric and symbols feature prominently in the group’s attacks. According to the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, the group uses VK to target teenagers who reply to same-sex personal advertisements. Group members beat up and humiliate their victims, and then question them about their sex lives; despite the group’s purported interest in tracking down pedophiles, they never make references to children in these videotaped interrogations. The group coordinates its attacks and recruits new members through VK, where it has over 90,000 followers and regularly uploads videos showing victims being violently attacked and humiliated. YouTube returns over 23,000 search results for the group.

An ABC news broadcast last week focused on another group that calls itself “Morality Patrol,” which uses a roaming van to videotape people coming and going from a gay bar in Moscow. Then, there’s another group, called “God’s Will,” which calls for gays to be stoned to death.

And there have been other troubling acts of vigilante violence:

Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko
Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
  • At her first gay pride parade in 2011, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko was punched in the skull, causing her to partially lose her hearing. The police detective assigned to her case, who has seen a video of the attack and knows the name of her assailant, asked her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street?”
  • On the subway escalator after the attack, members of “God’s Will” caught Kostyuchenko’s girlfriend in a headlock and punched her five times in the face.
  • In May 2013, a young man in Volgograd was allegedly raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed after he came out to a group of friends.
  • In June 2013, a gay man was kicked and stabbed to death by a group of friends in Kamchatka; they then burned his body.

“The latest laws against so-called gay propaganda, first in the regions and then on the federal level, have essentially legalised violence against LGBT people, because these groups of hooligans justify their actions with these laws,” Igor Kotchekov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, recently told the Guardian. “[This vigilante violence] is an action to terrorise the entire LGBT community.”

Violent vigilantes enjoy impunity

These Russian anti-gay vigilante groups operate openly, and even post videos of their exploits on social media sites, but Russian authorities don’t seem to take the violence seriously. On the eve of the start of the Sochi Olympics, BBC Channel Four released “Hunted,” a 50-minute documentary about these vigilante groups. The Russian embassy in London lashed out, calling the film part of a “well-engineered campaign of slander” and “hate propaganda” designed to damage Russia’s reputation just before the games.  In noting that the head of Occupy Pedophilia had been arrested and charged with extremism, the embassy appeared to defend the group, saying, “As its name suggests, [it] targets only paedophiles both straight and gay.”

Occupy Pedophilia groups have “so far enjoyed almost total impunity for their treatment of homosexuals. None has been prosecuted and the group even appears to have tacit official support. Edited versions of the gang’s videos have even been broadcast on a local television station.”

(U.S. extremists are also coming to Russia’s defense. Scott Lively, who campaigned for propaganda laws in Russia and other countries, called the Human Rights Watch video a “hoax,” asserting that LGBTI “activists are masters of public deception.”)

In Russia, victims of vigilante violence fear reporting these attacks to the police, knowing they may face even more violence at the hands of law enforcement, and fearing that filing a report will “out” them to family, colleagues, neighbors, or employers. And when they do report the attacks, police dismiss them and say the victims brought the violence upon themselves. According to Kochetkov, of 20 homophobic attacks that were recently reported to the police in Russia, only “four were investigated and only one resulted in a court case.” One attorney representing a victim of a homophobic attack reported that she and her client were attacked by a group of skinheads as they tried to enter the courthouse: “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”

“Gay propaganda” law prompts more Russians to join the vigilante bandwagon

Citizen “complaints” fuel much of Russian authorities’ enforcement of the propaganda law:

  • Timur Isaev trolls social media and uses a videocamera to identify LGBTI people and then report them to authorities. He specializes in tracking down LGBTI teachers, outing them, and getting them fired. He also targets teachers who are LGBTI allies. He also stalked a support group for LGBTI families online, and then reported an upcoming meeting to the police, suspecting a minor would be present. He even tracked down a 14-year-old girl in the small town of Dyatkova after she held a solo demonstration against the propaganda law, and reported her to her school’s principal. The girl was disciplined by a government commission, which threatened to take her to court if she continued to express her views in public. Isaev boasts that he has contacted relatives and school principals of more than a dozen openly LGBTI teens.
  • Vitali Milonov, a local St. Petersburg lawmaker, filed several complaints with authorities about Deti-404 online support group founder Elena Klimova, who faced a potential fine of 100,000 rubles and a shut-down of her site. A district court acquitted her this morning, but Milonov has vowed to appeal the decision.
  • A teenager in Arkhangelsk complained to authorities after seeing online images of an activist’s protest in Kazan, over 1,000 kilometers away. The teenager said he was prompted by his father, who was bitter because his wife had left him for another woman. The activist was fined 4,000 rubles.
  • A group of parents in Smolensk is charging their children’s school with violating the propaganda law because a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds last Friday encouraged her students to make Valentine’s Day cards for each other, and said that it didn’t matter whether the recipients were boys or girls.

And in the Khabarovsk region, a parent group complained to their school about a new 6th grade student who was “unusual” and “acted gay.” The parents asked the school to intervene and cease the 12-year-old boy’s “sexual harassment”–even though he had never done anything to any other student. The day after the parent group raised the issue in a meeting with the student’s homeroom teacher, the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school. Similar incidents are reported in other rural schools in Russia, according to Khabarovsk Commissioner for Children’s Rights Svetlana Zhukova.

This post is the fourth 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 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

For information about vigilante violence directed at LGBTI people in Cameroon, read The Advocates’ shadow report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and these related posts:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Roma Yandolin, Wikimedia Commons

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

RainbowFLASH

Update: Great news! A district court in Nizhni Tagil acquitted Elena Klimova on charges of violating Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, according to a report this morning from Deti-404.

In the court hearing, Klimova’s attorney, Maria Kozlovskaya, presented an expert opinion that Deti-404 does not contain information that “promotes non-traditional sexual relations,” and that in fact the site helps LGBTI teenagers cope with their feelings. Kozlovskaya, an attorney for the Russian LGBT Network, that the law contradicts “Russia’s international obligations and, as it was proved by the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, consolidates discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and violates the freedom of speech.”

“. . . [S]ometimes common sense wins,” Klimova said, expressing her relief.

Vitali Milonov, the St. Petersburg deputy who called for Klimova to be charged under the law, announced on Twitter that he will appeal the court’s decision. In a statement on Facebook, the Deti-404 team responded: “The Deti-404 project will continue to work regardless of any attack on us. Only one reason can serve as a pretext for closing the project – complete overcoming of homophobia in Russia and the cessation of harassment of LGBT teens. We hope that such a time will surely come!”

Original post:

In 2010, in response to an alarming escalation in the number of students in the United States committing suicide after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage and his then-partner (now husband) Terry Miller created a YouTube video with a message of hope for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people facing harassment.

Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr
Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr

Savage and Miller launched the It Gets Better Project as a way for supporters around the world to use social media to record and share video messages telling LGBTI youth that, yes, it does indeed get better.

LGBTI youth in all corners of the world can feel isolated and alone, lacking support from peers, teachers, and frequently even their own families. These young people can often find solace and support on the internet, whether by watching It Gets Better Project videos, joining Facebook support groups, tweeting about their experiences, or joining anonymous chat rooms where they can talk with other LGBTI youth.

Youth suicide in Russia is a chronic problem; rates are three times the world average, and Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe. Russia’s law banning gay propaganda strikes at the very heart of critical lifelines for vulnerable LGBTI youth.

From Sochi to Social Media: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Free Expression

Despite President Putin’s assurances that LGBTI visitors to the Olympics could “feel free,” on Sunday Russian authorities detained Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender activist and former member of the Italian Parliament, after she held up a sign in Olympic Park saying “Gay is Okay” in Russian. Upon her arrival in Sochi, she tweeted:

On Monday, Luxuria was again detained, this time as she attempted to enter an arena to watch an Olympic hockey game. She was wearing a rainbow-colored outfit and had been shouting, “It’s okay to be gay.” Four men who were not wearing identification surrounded her and shouted, “Take her away.” They placed her in a car with Olympic markings, stripped Luxuria of her Olympic spectator pass, and dumped her in the countryside about a 10-minute drive from the arena. She has since been asked to leave the country.

Luxuria’s detention and de facto deportation are particularly troubling in light of the International Olympic Committee’s assertion that it “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [anti-LGBTI propaganda] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Luxuria’s case just the latest in a series of detentions and prosecutions under the new propaganda law:

  • In December, authorities in Arkhangelsk found Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko guilty of violating the law for holding up banners in front of a children’s library reading: “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” They were fined 4,000 rubles and their appeal was denied.
  • Russian LGBTI activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan and was fined 4,000 rubles in January after a teenager saw photos of Isakov’s protest online and filed a complaint.
  • In late January, a court in Khabarovsk fined newspaper editor Alexander Suturin 50,000 rubles for publishing an interview with an openly gay teacher.
  • In January, a government commission threatened to take a 14-year-old girl to court after she held a one-person picket in the town of Kyatkova to protest the propaganda law. The commission subsequently dropped the case, but the girl remains fearful that authorities will reinstate proceedings against her.
  • A juvenile court in the city of Bryansk found a 9th grade girl in violation of the law for admitting her sexual orientation in front of her classmates. She was reportedly hospitalized after suffering a severe head injury at the hands of her father.
  • On the day before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, ten LGBTI activists were arrested in Moscow after holding rainbow flags and singing the Russian national anthem. Four others were arrested for a similar demonstration the same day in St. Petersburg.
  • At the same time, however, police allowed an anti-gay demonstration in Sochi to proceed, despite a ban on demonstrations in the Olympic host city.
  • In January, police arrested a young man named Pavel Lebedev for waving a rainbow flag as the relay brought the Olympic torch through Voronezh.

Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Дети-404, Russia’s “It Gets Better Project”

Perhaps the most troubling investigation, however, is that of Elena Klimova, 25, founder of a social media support group for LGBTI teenagers called “Дети-404. ЛГБТ подростки. Мы есть!” (Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Klimova started Deti-404 last year after a 15-year-old lesbian named Nadya from a small town in Russia reached out to her. Klimova is a journalist, and she had posted a column to a news website expressing her dismay about the draft propaganda law. Nadya, who faced ruthless bullying at school and didn’t have support from her mother, contacted Klimova to thank her for the column, saying that it had helped keep her from committing suicide.

After speaking with Nadya, Klimova wondered why nobody was doing anything to help LGBTI youth in Russia: “Many of them close in on themselves, they don’t tell anyone. They are scared of parents and classmates. If they open up, parents sometimes beat them, insult them, throw them out, take away their phones, ban them from going on the internet and even lock them up in a psychiatric clinic.”

Klimova set up Deti-404 as an online support group for LGBTI youth. The name of the group is a play on the familiar internet message “Error 404, Page Not Found,” suggesting that LGBTI youth are unable to be visible in Russia.  On the Russian social networking site В Kонтакте (VK), Deti-404’s closed group for LGBTI youth had nearly 2,000 members as of last September, and the open group now has over 20,000 supporters. Deti-404’s parallel Facebook site has over 3,900 likes, and a supporter in the United Kingdom has started a blog posting English translations of Deti-404 posts.

"I refuse to be invisible" Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons
“I refuse to be invisible!”
Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons

Deti-404’s main approach is a photo campaign. LGBTI youth are invited to send in photographs, drawings, or other images, along with personal testimony about their experiences coming out, falling in love, or facing stigma and discrimination. To date, the site has published more than 1,000 letters from LGBTI youth. Klimova and her team also provide teenagers with contact information for LGBTI-friendly psychologists.

On January 31, 2014, Russian authorities launched proceedings against Klimova for violations of the propaganda law. Russian LGBTI teenagers turned to Deti-404 to express their support for Klimova and their fears that authorities would shut down Deti-404, including these posts:

Я только нашла эту группу (долго я искала=)), только нормально поверила, что смогу принять себя как человека, и тут такое… Без боя свой кусочек свободы не отдам!

I just found this group (I looked for a long time =)), and I just began to believe that I could accept myself as a person, and now this happens. . . I won’t give up my piece of freedom without a fight!

Если закроют и это место, где я впервые почувствовала себя хоть немного свободной – Капут. Как можно то… У меня не укладывается это в голове. Поддерживаю, бедная Лена…

If they shut down this site, where I for the first time felt a little free – kaput. How could they . . . I can’t wrap my head around it. I support you, poor Elena…

This post is the third 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 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo of a Rainbow Flashmob in St. Petersburg on the 2009 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, courtesy Воскресенский Пётр, Wikimedia Commons.

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists Are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Moscow_Pride_2010_(Family)

On June 30, 2013, just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decisions in favor of marriage equality in Windsor and Perry, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law Federal Law 135, which bans propaganda to minors about “non-traditional sexual relations.”

Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law "On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development," and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values
Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law “On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development,” and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values

For several years, opponents of marriage equality in the United States have turned their attention overseas, to places like Uganda, Nigeria, and Russia, where their rhetoric about “traditional family values” and their lies conflating homosexuality with sexual abuse of children appear to have found receptive audiences. Today, as the last days of the Sochi Olympics approach, and as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni prepares to sign into law a bill that would impose punishments of up to life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” it’s important to examine Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, its effect on children, and the origins of Russia’s law and others like it.

It Gets Worse: Russia’s Propaganda Law Targets Civil Society Groups that Support LGBTI Youth

Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)
Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)

Russia’s propaganda law is designed to isolate LGBTI youth in Russia from all possible sources of support, driving them deeper into the closet and ensuring that they won’t be able to see or hear any information that could suggest anything positive about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Article 3(2)(b) of Federal Law 135 imposes administrative fines and, in the case of non-citizens, deportation, for:

Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, including distribution of information that intends minors to adopt non-traditional sexual orientations, that makes non-traditional sexual relations attractive, that presents distorted conceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or that imposes information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest in these relations.

This language is just as vague in Russian as it is in my English translation. But what’s not vague are the penalties, which show that the law’s real targets are civil society organizations and individuals who use the internet to reach out to and support Russian LGBTI youth:

  • Russian citizens: fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles ($114-$142), or enhanced penalties of 50,000-100,000 rubles ($1,419-$2,839) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Russian administrative officials: fines of 40,000-50,000 rubles ($1,140-$1,420), or enhanced penalties of 100,000-200,000 rubles ($2,839-$5,677) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Legal entities (businesses, non-governmental organizations): fines of 800,000-1,000,000 rubles ($22,710-$28,387) or suspension of activities for up to 90 days, or enhanced penalties of 1,000,000 rubles ($28,387) or suspension of business activities for up to 90 days for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Non-citizens: fines and penalties identical to those for Russian citizens, but also administrative deportation and /or administrative arrest for up to 15 days.

The vague language describing the prohibited conduct and the steep fines that escalate for individuals who distribute their “propaganda” on the internet are designed to chill speech and stifle any efforts to provide support to LGBTI youth in Russia.

Some observers have noted that eight states in the United States have laws prohibiting classroom instruction that portrays homosexuality in a positive light. But Russia’s law is much broader in scope, prohibiting everything from gay pride parades to online support groups.

“Leave the Children Alone”: Harming Children under the Pretext of Protecting Them

In attempting to reassure Olympians, coaches, and other visitors to Russia about the new law, President Putin announced in January that LGBTI people “can feel free” in Sochi, as long as they “leave the children alone.” As insinuated by Putin’s comment, and by the text of the law itself, the pretext for the law is the protection of children. As such, the law is grounded in three fundamental misconceptions and lies:

  1. Being gay is a choice
  2. LGBTI adults “recruit” young people
  3. Gay people are pedophiles

The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child is the first treaty body to review Russia’s human rights record since it adopted the propaganda law last year. On January 31, the committee issued its Concluding Observations from that review, condemning the propaganda law and related policies as violating the rights of Russia’s children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The committee urged Russia to repeal the propaganda law, noting that it “encourages stigmatization and discrimination against LGBTI persons, including children, and children of LGBTI families” and “leads to the targeting and ongoing persecution of the country’s LGBTI community, including abuse and violence, in particular against underage LGBTI activists.” The committee called on Russia to “ensure that children who belong to LGBTI groups or children of LGBTI families are not subjected to any forms of discrimination” and to “take urgent measures to prevent bullying of LGBTI children in schools by educating children and school staff and punishing the perpetrators accordingly.”

Scott Lively’s “Greatest Success”

Just a few days after the Russian Duma (parliament) unanimously passed the propaganda law last June, a delegation of U.S. and French anti-gay activists traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Duma. The U.S. delegates included Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. Brown was there to testify in favor of a bill that would tighten Russia’s laws governing international adoptions, prohibiting international adoptions by same-sex couples and by single people living in countries that recognize marriage equality. The adoption ban passed five days later, and the Russian government just last week officially implemented that law.

Last October, Brown, along with Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries, and several other Americans who had led the fight against LGBTI rights in the United States, was back in Moscow to plan for the World Congress of Families VIII, scheduled for September 2014 in Moscow. At least 14 American conservative leaders have lobbied Russian lawmakers to support the propaganda law and adoption legislation. The Illinois-based World Congress of Families has staff in Russia who have been actively lobbying in favor of the latest anti-gay laws in Russia.

Lively is no stranger to Russia. Nearly a decade ago, he gave up on fighting against LGBTI rights in the United States, setting his sights on Russia, Uganda, and “other countries in the world that are still culturally conservative to warn them . . .  and to help put barriers in place.” In 2006 and 2007, he conducted a 50-city tour of the former Soviet Union. In 2006, prior to Lively’s tour, the Duma had overwhelmingly rejected a bill similar to Federal Law 135.

Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012. Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012.
Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

The purpose of Lively’s tour, as he explained in his 2007 Letter to the Russian People, “was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement,” which he described as “a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it.”

During the tour, Lively called on Russians to “criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. . . . [H]omosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never [be] publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage ‘gay pride’ parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.”

Several regional governments in Russia adopted Lively’s proposed propaganda bans before the federal law took effect last June. Lively recently boasted: “My greatest success, in terms of my own personal strategy, is Russia.” He told Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association that the Russian law was one of his “proudest achievements.”

A key chapter in Lively’s worldwide playbook is the argument that lawmakers need to protect families from Western gays who are attempting to recruit their children. In his book, Redeeming the Rainbow, Lively advises opponents of gay rights to fight back against sympathy toward gays by emphasizing child recruitment and rape.

"Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia" Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
“Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia” Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

It’s probably no coincidence that in October 2013, during Lively’s last visit to Moscow, the Duma began consideration of a bill that would add sexual orientation as a ground for terminating parental rights. The Duma postponed consideration of the bill in the run-up to the Olympics, but observers predict it will be back before legislators as soon as international attention on Russia fades.

Another pernicious U.S. export to Russia is the discredited 2012 study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus. His study included only two respondents who were even arguably raised by same-sex parents, and more than 200 sociologists signed a letter criticizing Regnerus’ methodology. The American Sociological Association submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Windsor case thoroughly examining the flaws in Regnerus’ work.

Lawmakers backing Russia’s bill to terminate parental rights on the basis of sexual orientation cited the study in support of the proposition that parenting by LGBTI people is dangerous, despite Regnerus’ objections to the legislation. Last June, the Regnerus study also played an important role in the Duma’s decision to pass the propaganda law and the law restricting international adoptions. Although Regnerus has refused to give an interview to the New York Times, he did an interview last year with a Russian-language news agency in Ukraine, which profiled him in an article titled “First shocking scientific facts published about the families of homosexuals,” concluding that Regnerus’ study amounted to “shocking” evidence showing the “tragic results” of same-sex parenting on children.

Lively has expanded on his work in Russia and Uganda to include Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine, all with the goal of encouraging the adoption of laws to block the open expression of homosexuality, keep discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity legal, and make pro-gay advocacy a crime.

Lively is being sued under the Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The suit, brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, with the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges that Lively’s active participation in a conspiracy to strip away fundamental rights from LGBTI persons in Uganda constitutes persecution.

This post is the second 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 3 will explore how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo credit: Wikimedia Commons