Writing exclusively for PinkNews.co.uk, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander urges Britain to use the Council of Europe as a forum to encourage Russia to respect gay rights in the run to the 2014 Winter Olympics – and says “David Cameron needs to press President Putin on this as a matter of urgency.”
As the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics approach, there is a risk the Games are remembered more for international condemnation of the Russian Government’s policies than simply for public praise for the Olympic athletes.
The upcoming Games have rightly sharpened the world’s focus on the treatment of sexual minorities and protection of equal rights within Russia.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993. In recent years however, it seems that Russia is moving in the wrong direction on the issue of gay and minority rights for its citizens.
For the past eight years the authorities in Moscow have turned down all requests for Gay Pride to take place in the city. Last year a court ruling banned the march not just for this year, but for the next 100 years.
While in 1993 homosexuality may have been decriminalised, in 2013 the Russian Parliament passed a law which many have described as seeking to ban the “promotion” of homosexual relations to children under-18.
It’s true that laws of this nature are not unfamiliar, including to us here in the UK. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 banned on the promotion of homosexuality in maintained schools in the UK. Labour took a stand to repeal it in the face of strong opposition in 2003.
Some may argue that this simply proves that Russia is simply a decade behind the UK in respect of gay and minority rights.
The truth is that at a time when other countries across Europe are making huge progress on equal rights, including gay marriage, Russia risks going backwards even by its own standards.
The bill sadly signposts a growing hostility towards the rights of LGBT people in Russia today.
But in reality, the problem isn’t limited to anti-LGBT legislation. The treatment of minorities in Russia today should be an issue of grave concern to us all.
In 2012 a law was passed requiring NGOs which receive funding from outside Russia to register as “foreign agents”. To date, this legislation has been actively used against LGBT campaigners – two NGOs – the Side by Side Film Festival and Coming Out – were fined in St Petersburg for not registering as “foreign agents”. But the risks of it being used as a device to target and penalise other minority groups within Russia is real and concerning.
Britain isn’t just a bystander to this.
When it comes to the Winter Olympics, comments by the Russian Sports Minster saying that everyone had to abide by the country’s laws, and apparent confirmation by the Russian Interior Minister that Russia will enforce its anti-gay laws against athletes in Sochi, are deeply concerning. David Cameron needs to press President Putin on this as a matter of urgency.
With the spotlight falling on countries hosting international sporting forums like the Winter Games this can allow issues to be raised on to the diplomatic agenda, but they are not the only forum for seeking to address people’s growing concerns.
One such diplomatic forum where Britain could be doing more to push the issue of gay rights in Russia is the Council of Europe – the non-EU body promoting cooperation between all European nations.
This provides a vital arena where Britain can take a lead in highlighting the areas where Russia has to make more progress on human rights and freedom of speech, and in doing so, increase pressure on the Russian Government to change its approach.
The Council of Europe was once the body which the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union yearned to join after the collapse of Communism in 1989.
In past years it has been a forum for encouraging the democratisation of ex-Soviet states.
Today its role extends beyond this.
It represents a key forum for the UK to focus global attention on the areas of Russia’s human rights legislation which need reform, and to encourage other country delegations to do likewise.
Alongside diplomatic initiatives, international pressure from NGOs, and individuals can play an extremely important role in supporting equal rights campaigners and raising their concerns directly with the Russian authorities.
The recent G20 summit hosted by Russia in the city of St Petersburg was an important opportunity to do this. President Obama used the summit to meet with LGBT activists, and he made the case clearly to President Putin that if Russia wants to be a global citizen then it has to create “a space for civil society”.
The suppression of gay rights in Russia is a tragedy for many of that country’s citizens. That alone is reason to protest.
But many in Russia today fear is that the targeting of gay and bisexuals by government represents a broader set of challenges that the country today faces in terms of the rights and protections of its citizens as a whole.
That is why today it is vital that Britain use the run up to the Winter Olympics to make clear their opposition to the blatant and unacceptable discrimination against homosexuals, not just because of what it means for one community within Russia, but because of what it says about Russia as a country and the direction that it today seems to be heading in.
Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South