Shadow Foreign Minister Kerry McCarthy writes for PinkNews.co.uk on why Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalites, Maria Miller, has to raise the issue of LGBT rights when she travels to Sochi for the Winter Games.
This year’s LGBT History month seems particularly poignant. We can celebrate the progress towards equality in the UK, but we cannot ignore the worrying steps backward elsewhere.
Over the past few months we have seen the Ugandan Parliament vote for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill; the Nigerian President sign the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill into law; and the Indian Supreme Court re-criminalise homosexuality. Threats to LGBT activists continue in countries such as Cameroon and Belize. Even in Australia, the Supreme Court has ruled that the legalisation of same-sex marriages in Canberra falls foul of federal law.
But this week the spotlight is on Russia. The Sochi Winter Olympics, which open on Friday, will, I hope, be a spectacular sporting occasion and the pinnacle of some athletes’ careers. And yet Russia’s deteriorating human rights record and particularly President Putin’s suppression of the rights of LGBT people mean Sochi has been one of the most controversial choices of host city.
Last year, Russia passed a law prohibiting the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. Moscow has banned Pride for 100 years, despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling that an earlier ban was illegal. The government has banned the adoption of Russian children by foreign same-sex couples, or by single people from countries that permit same-sex marriages. LGBT groups have been targeted by the “foreign agents” law, as part of efforts to censor NGOs, denying activists freedom of association or expression.
And many activists within Russia are claiming that the government’s actions are encouraging homophobia on the streets, with gay people suffering violent attacks and tragic homophobic murders.
Sadly, the title of tonight’s Channel 4 Dispatches on the reality of life for gay people in Russia – “Hunted” – could not be more apt. It exposes the vigilante gangs that wreak fear and violence with impunity. I attended a preview screening and it makes difficult but important viewing for foreign governments and for the International Olympic Committee.
It also shows why it is so important for protestors gathering tonight in London and other cities as part of a Global Speak Out to show solidarity with the Russian LGBT community, demonstrating to President Putin (as well as the IOC and the Olympics sponsors) that the global community stands united against discrimination.
Labour has repeatedly called on the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to challenge President Putin, to leave him in no doubt that Russia’s rejection of LGBT rights is in violation of international law, of the Olympic ideal, and of basic human decency. The responsibility now falls to Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who will be leading the UK’s Winter Olympics delegation.
David Cameron has failed to follow President Obama’s lead, who has made a point of including prominent gay sports stars in the USA’s official delegation, but Maria Miller is also the Minister for Equalities who sponsored the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act through Parliament. So, when the Secretary of State for Sport attends the Opening Ceremony and meets with Russian dignitaries, representing everyone in the UK and everything the UK stands for, she must be a proud and vociferous advocate for equalities.
Gloria De Piero, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Equalities, and I have written to Maria Miller, calling on her to meet with LGBT activists in Russia, to challenge representatives of the Russian Government and to work with LGBT and human rights organisations to develop stronger links with Russian activists.
We have also pointed out that it is not good enough for Foreign Office travel advice to simply state that it is “unclear” how Russia’s discriminatory laws will be applied to British visitors. The government should be using every opportunity to challenge the law and its application to citizens of any country. This means that LGBT equality must be high on the agenda for Sochi. And it must not be forgotten when the Winter Olympics is over. 2014 is the UK-Russian year of culture, and we must use this too to take the same stand against discrimination and bigotry.
Indeed, human rights issues, including LGBT rights, should be a common theme raised in our dealings with the Russian Government, not just through so-called ‘cultural diplomacy’ but when we send trade delegations, or when our leaders meet at official summits too. And the Tory MPs who sit with President Putin’s MPs in the same group on the Council of Europe could also play their part.
I wish all Britain’s Olympians and Paralympians all the best for a successful and enjoyable Games. But President Putin needs to know that the world is watching more than the sporting arenas. The Olympic spirit of “friendship, solidarity and fair play”, its message of equality and diversity, must prevail.
Kerry McCarthy is Labour’s Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Minister for Human Rights and the Member of Parliament for Bristol East.