A Global Look at Gay Rights: ‘The Fight against Discrimination Must Go On’
SEXUALITIES, 8 Apr 2013
Boris Dittrich, head of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy at Human Rights Watch, discusses the current debates on same-sex marriage in Europe and the United States and virulent homophobia in Russia and Uganda.
Boris Dittrich, the 57-year-old advocacy director for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch in New York, has been involved in policies boosting the standing of same-sex relationships since early on in his political career. As a member of parliament in the Netherlands for more than 12 years, he was not only one of the first openly gay men to serve in office, but also the person responsible for legislation that made Holland the first country in the world to introduce full-fledged same-sex marriage.
Dittrich’s work on human rights has taken him to many corners of the world, including Russia, which has been plagued by institutionalized homophobia and violence against gay men and lesbian women over the past decade, and countries in Eastern Europe that have failed to develop the progressive policies seen in many Western European countries. Dittrich recently announced he would relocate from New York to Berlin, the city from which he will base his advocacy work on behalf of LGBT issues beginning in May.
SPIEGEL ONLINE recently caught up with Dittrich and discussed anti-gay legislation heading toward approval in Russian parliament, protests over the French government’s efforts to elevate same-sex marriage to the same status as heterosexual pairings and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own opposition to calls for similar action in her country.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Dittrich, as head of the Human Rights Watch program on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) affairs, you will soon be moving to Berlin. What will your main points of focus be here?
Dittrich: Largely Eastern Europe, with a special focus on Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Russia has been a focal point for discrimination LGBT people in the past year. Ten regions have adopted legislation forbidding what they describe as pro-homosexual propaganda. Similar legislation is pending in six regions.
Dittrich: More troubling is that the national parliament, the Duma, has adopted similar legislation in its first reading forbidding what it calls “homosexual propaganda” from being disseminated to people under the age of 18. If a private individual were to be caught speaking positively about homosexuality in public — for example by promoting safe sex and condoms in relation to homosexuality — then that person could be fined the equivalent of $160. An NGO could face a massive $16,000 penalty. This is extremely troubling and a violation of international human rights laws, and even the European Court of Human Rights has stated this.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are European Union leaders taking sufficient action to pressure Russia to ensure the basic human rights of gays and lesbians are protected?
Dittrich: On April 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin will open the Hanover Trade Fair and hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Human Rights Watch, together with a number of other NGOs, are protesting against the propaganda legislation and other human rights violations in Russia. Putin has orchestrated a crackdown on civil society. More than 200 NGOs were recently inspected without any announcement in an attempt to intimidate these groups. In February, the Dutch foreign minister visited Moscow and conveyed the message that the Netherlands rejects the legislation. A vicious back and forth ensued in the joint press conference, with Russia’s foreign minister stating his country was “independent” and others shouldn’t tell it what to do. But all European leaders should consistently raise the issue when they meet with with Putin and other Russian dignitaries. Russia has ignored decisions from the European Court of Human Rights. European leaders like Merkel should make it clear to Moscow that this behavior is intolerable.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: This kind of discrimination in Europe’s backyard isn’t limited to Russia. What are some other major flashpoints?
Dittrich: The situation is even worse in Ukraine, where a similar “propaganda” law has been tentatively adopted in a first reading. Instead of just fines, however, Ukraine is seeking to criminalize positive statements about homosexuality, and it can even carry a prison sentence of up to five years. Meanwhile, in Moldova, several larger cities have even declared themselves to be “gay-free zones”. It may not be legally binding, but it is certainly a psychological factor that will add pressure on gay men or lesbian women living in such a city. The developments in these cities in Moldova happened after a visit by an American evangelical minister named Scott Lively, who held meetings with members of city councils.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have also accused Scott Lively of playing an instrumental role in influencing Uganda’s anti-gay legislation.
Dittrich: It’s not just Scott Lively, but he is very vocal and has been in Uganda a lot, where he teaches courses on the “homosexual danger”. He warns people attending that in the United States, gays have become very powerful, leading to same-sex marriage and immoral behavior. Among those attending one of his courses was David Bahati, a member of parliament who then introduced Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, in which there’s a provision for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. Another clause in the law requires that people report anyone they know to be gay or lesbian to the police within 24 hours. If they fail to do so, they can face a prison sentence of up to three years. A vote hasn’t happened yet, but the bill enjoys the support of a large majority of the Ugandan parliament. This very harsh legislation is obviously a violation of all kinds of international human rights laws.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the chances of passage appear to be strong.
Dittrich: It frequently appears on the agenda in parliament, but then it disappears for a few weeks again. Our assessment is that it is some kind of political game between parliament and the president. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is under tremendous international pressure not to countersign the law once it has been passed by parliament. Apparently Museveni is also fearful of what will happen if it passes and how society will react to it. There have been vicious campaigns in the media recently, with newspapers sometimes outing gay men and lesbians with pictures and stories about where they live, work and even providing the license plate numbers of their cars.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Last year, Ugandan gay rights activists sued Scott Lively. Has this had an impact on quieting his efforts to spread hatred against gays and lesbians?
Dittrich: Frank Mugisha, one of the heads of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and others sued Lively in a state court in Massachusetts. Mugisha recently traveled to the United States for the first hearing in the case and also visited us. We asked what kind of impact the case could have knowing it may be years before a decision is made. The interesting thing is that it is actually a psychological one. American pastors will now have to realize that they can’t just hop on a plane and go to Uganda, Zambia, Lithuania or Moldova to spread their hate and then just go back home and forget about it. The Alien Tort Claims Act allows foreign activists to start cases in the US and, soon, the consequences of a speech given by someone like Lively can then be felt back home.
‘Not A Single Country Has Fallen into a Moral Abyss’ over Gay Marriage
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Religion is an ever-present theme when it comes to LGBT rights. There’s a new pope in the Vatican. Are you hopeful that Pope Francis can bring progress in relations between the Catholic Church and LGBT communities?
Dittrich: If you look at Pope Francis’ background in Argentina, he has not been supportive of LGBT rights, and he masterminded calls to members of parliament to vote against the country’s successful same-sex marriage law. Still, even though the Vatican has institutionally never been supportive of homosexual relationships, I would like to restart a dialogue after I get to Berlin to make the Catholic Church’s stance against violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons better known because that is in fact the official view of the Vatican. Philip Bene, the Vatican’s legal attaché at the time, came to an International Human Rights Day event at the United Nations in December 2009 and issued that statement. The Vatican is also officially opposed to things like the Uganda law, and it has called upon the 76 countries in the world that still criminalize homosexual conduct to decriminalize it. The Vatican doesn’t spread that message to all its cardinals or to the priests or people who are Roman Catholic Church leaders in their communities, so a lot of people don’t know about this. For Human Rights Watch, it is important to try to seek dialogue and to push them on the issue.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Vatican City is smack in the center of Rome and Italy remains one of the few Western European countries where there isn’t even an active political debate over the possibility of civil unions or marriage between same-sex couples. Do you see this changing soon?
Dittrich: There is a such a strong influence of the Catholic Church in Italy that it will be a very difficult battle. Former Prime Minister Romano Prodi raised the prospect, but then failed to take action before his government fell. He was succeeded by Silvio Berlusconi, who wasn’t interested in anti-discrimination legislation or civil unions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: France has had the civil solidarity pact, or PACS, on the books since 1999. Similar legislation has passed in staunchly Catholic Spain and Portugal. Now French Socialist President François Hollande wants to place same-sex unions on the same status of marriage in the country, but large protests have resisted his move. Why is opposition still so strong despite more than a decade of experience with PACS?
Dittrich: The demonstrations for and against marriage equality in France show how lively French democracy is. Because the government proposes it, it is logical that opponents take to the streets. They use arguments that are used everywhere else when such legislation is proposed. It is a mixed bag of religious, traditional and cultural arguments. No revolution has ever broken out in countries where this legislation has been adopted, and not a single one has fallen into a moral abyss as predicted by the opponents. A majority of French society is in favor of same-sex marriage, so I am confident the legislation will pass.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany first recognized same-sex civil unions in 2001. Opposition to upgrading these domestic partnerships to make them equivalent to the institution of marriage in terms of tax benefits has also been significant.
Dittrich: Same-sex marriage will soon be adopted in New Zealand, Uruguay and the United Kingdom. You have it in Scandinavia, in Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Canada, Argentina and South Africa. The question will arise: What will Germany do? The (conservative) Christian Democrats and their leader, Chancellor Merkel, recently decided against providing taxation equality to same-sex marriages. I would love to meet with members of the Bundestag and share my experience. In the Netherlands, marriage equality was introduced in 2001 and we have now amassed 12 years of experience. We see a whole generation of young people growing up who can’t even conceive of the idea that there was a time when gay men or lesbian women couldn’t get married. Even Christian Democratic politicians who voted against my proposals at the time are now in favor of marriage equality.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let’s go back to issues in Eastern Europe. Compared to many of the traditional EU countries, not much progress has been made in terms of achieving civil unions or same-sex marriage in the region.
Dittrich: There are a lot of groups pressing for more and more. I’ve been, for example, to gay pride celebrations in Prague in the Czech Republic. A lot of LGBT groups there would like to open the discussion on same-sex marriage. Usually the first step in countries is to introduce civil unions or registered partnerships.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You’ve so far been working on the issue of gay rights for Human Rights Watch from your current base in the United States, where nine states have legalized same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court in Washington, DC, is now considering a challenge to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages at the state level. How do you think the Supreme Court will rule on DOMA and California’s Prop 8, and what impact will this potentially have on the future of gay rights in America?
Dittrich: It is too difficult to predict an outcome. But if the ruling explicitly states that gay couples have the same right to civil marriage as opposite couples, then it will be a boost for LGBT groups in states where this right has not been achieved yet. However, it could also pose one danger for the LGBT movement: After marriage equality has been achieved the groups should continue fighting discrimination and not lean back and think after marriage the country will be a paradise for LGBT people. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is mulifaceted and is inherent to the position of being a minority. The fight against discrimination must go on, even after marriage has been achieved.
Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey
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