Monday, September 22, 2014

Belgrade's Ill Fated Gay Pride March: Will it Be a 'Brussels' or 'Moscow' Outcome in 2014?


Once again Belgrade Gay Pride has been scheduled to take place on Sunday, September 28th.  And once again, likely obfuscation appears in the guise of a pending police strike, conveniently expected to take place on the 26th.

The fix is in and a lot of people smell something rotten in the Vucic government. LGBT leaders such as Jovanka Todorovic, a leader of Labris, is skeptical and quoted as saying: "We always support all the requirements of the police, but with a certain amount of skepticism I have to ask the question the timing of this strike. This period coincides with pride and why we act as some kind of obstruction."

Belgrade is not only thumbing its nose at Brussels, but no doubt the government will gladly accept a police strike to avoid confronting a violent right-wing contingent of its population and continue to avoid upholding Serbian national law that guarantees the right to free assembly; not to mention the European Convention on Human Rights--a social and political legal compact that Prime Minister Vucic allegedly aspires to ascend and yield to -- just not this year and maybe, not anytime soon.

The stakes for Serbia's path to Europe were raised substantially on September 13th when a German citizen was attacked in Belgrade while attending an international LGBT conference. He was beaten so badly with a glass ashtray by the perpetrators that brain surgery was required (and has since recovered from the surgery). Police are now investigating the attack following the arrests of three alleged assailants. Xenophobia seems to loom as largely the motivation for this disturbing event. Indeed, the German Ambassador in Belgrade, Heniz Wilhelm, was quoted as saying that the attackers’ comments “gave a new xenophobic dimension” to the assault. It remains to be seen if the attack also had a homophobic aspect, but it would not be a stretch to think that gay bashing was also a motivation.  

This is Belgrade after all. Its history is replete with documented anti-gay violence that stretches back to 2001 and despite police protection for Pride in 2010, right-wing nationalist groups launched a broadsided violent attack on marchers and police alike, sending nearly 100 people to the hospital.

And here's the rub: the Serbian government is recalcitrant in its constitutional inability to admit responsibility for past war crimes.  Serbia's political leadership persists in the repulsive assertion that the Srebrenica massacre that occurred in Bosnia in 1995 resulting in the murders of 8,000 men and boys was not genocide, despite the judgement of the International War Crimes Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia. Indeed, Srebrenica is nearly universally recognized as a genocide  with the exception of maybe Russia, North Korea and China, a stellar lineup of human rights abusing regimes. Serbian officials demonstrate over and over again a lack of political will, if not outright refusal to vigorously address an ad nauseum list of unresolved war crimes cases, which includes the cold blooded 1999 execution of the three American Bytyqi brothers in Kosovo, is just one glaring example of dozens of cases yet to be prosecuted.    

Balkan scholar Eric Gordy aptly summed up Serbia's impunity following the attack with a tweet:

Why should Vucic care at all about European standards, when the European Union itself seems less than committed to further enlargement? As Florian Bieber, a noted scholar on the Balkans pointed out earlier this year, the European Commission's enlargement office was moved out of its main building to a nondescript office a block away, perhaps a metaphor for its lackluster policy approach. Jean-Claude Junker, President of the EU Commission has since announced that "The EU needs to take a break from enlargement" but this is somewhat misleading, as Dr. Bieber pointed out, Junker's announcement could actually translate into a significant slow down in enlargement because it already had extended enlargement timelines for candidate states at least five more years anyway. Serbia just undertook the process within the last year and it remains to be seen just when Serbia could actually qualify as a new EU member.

Slowing down EU enlargement is not the right approach for Serbia and in particular with respect to the Vucic government, which has grossly strayed from rule of law practices on the issue of LGBT human rights, let alone its failure to address its macabre past.  

A Serbian consortium of human rights groups announced in June by the Humanitarian Law Centre, will monitor and periodically issue shadow reports on the Serbian government and the EU accession process on the key issues of transitional justice and the rule of law. This is an entirely appropriate role of civil society organizations in the midst of the EU process. Civil society leaders in Serbia have quietly raised questions about the EU accession role and whether Brussels will truly keep Serbia accountable to the process. Serbia has a long way to go toward implementing and demonstrating respect for the "rule of law".  In its most contemporaneous record on these matters, the Serbian government's failure to address an entrenched right-wing and afford rights and protections to its LGBT citizens, is one of its most glaring failures.  So much for the path of accountability on the way to Brussels.

Another deep concern about Serbia and a poor human rights track record is its opportunistic relationship with Russia -- not just your average Russia, but Putin's Russia. Next month, Vladimir Putin will visit Belgrade on October 19 and take part in ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade during World War II. 

Vucic visited Moscow in July and Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been burning up air miles between his Banja Luka outpost and Moscow (dubbed as "Moscow's Man in Banja Luka" by colleague Jasmin Mujanovic) with regularity, garnering Russian honors and soliciting rubles to help bolster Banja Luka's woefully parched economy (since he refuses to participate in the Dayton peace process). These brothers across the Danube are getting a little help from their Slavic friends, while Putin fouls the air domestically and internationally.

Serbia is playing with fire by cozying up to Putin, who has unleashed homophobia, a new round of xenophobia and all out war in Eastern Ukraine during his latest return to the Russian presidency.  A hint of Putin's nasty legacy that is seeping into Europe is evidenced in a previously held  secret meeting in Vienna last summer organized by anti-gay Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeew, for the expressed purpose to take on Europe's "gay lobby" and progressive liberalism. This meeting of right-wing parties in Europe  should be recognized as a burning red flag by Brussels and serves as a cautionary tale.

But Vucic apparently has not received a missive from Brussels, which should read: "stay in your backyard and clean up the mess."

Whether Belgrade Pride is successfully carried off this year, remains to be seen. But whatever the outcome, it remains abundantly clear, the LGBT community in Serbia has a steep upward climb before it can achieve a measure of equality and dignity.  For this nascent movement to succeed, it must join forces together with a broader progressive and inclusive human rights movement, that is animated by respect for the rule of law as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.  The LGBT human rights movement in Serbia and throughout the Western Balkans, is the first political and social movement to emerge post conflict.  Those who identify as LGBT are in many instances supported by heterosexual allies, who also embrace fundamental human rights principles. Together, they must bear the burden and make the case for expanding rights to the Serbian government and the public that LGBT rights are human rights. It will not be easy. It will be a struggle for some time to come. But with engaged and proactive EU support by insisting that Belgrade remain accountable during a likely extended enlargement period, this approach will go a long way toward addressing the crimes of Serbia's past and move into a future that enables LGBT people to live full, authentic and vibrant lives without fear of reprisal and retribution.

Tanya Domi is an Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She is a faculty affiliate of the Harriman Institute and a Fellow at the Emerging Democracies Institute based in Washington, D.C.  She is currrently wriiting a book on the emerging LGBT human rights movement in the Western Balkans.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Domi Calls on Serbian Authorities to Swiftly Investigate and Prosecute Those Responsible for Murdering the Bytyqi Brothers

SARAJEVO, BiH, July 7, 2014 -- Tanya L. Domi, a professor of human rights at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and an affiliate faculty member of the Harriman Institute, called on responsible Serbian authorities today to swiftly investigate and prosecute those individuals who were responsible for the execution of the Bytyqi brothers, American citizens, who were murdered in 1999 near the end of the Kosovo War.

Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi, hailed from Hampton Bays, New York.  They had returned to Kosovo in 1999 to help family members whose lives were endangered in the midst of a war, when the brothers were executed.  According to eyewitness accounts, the brothers were helping people flee a combat zone when they accidentally ventured into Serbian territory on July 7, 1999.  They were driven away, hands bound with wire. Today marks the 15th anniversary of their deaths.

Domi issued a statement in support of Congressman Tim Bishop (D-NY), who has offered a Congressional resolution calling for justice in resolving the Bytyqi brothers' deaths. Former U.S. Ambassador (ret.) Robert Barry is representing the Bytyqi family and has called on the Vucic government to take appropriate steps to adjudicate the Bytyqi murders.  

Rep. Bishop is commemorating the murders of the brothers today in Hampton Bays, New York.

Professor Domi's statement:

"It is imperative for the Vucic government to undertake swift action to properly investigate and prosecute all parties who were involved in ordering and carrying out the murders of these Americans. As Serbia further deepens its EU accession process, it is critical that it demonstrate respect for the rule of law. The just resolution of the murders of the Bytyqi brothers would demonstrate the Serbian government's commitment to the rule of law.  It would also remove a stain of impunity from the current government's leadership. To act now to resolve this heinous crime, could not be a better time for the Vucic government to demonstrate its deep commitment to the rule of law by solving the murders of the Bytuqi brothers."

Last week in Belgrade, a consortium of Serbian domestic NGOs , led by the Humanitarian Law Centre, called on the government of Serbia to actively support the EU accession process, by showing particular adherence to and respect for transitional justice within Serbia.  The consortium intends to closely monitor the Serbian government and the EU accession process and will issue "shadow" reports in conjunction with the monitoring efforts.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Speaking on Capitol Hill, Friday, May 9 on Human Trafficking

I will be speaking about human trafficking in Washington, D.C. this Friday on behalf of the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, to commemorate Bosnian Women's Day.

I am very pleased to be invited by the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which advocates for Bosnian Americans, their families and on US foreign policy on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is a honor to return to Washington, D.C. to speak on human trafficking, a terrible and growing human rights global crisis.  There is so much work to be done to address the scourge of modern day slavery.  

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sterling: Banned for Life

The NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced today a series of sanctions directed at Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team that included the death penalty with a "lifetime ban;" a maximum fine permitted by the NBA of $2.5 million and a directive to the NBA's Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers' franchise

Sterling was outed as a racist when a leaked recording of a conversation he had with a former girlfriend (who happens to be multi-racial) was published by the salacious news website sports.

All these sanctions issued by Silver are appropriate and long overdue for a racist and a hater, who has been previously found guilty of racial discrimination under housing and employments laws and was also successfully sued for sexual harassment in a trifecta of just plain ugliness.

Sterling was a repeat offender, found guilty under law for engaging in racist and sexist practices, but never addressed by the NBA league under former commissioner David Stern.  His silence today is deafening.

Although Commissioner Silver said the sanctions he initiated were for a singular event, no doubt he was aware of Sterling's well documented history of systematic discrimination. 

Silver's leadership was widely applauded by members of the NBA community and among them included Earvin Magic Johnson:

I support Commissioner Silver's actions and comments.  Let's support a genuine effort in this country to confront blatant racism institutionally.  

When I was growing up during the civil rights movement, there was so much peer pressure, most racists kept their thoughts to themselves--they hid their racist attitudes. But not anymore.  

I am shocked by not only Mr. Sterling's grotesque intolerance of people of color, but also the offensive comments made by the ignorant Cliven Bundy, a rancher who is in violation of federal law by refusing to pay grazing fees.  I find their racist views to be repugnant and have no place in our increasingly diverse country.  

Anonymous on-line communications has emboldened many haters who possess unconscionable views that are blatantly racist and shock the conscience of people who embrace a civil society imbued with respect, tolerance and respect for others.  I share the sentiments of the NBA's initial push back to the Sterling revelations:

Today we applaud Commissioner Silver's leadership and we reafirm the dignity of all Americans and all those who seek a legal and safe residence in our country.  Indeed, we are one -- out of many -- one nation, a majority united in opposition to hatred of others.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

UPDATE: How the "Putin Project" is Affecting LGBTI Human Rights in Russia's Near Abroad

Right Wing Watch posted a story after attending the panel discussion:

Russia's ban on gay "propaganda" and copycat laws throughout the region have created a "license to commit violence against" LGBT people, "give the permission" for "street violence" and "create legitimacy for violence," according to human rights advocates working in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyszstan who spoke last night at a panel at Columbia University. Russia's spate of anti-gay laws has quickly influenced neighboring countries, part of what Columbia professor Tanya Domi called "the Putin project" of solidifying Russia's influence in the region.  
Read the entire article here.

I will be moderating a panel at The Harriman Institute, Columbia University, on Monday, April 14th, 6:15 p.m. Joined by Olena Shevchenko, chairman of Insight, and advocacy organization for LGBTI human rights that is based in Kyiv; Anna Kirey, a researcher on LGBTI human rights, Human Rights Watch and Matthew Schaff, a program officer at Freedom House who reports on LGBTI issues.  This is so timely, especially given the xenophobia exacted against the LGBTI community in Russia,which is having a negative effect in the "near abroad" of Russia.  If you are in New York City, stop by the Harriman Institute to hear the conversation by these human rights defenders.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Putin Exacts His Revenge for the "Brothers Across the Danube"; Is Kosovo Crimea Now?

During Vladimir Putin's remarks before the Russian parliament this past week to declare his annexation of Crimea successful in the aftermath of a plebiscite with winning results in excess of 90 percent, he revealed a newly embraced nationalism for a resurgent Russia.  He also announced his exacted vengeance for Serbia's loss of Kosovo in the crudest terms.

Putin mentioned Kosovo frequently throughout his speech; and exacting his revenge for Serbia's loss was apparently a desire he had harbored for a number of years. 

He crudely referenced the American bombing by referring analogously to it as "screwing everyone" but not asking for their permission. According to journalist Masha Gessen in her Slate report, who wrote: "The expression Putin used, however, was "vsekh nagnuli," street slang for having had non-consensual anal sex with everybody, rather than for having everybody agree."

Columbia Professor Kimberly Marten pointed out Putin's unvarnished embrace of Russian nationalism during his Duma speech when he referred to Russians as "Russkii" for exclusively ethnic Russians, as opposed to the customary reference of "Rossisskii" when acknowledging anyone who had a a Russian passport, in other words, a Russian citizen, irrespective of ethnicity.

Marten drew a plausible parallel to Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic nationalism project to violently create a "Greater Serbia" as he led Serbs through a series of wars that slaughtered thousands of people and destroyed Yugoslavia. 

It remains to be seen how far Putin will take his Crimea odyssey.  Will he venture into Eastern Ukraine?  Will he venture further afield to establish a Putinesque Russian empire?

But now a resurgent Russia has fully emerged, led by strong man Putin who appears to be not only omnipotent, but is bent on righting past wrongs carried out against Russia. His paternal declaration of protection for his Serbian slavic brothers was an unparalleled throw down and upends Europe's previous policy overtures to draw Russian into its organizations as a western leaning partner.  

These revelations should be a wake-up call for the Europeans.

Herein lies a defining fulcrum -- that of the historical slavic ties between the Russians and Serbs that runs deep with several centuries shared between them and notable for opportunistic manipulation of one another. Harkening back to the Vienna Congress of 1815, is just one example when Russian Tsar Alexander made clear in a diplomatic note circulated to delegates:

...calling attention to Turkish atrocities in Serbia, Alexander stated that [as] the emperor of Russia [he]was the natural protector of the Orthodox Greek Christians under Ottoman dominion...and the note concluded that Alexander was obliged by his religion and the voice of conscience to go to the aid of the oppressed Serbian people.

Timing is everything in geopolitical affairs.

The Crimean referendum was not the only election held on March 16.  On the same day a new Serbian government was elected that is expected to be led by Aleksandar Vucic, a populist and a political son of Slobodan Milosevic (Vucic was his spokesperson).  Vucic, a former nationalist hawk, ran a campaign that called for Serbia to join with Europe and resolve the Kosovo issue, a sharp juxtaposition with Putin's claims that his violent takeover of Crimea was an action to settle scores over on behalf of Serbia.

Will Serbia now choose to move forward and engage in a series of reforms required of future European Union members? Will they make peace with Kosovo while a resurgent, saber rattling, nationalistic Russia patron is on the move?

On the issue of Kosovo, the Serbs have always been supported by the Russians as evidenced in the UN Security Council during the Balkan wars where the Russians effectively used their veto powers to block action, or watered down resolutions against the Milosevic regime. 

Likewise, Russia has played a similar role in the permanent council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which operates on the basis of consensus.  Russia has effectively blocked Kosovo's OSCE membership despite years of reform and international oversight that was carried out before its independence was declared in 2008.

It appears that Belgrade is juggling its European agenda while maintaining a friendship with Moscow. 

Over the years, but more frequently since 2012 when Putin returned to the Russian presidency, officials from Moscow and Belgrade have been frequent fliers in a concerted effort to curry favor and deepen their ties. 

Awkwardly at times, Bosnian Serb interloper Milorad Dodik, the premier of the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been a presence in Moscow.

In the week before the Crimea referendum, Dodik traveled to Moscow where he was presented an award by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill "for his outstanding contribution to improving the unity of Orthodox Christian peoples and consolidating and promoting Christian values in society." 

Justification for the the award was also attributed to Dodik's leadership of Bosnian Serbs and its relationship to the “Serb Republic [as the only] legal option to ensure safety of the Serbs west of the Drina River, which divides them, or more accurately connects them to Motherland Serbia.”

Not surprisingly, but nonetheless bizarre, Emir Kustrurica, the Serbian film director who is originally from Sarajevo and had once been a secular Bosniak, was in attendance at the ceremony held in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, along with a number of Russian diplomats and officials.  Kusturcia, who converted to the Serbian Orthodox faith in 2005, has made frequent trips to Moscow and attended the May 2012 Putin inauguration.

While many dismiss Dodik as desperate to maintain power and should not to be considered seriously, he nonetheless has the attention of major political players in Moscow. So no surprise that he would issue a solicitous statement of congratulations to the people of Crimea, calling the referendum a "legitimate and democratic referendum in keeping with the Constitution, international law and the UN Charter on the Right of People to self-determination." Russian ambassador to BiH Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko stood by his side as a proud and grateful witness.

None of Dodik's activities with the Russians advances the interests of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina to be improved, or to enhance responsiveness to the needs of its citizens. Dodik is using these meetings and relationships with Russians to affirm Bosnian Serb autonomy while invoking their "frail" position within BiH who must seek protection from their brethren in Moscow and Belgrade.

A more serious meeting between the Russians and the Serbs took place in April 2013 when Ivica Dacic, the prime minister of Serbia met with Putin to agree to become a "neutral" observer to Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a post Cold War organization, viewed as a successor to the Warsaw Pact. Other members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The agreement was hailed as a geopolitical advance in the Russian media and forecasted that when Serbia becomes a full-fledged member of the CSTO, the organization could speak on behalf of Serbia on Kosovo issues. 

And while official Serbian soldiers have not been deployed to Crimea, at least for now, Serb Chetnik volunteers have shown up for duty in Crimea.  They were interviewed by Vice media journalist Simon Ostrosky, while working at a checkpoint located on a Crimean highway.  

Ostrosky approached Bratislav Zivkovic (second from the right) who hails from "central Serbia, where he said "Czar Lazar started his campaign for Kosovo" and was in Crimea to help the Russians because "we have been helpful to each other through the ages." He added:  "We have come to help share our experiences from the barricades in Kosovo and Metohija."  Enough said. Apparently Kosovo is Crimea now.  Just ask Vladimir Putin and Bratislav Zivkovic.

Photograph of Vladimir Putin, courtesy of the Kremlin website. Photograph of Serbian Chetniks, courtesy of Twitter.

Tanya Domi is a Fellow at the Emerging Democracies Institute, Washington D.C. She is also an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Harriman Institute.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

HRC LGBT Donors to Appear at Davos Economic Forum in First Move to Advance International Engagement

UPDATE: correspondent Maggie Haberman published a story on the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, reporting that Human Rights Campaign (HRC) donors Paul Singer and Dan Loeb will be organizing two panel discussions at the normally staid Davos World Economic Forum later this month in Switzerland (the panels appear to be  "side" events and are not currently listed in the official program) .  Singer and Loeb, who are the primary donors to HRC's new international LGBT project are not without controversy.  Both made their fortunes from "Vulture funds," and are members of the Republican Party. Nonetheless,  the fact that openly lesbian Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist will be speaking on one of the panels is a good development and should really break the mold at Davos in more than a 1,000 ways.  Good luck to her continued endeavors to speak out about latest oppression underway in Putin's Russia.

The Human Rights Campaign announced in November 2013 a new global initiative, but Laura Belmonte and Tanya Domi raise questions about the priorities and  expertise of America’s largest domestic LGBT organization to engage internationally 

Last November, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) launched a new $3 million international campaign that has generated both cautious optimism and scathing criticism from those involved in the global struggle for LGBT equality. Both responses are well-founded and the bar is set high for HRC to distinguish itself in an arena long ago claimed by other advocates.
HRC’s announcement this week of a $100,000 contribution to support the Russian LGBT movement is a serious illustration of its commitment to this new venture into international affairs. Madonna, Ricky Martin, Dustin Lance Black and Gavin Newsome, the Lt. Governor of California, are among the 63 donors.  The organization’s ability to raise substantial sums of money and to promote such efforts with celebrities situated front and center is one of HRC’s greatest strengths (see celebrity supporters).
HRC unquestionably has money (nearly $39 million in gross receipts in 2012), expertise and connections in U.S. politics and media that could prove invaluable in gaining attention for LGBT issues abroad. If HRC is willing to connect grass roots activists with public officials, corporate leaders, and media outlets that help them make their cases and to provide them with additional resources or training like their new global fellows program, kudos to them.

But that’s a big if.

With many more hurdles to overcome domestically, is going international now the right strategic move, or is this HRC hedging its bets and paying it forward to position the organization for a different kind of future, when ENDA, marriage equality and civil rights have been secured in a vast majority of states in America? Are the aims of Chad Griffin, who assumed the presidency of HRC in 2012, really different from those of his predecessor Joe Solmonese, whose seven- year tenure was punctuated by allegations that he raised a great deal of money, but pursued an agenda with little substance?
In its first move toward international engagement, right out of the starting blocks, HRC was taken to task for accepting funding for this initiative from Paul Singer, a venture capitalist who has profited from the economic distress of developing nations. Pointing out the devastating effects of poverty on LGBT people in impoverished nations, Wanja Muguongo, head of UHAI –the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative – told BuzzFeed, “You cannot hurt with one hand and say you’re helping with another. It is not money that should be used by anyone for LGBTI work any side of the world. It’s an insult.”
No matter how well-executed, the HRC initiative inevitably will generate suspicion among foreign activists. From Protestant missionary organizations to public health workers to modernization programs like the Alliance for Progress, there is a long history of U.S. humanitarian intervention that has veered into imperialism. While HRC may not see this initiative through such a lens, many of those abroad will.
As domestic activists of many years, we are familiar with the HRC mode of operation: From Maryland to Hawaii, HRC has been rightfully accused of “bigfooting” local activists, icing out those who are considered experts and running roughshod over people who have toiled away for years, often ignored with little or no support, only to be pushed aside when victory is at hand. HRC classically swoops in, grabs the reins of a struggle and claims another victory, but in the process causes hurt feelings and resentments that have plagued the organization for years.
A recent case illustrating our point occurred when HRC staff members excoriated a transgender activist who was holding a transgender freedom flag behind the rally stage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last March during Defense of Marriage Act oral arguments. The staff member repeatedly told the transgender activist that marriage equality was not a transgender issue. Although HRC eventually issued an apology, staff members who were managing the stage committed another faux pas by telling an undocumented LGBT activist who was scheduled to speak at the rally, to remain silent about his immigration status. Not willing to accept HRC’s heavy-handed treatment, United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project issued a video press release condemning HRC’s actions and demanded an apology.

If HRC is this insensitive with transgender and immigrant queers at home, how will they behave abroad, among people who likely speak different languages, have different values, different priorities, and their own ideas about how to advance LGBTI equality in their own countries?
How will they address the “Intersex” political identification which is excluded in America for all practical purposes, but commonly addressed in Europe and other regions of the world?
Indeed, HRC’s entry into international human rights advocacy is quite late and there are many international and national LGBTI groups who have been working for years on these issues, with tremendous experience and expertise. Among them include, Freedom House, The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the more recent and quite effective Council on Global Equality, which HRC financially supports.
International activists are raising concerns about whether HRC will remove more funding than it invests in the nations where they seek to advance LGBT equality. Given the tensions among HRC and state and local activists who have experienced this vacuum effect for years, such anxieties are understandable.
Look no further than the new “Love Conquers Hate” t-shirt campaign HRC is promoting as a means of helping LGBT activists in Russia. Jamie Lee Curtis and others sport the t-shirt in a gesture of solidarity. But one cannot actually buy the t-shirt whose proceeds benefit those working for LGBT equality in Russia without also giving a donation to HRC.
And more to the point, in the case of Russia, where xenophobia is alarmingly accentuated due to the onerous crackdown against the LGBT community by the Putin regime, love between same-sex partners can barely exist, let alone conquer hatred and violence. Such simplistic campaign slogans fall dreadfully short of addressing daily questions of life and death that now confront Russian gays.
It is precisely this type of celebrity-laden self-promotion and resource domination that sends HRC’s fiercest detractors into fits of sputtering rage and opens it up charges of exploitation (or dismissal for a lack of understanding about what is actually happening in Russia for the gay community).
HRC should play to their strengths and continue its financial support to the newly launched Russian Freedom Fund. They should assist groups like RUSA LGBT, Russians working from New York and even consider funding an asylum resettling project for those Russians who will no doubt be seeking a better life in America, but leave it this work to the groups who have worked on international LGBT human rights for decades.
For such reasons, we pose several questions about HRC’s global initiative.
Will HRC actually collaborate with other organizations with much deeper expertise in foreign relations, international human rights, and development? Will this initiative simply export U.S. hegemonic aims, including white privilege and classicism that has undercut many a domestic HRC program? Is HRC cognizant that this global campaign sends an implicit “Game’s over at Home” message to activists in 29 states still working for hate crimes law and protections against employment and housing discrimination? Isn’t it premature to declare victory and go searching for international battles before passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and marriage equality in all 50 states?
The fate of many literally risking their lives for LGBT equality abroad hinges on how HRC and all of us who want freedom for LGBTI people everywhere answer these questions.
Image: HRC Love Conquers Hate Russian T-Shirt via HRC
The original version of this article was published by The New Civil Rights Movement on December 21, 2013
Laura Belmonte is Professor of history at Oklahoma State University and serves on the national council for the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Indiana Lawmakers Considering a Ballot Measure to Ban Same-Sex Marriage

Republican lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly have introduced a proposed amendment to the State's constitution that would ultimately ban same-sex marriage.

I come by this interest in the deliberations of the Indiana legislature honestly -- I was born and grew up there, realizing during my sophomore year at Indiana University in 1974 that I was a lesbian, only five years after Stonewall.

There were no gay community centers, no Ellen DeGeneres on daytime television and gays were banned from serving in the military (antecedent to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell").  When I told my mother I was gay, she said:  "Oh you will have a terrible life."  And when I looked up the definition of "lesbian" in Webster's Dictionary, it was not good, as the writer of the definition illustrated the sorrowful life of lesbians by mentioning Virginia Woolf's tell tale novel "A Room of One's Own."

Thus, I departed the State in 1978, never to return.  Not only was my own family homophobic, racist, among other prejudices, but I grew up a state known as a KKK hotbed, that was also anti-Catholic and of course, antisemitic.  

Bigotry has a dark history in Indiana lore.  And it is currently proving that while the rest of the country is moving toward more fully embracing its LGBT citizens, Indiana's lawmakers seem intent are returning to its destructive past. 

But back to the present.

On January 13, the House Judiciary Committee will consider and vote on the measure.  At the moment, Freedom Indiana, led by openly gay, Republican operative Megan Robertson, is not saying if her campaign is assured to beat back the vote.

HJR3 (formerly known as HJR6) and a new version of the amendment language which indicates what HJR3 does and does not do, known as HB 1153.  No doubt, different numbers and versions of the amendment language is causing  confusion among opponents, which is probably a pretty good bet to be the intention of the proponents.

Indiana state law requires a proposed amendment to be passed by two successive General assemblies, which originally passed HJR6 in 2011.

The language of HJR3 is the following:
Only a marriage between one (1) man and one (1) woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana; and
A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.
On January 11, I participated in radio program hosted by Civil Discourse Now, based in Indianapolis to discuss the proposed amendment and all its related issues.  You can listen to the podcast here:

Interested persons should check Indiana Freedom for updates on the vote by the House Judiciary Committee hearing which starts today at 10 a.m.  But regardless of the outcome, it is truly regrettable that the Republicans have now given new meaning to the term "Hoosier Hysteria,"(which usually refers to Hoosiers love of basketball).

Croatia Recycles its History: A Cautionary Tale for the European Union

Protesters against the Croatian referendum to ban same-sex marriage

Co-Authored with Reuf Bajrovic, the President and Founder of Emerging Democracies Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

When Croatia became the newest member of the European Union on 1 July 2013, its entry—the first ever by a single country—was hailed by overwhelming majority of observers as an important step in the democratic consolidation of the Western Balkans. The prevailing narrative was that Croatia would export democratic values to the region and that its success would act as an inspiration for its neighbors to move past the burdening legacy of the wars of the 1990s.
Less than six months into its membership, it seems that Croatia is not the next Estonia but the next Hungary of the European Union.
The outcome of Croatia’s December 1st ballot initiative that proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman places Croatia in the company of Hungary and four other EU members—Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—all former Communist states, as well as countries like Belarus and Ukraine in effectively banning same sex couples from civil marriage.
The overwhelming support for the amendment shocked the established political class. The ad-hoc conservative group “In the Name of the Family” led by right-wing businesswoman, Zeljka Markic, blindsided the ruling parties with more than enough signatures to get the referendum onto the ballot. Joining forces with a far-right political party, Markic repeatedly issued a conservative trope to voters, indicating the referendum’s aim was to “protect children and families.”
Strong conservative and traditionalist political beliefs remain deeply embedded within the Croatian electorate and throughout the region. Rights of homosexuals are particularly opposed by super majorities throughout the Western Balkans according to the 2010 Gallup Balkan Monitor Survey data report.
In that sense, Croatia is not much different from its neighbors. But other disturbing developments make this referendum a more troubling event.
Efforts by conservative veterans’ associations and other right-wing groups to ban the use of Cyrillic letters in the eastern city of Vukovar—the symbol of the country’s war 1991-1995 for independence—are sending a disturbing message to Croatia’s minority Serb population. As it stands now, right-wing groups seem to have collected enough signatures to organize a referendum on the use of Cyrillic letters.
To add insult to injury, Croatia’s national soccer team’s recent qualification for the World Cup was celebrated by tens of thousands of fans chanting “For the homeland, ready”—a salute of the World War II era pro-Nazi regime which ruled Croatia and collaborated with Hitler’s Third Reich and was also used by extreme nationalist groups during the 1990s war.
The situation escalated when the Croatian police decided to ‘call in for questioning’ Matija Babic, the country’s leading journalist and owner of the most read news portal and a vocal critic of Croatia’s increasingly nationalist tendencies. Protesting the recent developments, Mr. Babic and published an authentic Nazi-era photograph of the Croatian Catholic Church priests using the Nazi right hand salute, as well as a photo superimposing a swastika on the Croatian flag. The State Prosecutor now wants to punish Mr. Babic for breaking the country’s law on the flag.
But it is not just Croatia’s domestic affairs that are a cause for concern. Its foreign policy is once again focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina at a time when this troubled neighboring country is trying to address its own war legacies. The European Union has conditioned Bosnia and Herzegovina to change the discriminatory aspects of its Constitution under which Jews, Roma and all other citizens who refuse to identify with any of the three major ethnic groups cannot seek the highest elective offices in government. But instead of concentrating its efforts on helping Bosnia and Herzegovina’s disenfranchised groups secure equal treatment under the law, Croatia’s efforts in Brussels are consumed by the narrow priorities of two Bosnian Croat nationalist political parties.
All this smacks of the 1990s and rolls back democratic gains made under previous president Stjepan Mesic, who once made Croatia a role model for aspiring EU members in the Former Yugoslavia.
Precedents for these troubling trends are unfortunately present elsewhere in Europe. Hungary is a case in point.
Following his election in May 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the conservative Fidesz party lurched rightward when he rolled back media laws and protections to journalists. In the face of strong criticism by the international community, Orban only doubled down in 2012 by adopting a new constitution that strips some 300 faiths and religious institutions of their legal status. The constitution and related new laws also limit the scope of the constitutional court and violates the independence of judges, the central bank and the governments’ data-protection agency. Even the EU had no choice but to act, issuing a 30-day warning to Hungary to amend several controversial laws to avoid being taken to the European Court of Justice.
Against this backdrop, the extreme right Jobbik Party has escalated its use of hate speech, recently calling Jews a “security risk” and recommending that all Jews living in Hungary should be registered. Jobbik’s numbers of elected officials have more than doubled since 2006, making it Hungary’s third largest party.
Britain, France, and Austria have also been challenged by the growing popularity of the far-right movements, exposing minorities to escalating hate speech and attacks.
The response of the official Brussels to this troubling pattern across the EU has not been very vocal. The whole world has suffered greatly in the last century every time Europe went down the path of self-destruction. Older members of the EU might think of themselves as stable democracies in a stable neighborhood. But the troubling developments coming from its newest member may be a good reason for some much-needed self-reflection. Else the message sent to minorities is that their rights are protected for as long as an aspirant needs to demonstrate its EU worthiness. Once it enters, all bets are off.
Image courtesy of EDI.
This article was originally published on December 24, 2013 at

Obama Rightly Joins Political Boycott of Winter Olympics

A growing chorus of voices calling for a political boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, began to gain traction this past week in reaction to the host country’s onerous crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. President Barack Obama heeded its calls byannouncing a U.S. delegation of representatives that includes two openly gay athletes and excludes senior elected officials, their spouses and current Cabinet members. His decision should be applauded.
Obama’s appointment of celebrated sportswoman Billie Jean King, a Hall of Fame tennis player who is openly gay and was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as openly gay Caitlin Cahow, a hockey player and Olympic silver and bronze medalist, is a direct rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose anti-gay campaign has been well underway since he resumed the presidency in 2012.
Russian journalist Masha Gessen called for a boycott earlier this fall, urging participating countries to send a strong message of disapproval to Putin, whose efforts to isolate, marginalize and criminalize the lives of LGBT Russians have potential ramifications for those participating in the games, including arrest or deportation.
The U.S. joins Germany, France, Poland and the European Commission, which have chosen not to send high-ranking officials to the opening ceremony on Feb. 7. German President Joachim Gauck recently said he would not attend the Olympics because of Putin’s repeated attacks on human rights. France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced this week that neither he nor President Francois Hollande would attend the Olympics but did not provide an explanation. Vivian Reding, vice president of the European Commission, said in a tweet that she would “certainly not go to Sochi as long as minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation.”
As much as these decisions should be supported, the U.S. can and should do more to isolate and pressure Putin until he ends his pogrom against the Russian LGBT community. 

Assault on LGBT rights

Russia’s draconian anti-propaganda law, a vaguely worded statute that threatens to prosecute or fine anyone who promotes homosexuality — defined as “nontraditional marital relations” — to minors, was passed in June.
Russian citizens who violate the law may be fined 4,000 to 5,000 rubles (US$122 to $152); public officials may be fined 40,000 to 50,000 rubles; and registered organizations may be either fined or ordered to stop operations for up to 90 days. Disseminating information about gays via the news media or the Internet increases fines up to 1 million rubles for an organization, for example.
An international backlash has ensued. When critics called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics, Russia tried to reassure the International Olympic Committee that its anti-propaganda laws do not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, since they prohibit all speech promoting nontraditional sexual relations.
But gay activists remained skeptical. In reality, the law silences all forms of positive speech about LGBT rights by subtly cloaking government prohibitions under the rubric of protecting Russian children. Interpretation is so vague that it is left to police and the courts to enforce or prosecute.
Russia’s clampdown on LGBT rights is not new; it is the latest move in an ongoing struggle. Regional governments throughout the Russian Federation began adopting variations of anti-gay-propaganda laws more than six years ago, according to a report by Human Rights First. Putin’s United Russia party was the chief proponent of the anti-propaganda law that the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed this year and that Putin signed into law on June 29.
Putin doubled down on his government’s assault on gay rights by adding another provision to the anti-propaganda law that provides for the arrest and deportation of foreign nationals who are perceived to be gay or engage in speech that violates the basic tenets of the anti-propaganda law. Foreign citizens are also subjected to a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles, and they may be deported from the Russian Federation or jailed up to 15 days. This law could be applied to any Olympian or visitor who is attending the Olympic Games.
Early next year, after the Olympics, the Duma
is expected to take up a bill that will authorize
state authorities to remove children from
same-sex Russian couples. 

Putin’s war on civil society

The crackdown on the LGBT community coincides with a general oppression of civil-society groups. Since Putin returned to the presidency, his government has passed a series of laws that target activists and journalists. In May 2012 the Duma adopted an law restricting freedom of speech and public assembly; recriminalized libel, rolling back reforms adopted in 2011; adopted Internet content restrictions, known as law No. 139-FZ, which also calls for a unified registry of prohibited websites; and adopted a more expansive definition of treason, which now includes “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization ... directed at harming Russia’s security” — in other words, activities that could be interpreted to include engaging in international advocacy for human or environmental rights.
In November 2012, the Duma bookended the treason law by passing a law requiring nonprofit organizations receiving monetary assistance from abroad to register as foreign agents. Human rights activists have warned that the foreign-agent law will lead to the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of activists and advocacy groups and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
According to Human Rights Watch, in early March 2013 prosecutors launched an unprecedented campaign of inspections against civil-society groups in Russia, forcing them to register for receiving foreign funds, submitting them to administrative rulings and court actions or warning them under the foreign-agent law. Prosecutors targeted at least 95 groups, including Golos, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for voter rights. Golos was the first group to face prosecution under the foreign-agent law, and the Justice Ministry suspended all its public and financial activities on June 26 after the organization lost an appeal on June 14.
Together, these new laws have created a climate of fear and intimidation in Russia. During a visit to the United States, Evgeny Pisemskiy — an LGBT-rights activist and the chairman of Phoenix Plus, an NGO that serves HIV-positive gay people in Orel, Russia — underscored the dreadful circumstances facing Russia’s gay community daily. For example, a recent brochure circulating in his hometown warned citizens to be cautious about gays and notify the police. “Gays cannot be detected, but (officials) can be alerted,” the leaflet warned citizens, according to Pisemskiy. “Pay attention to single men who wear bright, colorful clothing. Gays can be pedophiles.”
He found the leaflet on the door of his apartment building. He believes that the leaflet was not official government propaganda but worries that, as one of the implications of the law, it reinforces an already prevalent fear in the LGBT community. “It certainly does not help the efforts by organizations like Phoenix Plus aimed at reducing the number of new HIV infections among gay men,” he added.
Pisemskiy is not the only Russian LGBT-rights activist feeling the increased pressure. Gessen, a well-known, openly lesbian journalist, recently announced that she is moving to the U.S. for fear of losing her three children. Early next year, after the Olympics, the Duma is expected to take up a bill that will authorize state authorities to remove children from same-sex Russian couples. 

Next steps

Attacks on citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity have no place in democratic societies. This is a recalcitrant regime that blatantly disregards its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Individual Freedoms, both of which Russia has ratified. Putin’s Russia is engaged in a broadside attack on civil society by suppressing all those who help create and sustain a vibrant democracy.
Thus, ongoing persecution of the LGBT community is expected to continue, and many Russian gays have predicted the situation will worsen for the community following the conclusion of the Olympic Games.
For these reasons, the U.S. government should take further action. First, it should immediately activate and employ its powers as prescribed under a National Security Presidential Memorandum — International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons, adopted by the Obama administration in 2011 to address the situation in Russia.
In particular, under section 2 of the directive, the U.S. government should take every step to protect vulnerable LGBT Russian refugees and asylum seekers. Nonprofits such as Immigration Equalityshould work closely with the administration, as well as with other groups more broadly that have experience in addressing the needs of refugees and displaced persons. Every effort should be made to assist any Russian gay person who wants to leave the country because of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This will be a challenge to the American LGBT community, which does not have significant experience in helping people resettle in the United States.
Second, diplomatic lessons can also be gleaned from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, adopted by Congress in 1974 with respect to U.S. trade relations, which was passed in response to a “diploma tax” levied against Russian Jews when they attempted to emigrate. Indeed, Abraham  Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recommended that LGBT advocates consider updating or adopting a new “Jackson Vanik” law to address Russia’s newly codified laws persecuting gays. He rightly points out “the disturbing similar oppression of the LGBT community in Russia and that of of Soviet Jewry should instruct us in how to respond.”
Congress’ recent adoption of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 is an example of how the U.S. has communicated its disapproval of the murder of Magnitsky, a Russian accountant and auditor who alleged a corruption scandal by Russian government officials, was arrested and died while incarcerated. Thanks to the law, a number of Russian citizens believed to have been accomplices in his alleged murder have been banned from entering the U.S.
Last, during the Sochi games the International Olympic Committee should make every effort to resist punishing any athlete or ticket-paying fan for wearing a rainbow pin or scarf in solidarity with LGBT Russians and Olympic athletes.  Principle 6 of the committee’s own charter states: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” If the committee chooses to violate its own rule, it will not only aid and abet the worst practices of the Russian hosts but also stain its own reputation for years to come.
Let’s hope the moral courage of world leaders like President Obama will give the IOC a resolve worth respecting.

Image courtesy of the Council for Global Equality.
This article was originally published by Al Jazeera America on December 18, 2013