Obama rightly joins political boycott of Winter Olympics

The US should apply even more pressure on Putin for crackdown on Russia’s LGBT community

December 18, 2013 1:30PM ET
A demonstration in July at the Russian Consulate in New York against Russian anti-gay legislation and Russian President Vladimir Putin's stand on gay rights.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

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 by announcing 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 Equality should 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. 

Tanya L. Domi is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the chair of the board of directors for GetEqual, a national LGBT civil rights organization in the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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