There’s more going on in Russia than just homophobic law

12 April 2013

There’s more going on in Russia than just homophobic law

Protests surrounding the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Netherlands on 8th April are almost wholly concerned with the anti-gay law currently being enacted in his country. Although this law is absolutely unacceptable, the virtually exclusive attention paid to it be politicians and the media is indefensible, as there are a great many more, and more serious, human rights abuses being committed in Russia which are crying out to be noticed.

Harry van Bommel

Exclusive attention to the anti-gay law is too one-sided

In Russia a law is currently being enacted which would make what is being called ‘homosexual propaganda’ a punishable offence. Breaking this law, for example by distributing information on homosexuality, can lead to a stiff fine. It’s absolutely obvious that this law is in conflict with human rights. In practice it will represent an extreme form of discrimination against the LGBT community, so it’s understandable that LGBT organisations in the Netherlands see Putin’s visit as something against which they should protest emphatically. The gay rights group COC is, for example, handing out rainbow flags in Amsterdam. When Putin’s in town, these will hang at half-mast. The flag, a symbol of homosexual pride and diversity, will also fly over the Town Hall. This is a fine, symbolic act of resistance and I hope that this flag will soon be waving proudly in many parts of Amsterdam.

Virtually limiting attention from the media and from politicians to the issue of the treatment of homosexuals is, however, unjustified. To date this is what has occurred. It is of course to be commended that Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans, during the recent visit of his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov publicly voiced criticisms of the anti-gay law, but it is disturbing that other human rights abuses received no attention in the media, all the more so as human rights organisations have put so much effort over the last few years into reporting these abuses. Since the parliamentary elections at the end of 2011, the situation in the country has deteriorated rapidly.

Right to demonstrate restricted

Following the parliamentary elections, for example, hundreds of demonstrators in whose eyes these had not been conducted honestly were subject to arbitrary arrest. Six months later, during Putin’s inauguration in May, 2012, more than a thousand demonstrators were arrested because they were wearing pink ribbons to protest against Putin’s policies. Shortly afterwards legislation was forced through Parliament further limiting the space for demonstrations. Another law, also adopted last year, ruled in addition that any NGO receiving finance from abroad must register as a ‘foreign agent’, thereby sending the message that people working for such organisations were foreign spies. Stiff fines are in prospect and NGOs are now saying that the result has been that they exercise even more self-censorship than was the case in the past.

Pussy Riot

The recent raids by the Russian police on the offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as hundreds of other social organisations are illustrative of the repressive character of this legislation. Prompted by the intimidating searches of their premises, Amnesty International called on Timmermans, in addition to protesting the antigay law, to publicly disapprove these raids. The minister would do well to heed this call. Germany and other countries have already done so. Members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were condemned to prison because in a political statement that lasted no more than forty seconds, they expressed criticism of Putin and of the close ties between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church. Two of the three members involved are now doing time under awful conditions in a punishment camp. The condemned members of the band are now, in common with many other Russian prisoners of conscience, under lock and key for no crime other than the expression of their opinions.

Journalists threatened, abused and murdered

Threats, intimidation and physical abuse of human rights activists and independent journalists, often committed by the Russian authorities themselves, are also widespread. Journalists are being regularly murdered under extremely shadowy circumstances, and pursuit and prosecution of the perpetrators invariably fails. The harsh reality is that in Russia activists and critical journalists must fear for their lives. Via the Embassy in Moscow more concrete support should be given by the Netherlands to those defending human rights. Experience teaches that only maintaining contact with them can offer effective protection.

Torture and disappearances

In the Caucasus, where an Islamist uprising is in process, repression is that much more severe. The Russian police and security services are frequently responsible for torture and forced disappearances, while families and sympathisers of the rebels can count on collective punishment. Yet international attention to this Russian cancer has almost completely vanished. This is also wholly unjustified.

No-one of course doubts that the rights of homosexuals in Russia are under enormous pressure, but the harsh reality is that many other human rights are also under pressure, sometimes much greater pressure. To keep quiet about this is a misreading of the gravity of these human rights abuses, which is why the Netherlands must discuss their seriousness with Putin. Otherwise he will go back to Moscow laughingly thinking that ‘in the Netherlands they’re not bothered about anything else.’

This column first appeared on 6th April 2013, in the original Dutch, on The Post Online. Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP.

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