The Frozen Conflict of LGBT Rights

Close-up of rainbow gay pride flags
Close-up of rainbow gay pride flags

One wonders whatever happened to the vigor with which the rights of LGBT people was put on the international agenda a few years ago. In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics the plight of gay, lesbian,bisexual and transgender people was "in vogue." Countless articles, declarations by leading personalities from all walks of life saw the light of day, only to be almost forgotten by now.

More than three years ago, in numerous writings we warned that the push-back to the rights of LGBT people is the "canary in the coal-mine," a sign that democracy is backsliding, that freedom is at stake. Let me repeat: when the rights of a small, well identified, vulnerable and defenseless community is allowed to be picked upon, more importantly when this behavior is sanctioned by state power, more bad things will happen. Has the LGBT rights issue become a frozen conflict? Cynically "overtaken by more important" events. Should we really accept the view that this is a secondary, "luxury" issue compared to other problems the world faces?

Human rights, and within that, LGBT rights as a cutting-edge rights issue, should be a priority for our community of democracies. Concerns for the violation of human rights is not an on and off thing. LGBT rights are not a commodity that can be traded in for other "causes." It is part of what we are supposed to be about as nations and as citizens of the free world: accepting and tolerant.

But a one size fits all solution is not feasible either. Our solutions and successes cannot be transposed to other cultures easily. With the Supreme Court decision, the United States has now completed the legal frameworks for full equality, a huge step, showing the way for others. However, the success of America, the free life gay people live in the great cities of the United States (or Europe), cannot just be "exported" to other parts of the world. As a colleague, a life-long student of Africa explained: " Each time I raise the gay rights issue with otherwise open minded friends in Uganda, Kenya or Nigeria, I bump into a seemingly impermeable wall of rejection." We have learned that, while US leadership is important, maybe America should not be at the forefront of LGBT rights advocacy in parts of the world where this is seen as an effort to impose "American values and lifestyles." Perhaps Europeans, Canadians and others should take a leading role.

There is a danger that we will get into a "pragmatic" mode of foreign policy. This is a codeword for not raising the issue of human rights in our negotiations. This would mean that our diplomats, foreign service officials, our ambassadors will look away, or just pay lip service, when they encounter blatant violations of LGBT rights. LGBT rights, as human rights in general should not be a feel good thing. It cannot be gotten off our chest by participating at pride events, giving to LGBT organizations, openly accepting gay colleagues. It takes political will, supporting it takes institutional and personal courage and initiative.

There are also new phenomenon some countries must deal with. No doubt Sweden has been among the most advanced in granting equality to its LGBT citizens. It has been an example for others to follow. However, as the refugee crisis is overwhelming the country, it is suddenly faced with a new phenomenon: violence against LGBT refugees who are discriminated against by their very own refugee communities. How to deal with this? Should they be separated from the rest? Or should it not be the responsibility of the Swedish government to clamp down on those refugees who discriminate against LGBT people. Make it a sine qua non condition to their refugee status to accept the laws and practices of the country where they take refuge?

One also wonders if we have done our homework analyzing our past efforts and mistakes, to better understand what we did right and what we did wrong in the case of Russia. Was there ever a long term strategy to deal with the violation of rights of the Russian LGBT community, broken down into tactics? Isn't our failure to follow up on our enthusiasm before Sochi a reflection of our overall failure to work out a strategy on Russia in general? Isn't the improvisation on the LGBT rights issue a reflection of the improvisations of our overall Russia policy? Isn't it also a sign that we have not put together a more sophisticated tool box which takes into account the possibility of setbacks? Does this not substantiate our thinking that LGBT rights is closely related to geopolitics?

Our own scholarly work is important in the process of building the alliance between the LGBT community and straight people. For no matter how much progress has been made, no minority can succeed fully without the strong support of the majority within which it lives.

Those who believe that human rights is an essential tool in our foreign policy tool-box, we have a responsibility to help keep the LGBT rights issue on the agenda of foreign policy practitioners. Places of strategic research and scholarly work need to create the platforms where the subject is discussed, put in the context of geo-strategic thinking.

That is the way to unfreeze this frozen conflict.