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The Sochi Winter Olympics: who are the real winners?

Friday, 7 February 2014 11:36 GMT

A member of the LGBT community holds a rainbow flag during a demonstration against discrimination due to sexual orientation at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, outside the Russian embassy in Mexico City February 5, 2014. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At this stage, it looks like a very mixed picture

With the Olympic Games beginning today, human rights activists can start to evaluate their successes and failures in using the Games as a platform to call attention to the human rights situation in Russia.  At ILGA-Europe, we ask ourselves what the impact of the international mobilisation against the so-called homosexuality propaganda laws has been. 

At this stage, it looks like a very mixed picture.

We cannot deny that international mobilisation from civil society, artists and politicians has yielded to some change (rather than success?). One example of this is that last week, members of the Duma suggested changing the language of the propaganda law; ‘propaganda of non-traditional language’ would be replaced with the much more general ‘propaganda of the priority of sexual relations.’

However, activists in Russia do not view this development as a victory. The only thing that this will change is that talking about heterosexuality will also be in principle forbidden as there will be no place for any sexual education. But given the current context in which stigma and discrimination of sexual minorities is reaching widespread societal acceptance, it is hard to believe that provision of information related to heterosexual relationships or public displays of affection by different-sex couples run the same risk of being banned. The discriminatory element may be scrapped from the law books, but discrimination will very likely remain in practise.

The move of ‘softening ‘ Russia’s laws is also to be seen along other recent steps taken by Russian state authorities under leadership of President Putin – such as the release of the Pussy Riots and Greenpeace activists – to improve Russia’s human rights’ image. There are no proofs yet that this has brought about any real tangible changes to the human rights situation in the country.

These recent moves do indicate that the Russian political leadership is not impermeable to international pressure which undermines its image internationally. But international mobilisation and external pressure are only likely to become effective if done consistently and sustained over time , and if it is paired with a strong commitment to support change that comes from within the country.

When we look at the response of political leaders and other influential actors to the human rights situation in Russia, there have been a number of steps in the right direction.

Political leaders and governments have spoken out. They need to continue to do so, not only in some circumstances, but whenever they meet with Russian leaders.

A few multinational companies have addressed human rights concerns in Russia. American Apparel setup a campaign around the Olympics while the airline Corendon said that it would bring LGBT activists to Sochi for half of the costs. AT&T also expressed public concerns about the situation in Russia. Their efforts were praised by activists.

But most companies –including important Olympic Sponsors- remain silent about the laws. This is despite the mounting pressure g from various advocacy groups who worked to mobilise multinationals to speak out against the worrying human rights developments in Russia. If several companies were to come together to speak out, it could have a real impact. A group of companies acting together would stand much stronger than any one company acting alone.

Civil society organisations over the past months have been mobilised as never before, a mobilisation which has resulted in hundreds of initiatives in support of the Russian LGBT community. For civil society, the Olympic Games have provided an excellent stage to do campaigning. What is important now is to look for new ways to address concerns after the Olympics and not to let the mobilisation die down.

Public protests need to be coupled with support for efforts to change hearts and minds of people within Russia. These efforts can only be successful if they are developed and implemented by people in the country. Civil society organisations throughout Russia have a lot of work to do in supporting LGBT communities and getting support from important actors from within society.

Under the current laws, doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers and others professionals are not sure how to exercise their job when working with LGBT citizens. Many of them have ceased to provide services to the community. This is a good example of where deep investment is needed, to ensure that the LGBT community doesn’t stand alone. Governments can support these efforts politically, many others financially.

The real winners of this Olympic Games will be the governments, political leaders, activists, companies and everybody else who will remain standing in support of the Russian LGBT community long after the Olympic torch in Sochi has been blown out.


Evelyne Paradis is Executive Director of ILGA-Europe. Prior to joining ILGA-Europe, Evelyne worked with the UN High Commission for Human Rights, the Council of Europe and human rights NGOs in Canada.

Björn van Roozendaal is Programmes Director of ILGA-Europe. Before joining ILGA-Europe, Björn worked with COC Netherlands, where he worked at various international organisations, including the United Nations, the OSCE, the European Union and the Council of Europe.

ILGA-Europe is the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Association and works for equality and human rights at the European level. ILGA-Europe is an international non-governmental umbrella organisation bringing together 407 organisations from 45 of the 49 countries in Europe