‘Everyone will be welcome’, is simply not enough.

A cup full of civil liberties. Mmmm. /source: Business Insider

A cup full of civil liberties. Mmmm. /source: Business Insider

Olympic boycott of Sochi is not the answer.

Article – Liam Fitz-Gerald – Contributor

On June 11th 2013, the Russian Federation passed a restrictive law against its sexual minority citizens. The Russians claim protecting children was this law’s focal point. It would punish individuals spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” Amnesty International says the fines for individual violations would reach up to about $156 or 5,000 RUB (Russian currency). Any public officials that dissent against the law would face fines reaching ten times that amount. Organizations that advocate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transvestite (LGBT) rights face heavier fines of $31,547 or 1,000,000 RUB.  Citizens of other countries trying to discuss LGBT rights would face immediate expulsion or a brief jail stint (15 days) followed by deportation.  At the end of June, President Vladimir Putin wrote it into law.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia ended legal prohibitions against homosexuality. Yet reactionary elements, ranging from individuals in the Russian Orthodox Church to ultraconservative politicians, have moved against greater rights for the LGBT community.

There has been political outrage. U.S. President Barack Obama said that he had “no patience” for such a discriminatory edict. In Ottawa, foreign affairs minister John Baird called the law “mean-spirited and hateful.” There has been rightful concern over the safety of LGBT athletes at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Celebrities denounced the law, some calling for boycotts of Sochi. George Takei, Lt Sulu on Star Trek: The Original Series, called for Vancouver to be the alternative venue. Wentworth Miller of Prison Break came out as gay on August 22nd and refused to attend a Russian Film Festival.

The Russian government on August 22nd claimed western athletes and those attending the games wouldn’t be harassed. Article 6 of the Olympic Charter says “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.” The Russians told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that they would uphold that provision. According to the Globe and Mail, they had sent a letter of reassurance to the IOC that discrimination against the LGBT community would not occur. IOC President Jacques Rogge said the Russians had said “everyone will be welcome.”

This is simply not enough. For one thing, it is still unknown if Russian officials would attempt to arrest athletes or fans calling for rights for the LGBT community. For the athletes’ safety, and because of the IOC’s ban on “political gestures,” the call for human rights in Russia will have to be made outside Sochi. If Russia wishes to be part of the international community, then it is up to human rights activists around the world to let them know that there are standards. Putin and his government can think again if they think human rights supporters will forget about this law.

This is an effort that must stretch beyond the end of Sochi. In the West, we have a responsibility to not forget and to let our politicians know this. Our government cannot forget about this crucial human rights issue, and it must be at the forefront of future negotiations with the Russians. Let us write to our Members of Parliament, expressing concern with these laws. We must call on a bi-partisan effort to craft effective policy on this issue. Specifically, we must ask for stringent human rights improvements in any economic or political agreement with Russia. We should not be afraid to have future agreements with “teeth.”

Obviously, not all Russians support this bill. Many have protested against it and have been arrested and imprisoned. A Telegraph poll shows that 39% of Russians want equal rights for LGBT Russians. There is a large progressive element in Russia. We must let them know that we are aware of the issues, and we care. Therefore, at the Olympics and after, let supporters and advocates of human rights remind Russia that this law is unacceptable.

While it is tempting to call for a boycott of Sochi, I do not think that is the answer. Not because of the athletes and their training, but because Russian reformers and human rights activists need to know we have hope for Russia and believe that things can improve. So for their sake, lets treat Russia as a modern country, but remind it internationally, that modern countries must respect human rights. So let our eyes turn to Russia and other violators of human rights, and let them know that we are watching and not forgetting.

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