A Global Look at Gay Rights: 'The Fight Against Discrimination Must Go On'

A boat carrying a rainbow flag sails along the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. The country has adopted strict rules against gay rights in recent months. Zoom
AP

A boat carrying a rainbow flag sails along the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. The country has adopted strict rules against gay rights in recent months.

In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program at Human Rights Watch, discusses the current debates on same-sex marriage in Europe and the United States and virulent homophobia in Russia and Uganda.

Boris Dittrich, the 57-year-old advocacy director for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch in New York, has been involved in policies boosting the standing of same-sex relationships since early on in his political career. As a member of parliament in the Netherlands for more than 12 years, he was not only one of the first openly gay men to serve in office, but also the person responsible for legislation that made Holland the first country in the world to introduce full-fledged same-sex marriage.

Dittrich's work on human rights has taken him to many corners of the world, including Russia, which has been plagued by institutionalized homophobia and violence against gay men and lesbian women over the past decade, and countries in Eastern Europe that have failed to develop the progressive policies seen in many Western European countries. Dittrich recently announced he would relocate from New York to Berlin, the city from which he will base his advocacy work on behalf of LGBT issues beginning in May.

SPIEGEL ONLINE recently caught up with Dittrich and discussed anti-gay legislation heading toward approval in Russian parliament, protests over the French government's efforts to elevate same-sex marriage to the same status as heterosexual pairings and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's own opposition to calls for similar action in her country.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Dittrich, as the advocacy director of the Human Rights Watch program on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) affairs, you will soon be moving to Berlin. What will your main points of focus be here?

Dittrich: Largely Eastern Europe, with a special focus on Russia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Russia has been a focal point for discrimination against LGBT people in the past year. Ten regions have adopted legislation forbidding what they describe as pro-homosexual propaganda. Similar legislation is pending in six regions.

Dittrich: More troubling is that the national parliament, the Duma, has adopted similar legislation in its first reading forbidding what it calls "homosexual propaganda" from being disseminated to people under the age of 18. If a private individual were to be caught speaking positively about homosexuality in public -- for example by promoting safe sex and condoms in relation to homosexuality -- then that person could be fined the equivalent of $160. An NGO could face a massive $16,000 penalty. This is extremely troubling and a violation of international human rights laws, and even the European Court of Human Rights has stated this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are European Union leaders taking sufficient action to pressure Russia to ensure the basic human rights of gays and lesbians are protected?

Dittrich: On April 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin will open the Hanover Trade Fair and hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Human Rights Watch, together with a number of other NGOs, are protesting against the propaganda legislation and other human rights violations in Russia. Putin has orchestrated a crackdown on civil society. More than 200 NGOs were recently inspected without any announcement in an attempt to intimidate these groups. In February, the Dutch foreign minister visited Moscow and conveyed the message that the Netherlands rejects the legislation. A vicious back and forth ensued in the joint press conference, with Russia's foreign minister stating his country was "independent" and others shouldn't tell it what to do. But all European leaders should consistently raise the issue when they meet with with Putin and other Russian dignitaries. Russia has ignored decisions from the European Court of Human Rights. European leaders like Merkel should make it clear to Moscow that this behavior is intolerable.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This kind of discrimination in Europe's backyard isn't limited to Russia. What are some other major flashpoints?

Dittrich: The situation is even worse in Ukraine, where a similar "propaganda" law has been tentatively adopted in a first reading. Instead of just fines, however, Ukraine is seeking to criminalize positive statements about homosexuality, and it can even carry a prison sentence of up to five years. Meanwhile, in Moldova, several larger cities have even declared themselves to be "gay-free zones". It may not be legally binding, but it is certainly a psychological factor that will add pressure on gay men or lesbian women living in such a city. The developments in these cities in Moldova happened after a visit by an American evangelical minister named Scott Lively, who held meetings with members of city councils.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have also accused Scott Lively of playing an instrumental role in influencing Uganda's anti-gay legislation.

Dittrich: It's not just Scott Lively, but he is very vocal and has been in Uganda a lot, where he teaches courses on the "homosexual danger". He warns people attending that in the United States, gays have become very powerful, leading to same-sex marriage and immoral behavior. Among those attending one of his courses was David Bahati, a member of parliament who then introduced Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill, in which there's a provision for the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality". Another clause in the law requires that people report anyone they know to be gay or lesbian to the police within 24 hours. If they fail to do so, they can face a prison sentence of up to three years. A vote hasn't happened yet, but the bill enjoys the support of a large majority of the Ugandan parliament. This very harsh legislation is obviously a violation of all kinds of international human rights laws.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the chances of passage appear to be strong.

Dittrich: It frequently appears on the agenda in parliament, but then it disappears for a few weeks again. Our assessment is that it is some kind of political game between parliament and the president. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is under tremendous international pressure not to countersign the law once it has been passed by parliament. Apparently Museveni is also fearful of what will happen if it passes and how society will react to it. There have been vicious campaigns in the media recently, with newspapers sometimes outing gay men and lesbians with pictures and stories about where they live, work and even providing the license plate numbers of their cars.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Last year, Ugandan gay rights activists sued Scott Lively. Has this had an impact on quieting his efforts to spread hatred against gays and lesbians?

Dittrich: Frank Mugisha, one of the heads of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and others sued Lively in a state court in Massachusetts. Mugisha recently traveled to the United States for the first hearing in the case and also visited us. We asked what kind of impact the case could have knowing it may be years before a decision is made. The interesting thing is that it is actually a psychological one. American pastors will now have to realize that they can't just hop on a plane and go to Uganda, Zambia, Lithuania or Moldova to spread their hate and then just go back home and forget about it. The Alien Tort Claims Act allows foreign activists to start cases in the US and, soon, the consequences of a speech given by someone like Lively can then be felt back home.

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chuchu3151 08/20/2013
Well, if the gay population really want us to believe that being homosexual is the new normal, then I suppose it is the ideal way to introduce population control? It is a foolproof proven method and no coercion involved, just some good old fashion media propaganda.
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About Boris Dittrich
  • Human Rights Watch
    Boris Dittrich, 57, is the advocacy director for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch in New York. Prior to joining the organization in 2007, he served as a member of the Dutch parliament for more than 12 years. As an MP, he initiated legislation that made the Netherlands become the first country in the world to allow same-sex marriage. He was born in the Dutch city of Utrecht and studied at Leiden University.


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