LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The European Union (EU) should halt negotiations with Moscow on visa-free travel in response to Russia’s anti-gay laws and poor human rights record, a gay rights group said on Friday.
Following a trip to the Russian capital with EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) said suspending the talks could prompt Russia to take a step back on laws passed last year which include a ban on the spread of homosexual "propaganda" among minors.
“Free travel needs to become of value to all citizens equally. In the current context it is likely that minority groups travelling to Russia will be discriminated and stigmatised, with virtually no protection from law enforcement personnel,” said Björn van Roozendaal, ILGA-Europe’s programmes director.
“There is no place for further negotiations until discriminatory laws are scrapped from the law books, civil society can operate freely and all citizens can travel without fear for human rights violations. Suspending the negotiations can encourage Russia to abolish discriminatory laws such as the so-called homosexuality anti-propaganda law, and to take legal measures that lead to equality and non-discrimination of all citizens, including the LGBT community," he added.
The EU and Russia have been in talks over visa-free travel for years. They recently agreed on a list of “Common Steps”, the implementation of which will lay the ground for possible negotiations on a visa waiver agreement, according to the EU Home Affairs website.
In an email to Thomson Reuters Foundation, the EU Home Affairs Commission said Malmström was “very concerned” about the current human rights situation in Russia but did not intend to suspend the visa negotiations.
“Overall, the Commission considers that Russia has made progress in the implementation of the Common Steps. The work is however far from being accomplished, particularly in the area of human rights,” the email said.
“Russia needs to make significant progress towards a comprehensive policy to fight discrimination and xenophobia. This is essential to ensure a safe environment underpinning the freedom of movement."
Human and gay rights advocates have called for a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi in protest at Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law.
In a move to silence international critics, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that no athlete would face discrimination at the Games. The International Olympic Committee has not commented on Russia's gay propaganda law, but some human rights activists are hoping Sochi will be used as a platform to protest.
“We recently called on European leaders to not attend the games, as to send a strong signal of concern in relation to the current human rights situation in Russia,” van Roozendaal told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We fear that the situation for LGBTI people and other minority groups will further deteriorate after the Olympics, when the world’s eyes turn away.”
In a report published on Friday, ILGA highlighted a number of legal steps taken by the Russian government in the last two years and which, the rights group said, are increasingly limiting the rights of minority and civil society groups in the country.
In June 2013 a law was passed banning the adoption of Russian children by foreign same-sex couples, the report said.
In August last year, a Russian MP announced he would prepare a draft law prohibiting people in homosexual relationships to donate blood. However, no such draft has yet been introduced, ILGA noted.
The LGBTI community in Russia and its supporters has lamented the consequences of the government’s “crackdown on gays”.
In a report published earlier this month by VICE, a young gay rights activist talked about “Occupy Paedophilia”, a group that is allegedly behind attacks on young homosexuals. Members of the group scour the web looking for men seeking to date other men, and set up meetings with them.
“It’s very dangerous…Young guys can often find themselves in completely unexpected situations and simply walk into the trap,” the young activist told VICE.
“Lately they’ve been using what they call the ‘urine therapy’,” the youth said. “That’s when victims get urine poured all over them…It’s considered to have a curing effect.”
“All of this is filmed and put online…This type of attack completely breaks someone.”
In other parts of Russia, the anti-propaganda law led to authorities refusing authorisation of street demonstrations, the New York Times reported.
Since the passing of the law, some young gay Russians have been using the web to voice their concerns, share their stories and support others through present difficulties. Among the most popular is “Deti-404” (“Children 404”), an online project gathering testimonies of LGBTI youth from across the country.