Less Equal: LGBTI Human Rights Defenders in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights have emerged as one of the most contentious human rights issues across Eastern Europe and Central Asia since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. While the gradual establishment of grassroots LGBTI rights groups in the region has resulted in some visibility for LGBTI people, this has led to a fierce backlash from the majority. The introduction of “LGBTI propaganda laws” in Russia and the targeting and forced disappearing of gay men in Chechnya are just two examples of this backlash. While the global spotlight on the plight of LGBTI people in this region has been focussed on Russia, the situation of LGBTI people – and of activism for LGBTI rights – in other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia has generally received less attention from the international community.

Amnesty International decided to explore the state of LGBTI movements in Eastern Europe and Central Asia beyond Russia; in particular, in those countries which have joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. There Amnesty International found an overspill of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and practice from Russia, which has exacerbated existing homophobic and transphobic attitudes. One outcome of this is that LGBTI human rights defenders (HRDs) and activists have come to feel “less equal” within the local human rights community dominated by “mainstream” HRDs, who do not primarily work on LGBTI rights.

This report is based on desk research and missions to these four countries, where Amnesty International conducted participatory workshops with LGBTI activists, HRDs and community members, as well as talking to “mainstream” HRDS and international stakeholders.

International human rights law prohibits discrimination – when someone is treated differently, in law or in practice, in a way that impairs or nullifies the enjoyment of their rights – because of a characteristic such as sexual orientation or gender identity. Similarly, international standards do not discriminate between LGBTI HRDs and “mainstream” HRDs, and oblige the state authorities to protect both.

The reality in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is different. LGBTI HRDs and activists face challenges that are not necessarily experienced by “mainstream” HRDs in their work. Social and political homophobia and transphobia contribute to the demonization of LGBTI HRDs and activists. Politicians and media often engage in advocacy of homophobic or transphobic hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. Russia, which is trying to yield more political influence across the region, attempts to shape social values and laws across its neighbours. This has included pushing for “LGBTI propaganda” laws and advocating for imagined, shared “Eurasian (evraziiskie) values”, presented as opposing “Western values”, including by their hostility towards LGBTI rights. This leads to politicization and de-humanization of LGBTI rights, as they are often discussed in the context of foreign policy considerations in Eurasia: pro-Western vs. pro-Russian.

This status quo contributes to, and is reinforced by, the fact that state authorities in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are unwilling to protect LGBTI HRDs and activists: police often fail to prevent and investigate homophobic and transphobic hate crimes against LGBTI HRDs, activists and community members. 

Importantly, many across civil society in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including some well-established NGOs and prominent HRDs, have proved unwilling to offer public support towards LGBTI HRDs and activists. Some are even outright homophobic. This disempowers LGBTI HRDs and sets them apart as different from “mainstream” HRDs. As LGBTI HRDs and activists do not have many allies inside their countries, they receive support from international donor agencies and embassies. This once again interplays with the narrative that LGBTI rights are an external import designed to undermine the culture and national values of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. International human rights standards and mechanisms, along with the political pressure from the “Western” capitals, often remain the only ways for LGBTI HRDs and activists to voice their concerns to the respective national governments and achieve some tangible progress towards their objectives.

On top of these external challenges, LGBTI movements across Eastern Europe and Central Asia are facing internal weaknesses that stifle their work. These include internalized homophobia and transphobia, lack of awareness on LGBTI rights within the community, and “burnout” of activists. The latter, considering the hostile operational environment, is often severe and long-term, with negative consequences for the activists themselves, as well as for the long-term sustainability of LGBTI rights movements in this region.

These challenges weaken the reach and impact of advocacy for LGBTI rights, and threaten the sustainability of work towards realizing the rights of LGBTI people. All relevant human rights stakeholders in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan must promptly address these challenges.

State authorities in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan must ensure that LGBTI HRDs can carry out their human rights work in safety without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. National governments must adopt legislative measures to counter homophobia and transphobia, including: comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation expressly including the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity; laws that unambiguously cover all bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and legislation explicitly prohibiting advocacy of hatred based on sexual orientation and gender identity that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. Government officials must publicly condemn homophobia and transphobia.

Local human rights NGOs must work alongside LGBTI rights organizations united by the principle of the universality of human rights, to promote tolerance and non-discrimination, on all grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity. They must collectively resist efforts by state and non-state groups to intimidate and marginalize LGBTI HRDs and rights activists, and publicly express solidarity and support.

International actors must press national governments to adopt legislation to counter homophobia and transphobia, including a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. They must work closely along with LGBTI HRDs and organizations and include them in consultations and other events on HR issues. Read more via Amnesty International