If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.
The above is from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the response to a speech Clinton gave which ‘promoted gay rights around the world’. The overwhelmingly positive reaction (and concomitant presentation of America as a champion of ‘human rights’) neatly illustrated some problematic aspects of ‘LGBT rights’, not least the tendency for them to be viewed as separate from (even superior to)general human rights. At times it can seem like liberal Westerners are like laser-guided drones, zooming around the world in order to pinpoint abuses (perceived or real) against LGBT people (and really we’re overwhelmingly talking about the ‘G’ here.) We get petitions about Uganda, inaccurately attributed photographs about Iran and demands to cut Western aid to ‘anti-gay’ countries and in each case the engagement never progresses beyond the facile. There are no efforts to understand the wider context, few efforts to engage with activists who actually live and operate in the countries in question and certainly no consideration of Western complicity and/or hypocrisy. The simple narrative goes “LGBT rights are being abused somewhere, as Westerners we can do something about it”. And that’s it. You don’t have to ponder this for long for the ‘white saviour’, imperialist and orientalist fantasies to make themselves obvious.
We’ve been seeing this again recently as the noise around Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens grows louder, culminating this week in a New York Times column from Harvey Fierstein and a Buzzfeed ‘article’. Seriously, when you’re sharing Buzzfeed pieces to highlight human rights abuses you should probably have the self-awareness to step back. Now, the situation in Russia is clearly worrying and shouldn’t be ignored. The introduction of such a law on a national level and a law effectively banning LGBT activism have drawn Western attention. However while this marks a deterioration in LGBT rights in Russia, the situation has been troubling for quite some time with various regions of Russia bringing in laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ over the past decade. More than that, the human rights situation in Russia has been dreadful for many years. Even if we only look at the past month or so, we see a law criminalising blasphemy, the murder of journalists, the persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to the regime, the harassment and murder of human rights activists and extradition and torture. Russia has not been a functioning democracy, or respected human rights, since well before Putin came along. Yet it’s the LGBT issues which are seized on and lead to demands to boycott the country and the Winter Olympics. As is almost always the case, these calls for boycotts don’t seem to have arisen after discussions with activists in Russia over how best to proceed but have rather been imposed on high by Westerners, many of whom have clearly never set foot in Russia.
There’s a lot to be untangled here. There’s the question of whether a country which had its own ‘homosexual propaganda’ law until fairly recently really has the moral authority to be lecturing another on its treatment of LGBT people, of course. There’s the small matter that LGBT people are far from equal and far from free of homophobia in most Western countries. Yet as the wonderful Scott Long notes in this great piece, attacks on LGBT people in Western democracies tend to be portrayed as aberrations rather than being evidence of the daily hell faced by all LGBT people. There’s also the detail that the West has played a massive role in establishing and/or supporting regimes with appalling records on LGBT rights. This obviously brings to mind both the legacy of colonialism and the many repressive regimes which have Britain and America’s sticky fingers all over them but there’s also soft power. For example the One Campaign, which Bono credits as saving 9 million lives in Africa, opened the door to American evangelicals whose influence permeates (for example) the homophobic actions of the Ugandan government.
Then there is the tension between LGBT rights and ‘human rights’ which I wrote about in the piece first linked to above. It’s with neat symmetry that the Youth Olympics are to be held in China next year, as the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The wider LGBT community never joined in calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there are pretty much no calls for a boycott of the Youth ones, yet China is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. As Russia’s human rights record has only become of interest once it was seen to be targeting gay people, China’s perceived lack of laws targeting the same means their appalling human rights record is of little interest to people like Harvey Fierstein. Indeed, our own Olympics last year brought their fair share of authoritarianism and abuse, from ‘pre-arrests’ and forced evictions to exploitation of migrant workers and the prohibition of political protest. Yet speaking about these as a British person was seen as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negative’.
It’s this inability or flat-out refusal to look at our own human rights records first which most grates. Russia has human rights activists and they lead their fights, sometimes apparently with notable success. We should be so brave. Before being so eager to point out the problematic human rights of countries we perceive as lesser we should take a look at ourselves and our allies. It’s not without irony that Edward Snowden looks likely to be given at least a temporary Russian visa as he flees America’s persecution of whistle-blowers which is most notably represented by Bradley Manning (one of whose heroes is Harvey Milk). It is without irony that we condemn Russia for locking up Pussy Riot for ‘criticising the government’. The massive abuses of our national security agencies exposed by Snowden, both in America and here, have been met with nary a whimper by most people despite their enormous implications for our democracies. We rightly applaud the bravery of Malala Yousafzai yet are utterly silent about the (at least) hundreds of children murdered by Western (mostly but not solely American) drone strikes. The American government has even assassinated its own citizens and it hasn’t inspired much of an outcry. We turn a blind eye to our government’s support for Israel and its brutal oppression of Palestine. We shriek about the authoritarianism of Russia while the insanity of Guantanamo continues for yet another year and our own government destroys legal aid and sets up secret courts. Yet Fierstein declares that he has “a lot of faith in Obama”. Where is his concern for the human rights of those affected by his own government? From Trayvon Martin to Gareth Myatt, Jimmy Mubenga to Mark Duggan and beyond, our ‘liberal’ Western societies are riven with abuses. We wouldn’t expect activists in Russia to deal with any of these problems yet have no compunction about wading into their country without even speaking to them first. What these cases show is that ‘human rights’ are not experienced by all in the same way. They are always contested and always must be fought for and this requires that we pay some attention to our own societies first and foremost rather than indulging in liberal fantasies that we’re well-placed to start dotting around the world solving the problems which our governments and NGOs often have had a huge role in to begin with.
08-08-2013: This blog was getting a lot of hits yesterday which I’ve no doubt was due to Stephen Fry’s ‘open letter’ about Russia going viral. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned it’s pretty much a perfect illustration of some of the issues I wrote about here. It’s almost entirely about him, for a start. He finds no space to quote or even refer to voices from within Russia, despite having visited there last year. He surely can’t be unaware, for example, that LGBT activists in Russia have actually spoken out against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics? If you’re directly contradicting the wishes of activists actually living in the country you profess to speak for, you better have a compelling reason. Fry doesn’t even begin to offer one.
Furthermore, he contrasts Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and ends with an obsequious tribute to David Cameron:
I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.
“I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right”. Clearly this is not a man affected by the government’s ‘austerity’ programme and his words elide the many struggles occurring in the United Kingdom. Yet even looking beyond the myriad of injustices wrought by this government, we see that only this week Cameron entertained the King of Bahrain, a truly brutal dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship which is sold arms by the United Kingdom. Funnily enough, we also sell arms to Russia. “The civilised world”. The situation in Yemen is similarly sold to us as a battle between “the civilised world” and the barbarians – a narrative which obscures the complex and morally abhorrent truth.
Fry’s words further cement the myth that the people of Russia are voiceless, less-than-human and need saving by the eloquent, ‘civilised’ West. They act as propaganda for Cameron and the West and insult the many activists here who are fighting their own struggles against the government. And all for an action which there seems to be little call for from within Russia, and which the only Russian LGBT activists whose words we can find oppose. Western fantasies, indeed.