Human rights activists struggle to fight Russia’s anti-gay law

Campaigns against the country's ban on "gay propaganda" are targeting Olympic sponsors

Topics: Russia, russian "gay propaganda" ban, russian lgbt activism, sochi olympics, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Visa, , ,

NEW YORK (AP) — The four-month campaign protesting Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda” is entering a new phase, as activists try to heighten pressure on the Olympics’ top corporate sponsors to speak out before the Winter Games in Sochi.

The Worldwide Olympic Partners — among them Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa — have thus far sidestepped requests to explicitly condemn the law, rebuffing efforts that included behind-the-scenes meetings and correspondence with Human Rights Watch.

Now, that organization and some of its allies have decided to go public with their dissatisfaction.

“It’s taken months for the sponsors to formulate lawyerly responses that say nothing,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “We’re going to work hard between now and Sochi to not let them off the hook.”

Launched in July, the multifaceted protest movement has had some successes and some setbacks. It clearly has raised awareness about the gay-rights situation in Russia and also has boosted hopes among activists that the International Olympic Committee will be more attentive to human rights issues in selecting future Olympic hosts.

Nonetheless, activists acknowledge some frustration that the contested law remains firmly in place — spared direct criticism by some of the Olympic movement’s major players.

“The reason why everyone is struggling with this is because there’s no magic bullet,” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay-rights group. “There’s no easy path to victory.”

Both Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign have written to all of the Worldwide Olympics Partners, urging the corporations to call for repeal of the Russian law.

To date, according to the two rights groups, none of the companies has taken that step, though several have expressed general support for human rights and touted their own nondiscrimination employment policies. There are 10 Worldwide Partners in all — including General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Dow Chemical, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and the French-based technology company Atos.

“The responses failed to recognize that their brands are propping up an event that will go down in history as the anti-gay games,” said Sainz.

The next steps for the leading protest groups remain to be determined.

Activist leaders say there is little interest at this stage in proposing formal boycotts of the corporate sponsors, but they hope to find other ways to intensify the pressure. Some activists have suggested a new wave of protests as the games begin in February, targeting Russian diplomatic missions and the corporate sponsors’ offices.

“No one is prepared to back down,” said Andre Banks of AllOut, one of the protest groups. “Consumers will hold these companies responsible. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far.”

Human Rights Watch made available to The Associated Press the letters sent by several of the corporations in response to its requests. In general, the letters — and separate statements sent by the sponsors to the AP — conveyed the companies’ disapproval of any form of discrimination and cited assurances provided by Russian authorities to the IOC that everyone would be welcome at the Winter Games regardless of sexual orientation.

“There’s no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches,” said a statement from McDonald’s. “We support the IOC’s belief that sport is a human right and the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination.”

Visa provided a similar statement to the AP. “We are engaged with the IOC on this important topic,” it said in part.

Coca-Cola, the target of recent gay-rights protests in Atlanta and New York City, provided the AP with a detailed rundown of its support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and noted that its employment practices had earned praise from the Human Rights Campaign over many years.

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“We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world,” it said.

Protest leaders acknowledged that Coca-Cola and several of the other top sponsors have indeed been diligent in protecting LGBT employees from discrimination. But they said those practices did not excuse any reluctance to speak out against the Russian law and to take a stand on human rights in Russia beyond the Olympic context.

“You can’t support gays and lesbians in one country, then stay silent on the issues in the places where gays and lesbians need vocal, powerful allies the most,” said Andre Banks.

The focus of the protests is a law passed with near unanimous support by Russian lawmakers and signed by President Vladimir Putin in June. It bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposes fines for providing information about the gay community to minors.

Its critics say the law reflects broad hostility toward gays and lesbians in Russia, fueling harassment and occasional acts of violence.

In an early phase of the protest campaign, activists called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka. The CEO of the company that produces Stolichnaya subsequently criticized the anti-gay law and said his firm had no ties to the Russian government.

Other protests ensued: online petitions, the promotion of Russian-language “Love Conquers Hate” T-shirts, the disruption of a few public events, including a Metropolitan Opera performance, that activists viewed as featuring supporters of Putin’s government.

Several of the initiatives fell short of their goals.

There were calls for the Miss Universe pageant to relocate from Moscow; it went ahead as scheduled earlier this month. Activists urged Alex Ovechkin, the Russian hockey star with the Washington Capitals, to speak out against the contested law; he demurred.

Activists also asked elected officials in more than 30 cities to sever “sister city” relationships with Russian cities. While the campaign produced several public statements denouncing the Russian law, Lansing, Mich., is thus far the only targeted city to sever ties, according to MoveOn.org.

Among gay-rights activists in Russia, there have been mixed views of the protests unfolding in the U.S. and Western Europe. Some have expressed gratitude; others have second-guessed the motives and strategies.

“These boycotts and protests have not made any gains for the Russian LGBT community and won’t in the future,” said Nikolai Alexeyev, a pioneer of Russia’s gay-pride movement. “I believe that a lot of people in the West have been doing PR for themselves using Russian issues.”

He suggested that Western governments ban entry to any Russian politician involved in passing the anti-gay law.

Several U.S. activists stressed the importance of working with their counterparts in Russia.

“The challenge is to make sure that actions taken by advocates outside of Russia are done in concert with the LGBT community there and will help lead toward long-term change — not provoke a post-games backlash,” said Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First. “That would be the worst case scenario.”

Overall, the protest campaign had driven home to U.S. activists that their recent victories on same-sex marriage and other domestic issues don’t guarantee swift successes for gay rights abroad.

“There’s some discouragement that it will be as difficult as we suspected,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “It just confirms the necessity of taking a long view, and not being distracted by the lack of a quick fix.”

___

Associated Press writer Laura Mills in Moscow contributed to this report.

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