We Must Do More for LGBT Rights in Chechnya
By: Steven Jones
Imagine the systematic detainment and torture of citizens in illegal concentration camps. Imagine being rounded up for an intrinsic facet of your identity and being forced to give the names of your friends and closest confidants. What decade does this conjure? For gay Chechens, this is not just a reminder of atrocities from the 1940s, but a looming threat in 2018. The possibility of being discovered and prosecuted for being homosexual is a reality for thousands in the Russian republic, quelling any hopes of coming out, maintaining satisfying relationships, or even living a peaceful life. Despite the egregious actions of the Chechen government, not to mention Russian President Vladamir Putin’s own record on LGBT rights, very little is being done in the international community to put an end to the persecution. How can we stand idly by while these abuses continue? The international community, including the Trump administration, must take a stronger stand against Russia to protect basic human rights and put an end to the state-sanctioned discrimination.
According to reports by Human Rights Watch, over 100 men in the small Muslim-majority region were taken into custody and abused for being gay last March alone. The abuses are often credited to the policies of the brazen Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov and other officials deny the persecution of gays, claiming that there are no gay people in Chechnya, a claim so ridiculous it practically proves the incredibility of the government. This is not to speak of other abuses, such as police turning a blind eye to, or even encouraging, hate crimes. All of this is allowed to continue without interference from the federal Russian government.
The indifference of the federal government is not so surprising given that Russia is no stranger to homophobia. The issue first gained widespread attention leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In June 2013, just months before the games, a law punishing the distribution of “gay propaganda” was passed to widespread criticism from the outside. Protest was centered on concerns about LGBT athletes and tourists. When the games ended, discussion of homophobic policies and attitudes in Russia dwindled. It’s telling how fickle western attention is when issues of human rights violations are distant. The brief outcry was a positive step, but how can concern about short-term visitors overshadow concern for the people who live their entire lives under constant threat? The first step in combating homophobia on the international stage is to be aware of it. More than that, we must understand the real effect it has on global communities. Even being gay in America presents challenges. Imagine how difficult the psychology of living in constant fear of imprisonment must be. These are challenges that many in the west are simply unaware of, but they are all too real in Chechnya.
President Trump is perhaps uniquely positioned to put pressure on Russia to stop the gay persecution. Both Trump and Putin have expressed interest in détente. If Trump wants to make a deal with Russia, he has the opportunity to make human rights a necessary condition of that deal. Although a host of problems complicate American-Russian relations, promoting human rights and liberty has traditionally been, and should continue to be, a main tenant of US foreign policy. Trump claims to be a master in the art of the deal. If he could use his mastery to broker the end of Chechen gay persecution, he just might have something to back that claim.
If that sounds unlikely it’s because it is. The Trump administration has consistently acted hostilely toward LGBT rights, despite promising in a tweet to “fight for [the LGBT community] while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.” Having dismantled nearly every Obama-era protection, including LGBT health care directives, employment protections, and countless other protections and rights. It’s clear the Trump administration is an affront to gay rights. Any suggestion otherwise now seems downright hilarious. It would be a marked reversal for the administration to reverse this trend and prioritize LGBT rights, even in the extreme circumstances of Chechnya. While members of the administration have condemned the persecution (UN ambassador Nikki Haley spoke against it last April), no concrete actions have been taken to deal with it. Any improvement through a Trump brokered deal seems even more unlikely given increasingly strained relations with Russia. Russia continues to posture itself as an agitator. The same machismo with which Russia so opposes the LGBT community will limit Russia’s willingness to give into what it sees as western values.
The American government’s unwillingness to resolve Russian abuses does not mean that hope is lost. The best solution for change is the broader international community taking a stand. Analysts at the United Nations have called for Russia investigate the situation in Chechnya. This is a good start, but a Russian led investigation is far from perfect. An independent investigation is needed to learn more about the circumstances of the mistreatment, followed by appropriate condemnation. UN resolutions against human rights abuses in Chechnya have been approved in the past, but with few implications for Russia. The United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Crimea. Further sanctions are needed against Russia to hold back its waves of mistreatment. The economic powers of the world must refuse to work with a country that so blatantly mistreats people for who they are. Where ideological reasoning fails, the power of the purse is stronger. The economic pressing of Russia on a broad international scale is required to incite change.
The world can no longer sit idly observing the abuses in Chechnya. We cannot take for granted our own safety and ability to love freely. Now, in a post-marriage equality west, is not the time to abandon the fight for LGBT rights. The fight must become global to change policies and to change hearts. To make the world a better place to live, to stand for love, the international community must take a stronger stand against Russia to end the LGBT persecution in Chechnya and elsewhere.