Saturday

28th May 2016

Opinion

EU and Ukraine: too busy to protect gay rights?

  • The EU’s soft position is making it harder for pro-rights groups to lobby (Photo: compscigrad)

The new Ukrainian government has just made a u-turn on protecting gay rights and the European Commission is playing along.

The Ukrainian cabinet recently submitted a package of bills needed to implement the first phase of the EU visa-free travel procedure. A bill prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace was not among them. For its part, the EU agreed that it is "not the right time".

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It is true the Ukrainian government has its hands full.

There is no money in the treasury, parliament is volatile, state workers are demoralised, and, above all there is a threat of war with Russia.

In these conditions, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has prioritised EU visas, the EU free trade agreement and protecting the Ukrainian mainland from Russia.

On 26 March, delegations from the European Commission and the European Parliament landed in Kiev to talk to the new political elite.

We do not know everything that was discussed. But EU officials later told Ukrainian LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) groups the bill on rights in the workplace is no longer needed to move from phase I to phase II on the visa-free procedure.

Instead, the government promised the EU a handful of things by way of compensation: clarifying that the Ukrainian constitution forbids any discrimination and boosting the power of the Ombudsman.

It also submitted bill 4581 – the "Draft Law on Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine (concerning prevention and combating discrimination)" – to parliament on 27 March. This fiddles around with technical issues, like burden of proof, but does nothing to alter the Labour Code.

These developments have prompted debate.

The LGBT group Fulcrum published an official statement – "Bill of Rights" – which says: "Human rights can not be a matter of political bargaining. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be banned without any negotiations."

Its views have broad support in Ukrainian civil society.

Europe also spoke out. The director of Ilga-Europe, a Brussels-based gay rights NGO, Evelyne Paradis, said the postponement of LGBT reforms in Ukraine "creates the impression that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are less important than others" and that "the EU runs the risks of undermining its key human rights principles".

The EU's soft position is making it harder for pro-rights groups to lobby.

The party of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko (which has a parliamentary majority) has already indicated it will not back a ban on discrimination in the workplace in case its rivals use this against them in the May presidential elections.

There is plenty of homophobia in Ukrainian society, and what we are seeing here is a new lease of life for an old problem.

Our leaders do not see gay rights in terms of alignment with international norms. They see it as a tool of political manipulation.

The former PM Mykola Azarov used to do it – he claimed the EU association agreement will force Ukraine to legalise gay marriage (not true). Russia is doing it – its propaganda juxtaposes liberal EU values versus orthodox Russian ones. Now, our new leaders are doing it too.

The consequences of the EU's actions in this area are deeper than they appear at first glance.

Homophobic politicians or other purveyors of hate speech can now claim the EU is happy to integrate with Ukraine as it is, discrimination and all.

What we need for this crucial bill to go through is for our leaders to say clearly and openly that in a normal country in the 21st century it cannot be legal to refuse someone a job because they are gay.

We must show that the post-Maidan Ukraine is different.

But instead of an open dialogue, we got a backroom deal in which the EU commission dropped gay rights for the sake of moving more quickly to phase II of visa-free travel.

In this context, we should ask ourselves, what is the price of human rights?

People who were hardened on the Maidan know the answer. The LGBT community in Ukraine knows it as well: They are priceless and non-negotiable. But how do we teach this to the EU?

The writer is the director of the Kiev-based pro-LGBT rights NGO, the All-Ukrainian Charitable Organisation

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