With just a few days left until the hockey gold medal games and the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the eyes of the world are focused on the biennial celebration of the human spirit, determination, and competitive fair play.
However, a different drama has been playing out in Russia at the same time—one that has sometimes overshadowed the Games themselves. LGBT rights have suffered a severe backlash in Russia recently, with draconian laws and oppressive surveillance designed to stamp out homosexuality entirely. LGBT protesters have been met with violent police response.
But Russia is not the only nation in which LGBT rights have suffered recent reversals. Uganda just passed drastic regressive legislation serving up lifetime sentences for those in same-sex relationships and even prison sentences for those who fail to report same-sex couples to the authorities. Meanwhile, the wave of religious fundamentalist backlash that has swept over the Middle East in recent decades continues to make itself felt through strong resistance to sexual openness, including but not limited to public executions of those suspected of being in same-sex relationships.
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is nothing new, of course. But the sexual revolution in the West and the rapid expansion of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people across much of the developed world has led to a severe reactions from more traditional religious groups in many societies. Most of the societies enforcing these repressive laws are dominated by wealthy interests whose political power derives from more traditional and less urbane voting blocs closely aligned with conservative religious power structures. These institutions see expanded gender and sexual orientation rights as a threat not only to their power but to their very existence.
But the forces that give rise to the challenge of fundamentalist revanchism also present an opportunity for effective international action to protect and expand the rights of LGBT people worldwide. Civil rights advances in this area have been rapid and widespread across much of the developed world. They have been codified into law in many of the world’s most powerful nations, as well as a landmark UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in June 2011. International outcry over the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people in Russia, Uganda and elsewhere has been vocal.
This new yet broad consensus has not yet been enforced in a significant way on the global stage. But there is no reason that it could not be, using all of the diplomatic tools in the international arsenal from condemnation to even sanctions.
Unfortunately, of course, this brings the focus back to Russia. Any action on LGBT rights requiring Security Council support would run into resistance from Russia and possibly from China as well. Still, much can be done to protect LGBT rights even absent the Security Council. The UN, working along with member nations dedicated to advancing this latest front in the battle for universal human rights, can — and is — playing a major role in speeding up the process and overcoming resistance from regressive forces.