Guest piece by Michael Farrell: Council of Europe to step up struggle for LGBTI rights in Europe

Michael Farrell is the Irish member of ECRI and a member of its Bureau. ECRI is made up of one member from each member state of the Council of Europe.

Ten years after adopting a ground-breaking set of standards on LGBT rights, the Council of Europe (COE) is set to launch a new initiative to secure greater implementation of those standards across its 47 member states.

In 2010 the Committee of Ministers, the governing body of the COE adopted a Recommendation to member states on “Combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity”.  It was the first inter-governmental body to adopt a programme to decriminalise same-sex acts, prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, give same-sex couples rights equivalent to heterosexual couples, and to recognise transgender persons in their chosen gender.  The 2010 Recommendation was subsequently taken to include Intersex persons as well.

There has been a lot of progress in Europe on these issues since 2010 but, despite that progress, nearly one third of the COE member states have not yet implemented many of these rights.

Speaking at a conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Alliance-Europe (ILGA) recently, the COE Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Dunja Mijatovic, said: “We are in the midst of a serious backlash against the rights of LGBTI people across Europe”.  She referred to the detention and torture of gay men in Chechnya and negative developments in Russia, Poland, Turkey, Armenia and Hungary. 

ILGA itself has claimed that over 60 cities and towns in Poland have recently declared themselves to be “LGBT free” zones, while a Pride parade was attacked this year in the Polish city of Bialystok and other parades were prohibited in Russia and Turkey.

Faced with this spread of homophobia, transphobia, and vicious hate speech in Europe, some of it encouraged by ultra conservative elements in the Catholic and Orthodox churches,  the Committee of Ministers asked its Steering Committee on Human Rights to report on the implementation of the 2010 Recommendation and suggest ways of making it more effective.

In the meantime the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies, i.e. the member states’ Ambassadors to the COE, held an informal discussion on LGBTI rights earlier this month (November).  It was addressed by the new Secretary General of the COE, Ms Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the Human Rights Commissioner, a Judge of the European Court of Human Rights who summarised the Court’s decisions on LGBTI issues, and representatives of ILGA and the COE’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).

Secretary General Buric expressed concern about recent attacks on LGBTI persons and stressed that the COE was not seeking additional rights for the LGBTI community but equal protection and respect to that enjoyed by others in society.  Human Rights Commissioner Mijatovic spoke forcefully about the continuing harassment and persecution of LGBTI persons in some member states and urged strong action to counter this.  Representatives of 28 states, the Parliamentary Assembly of the COE, and the European Union spoke during the discussion.  The great majority strongly backed further action by the COE and the member states, and welcomed a decision by ECRI to adopt a new standard setting Gender Policy Recommendation on LGBTI rights. No-one opposed these initiatives, although the representatives of some states did not speak.

The report by the Steering Committee on Human Rights is expected before Christmas, so that it can be discussed by the Committee of Ministers early in the New Year. Given the strength of feeling by the majority of member states at the recent meeting and the concern of the Secretary General, LGBTI rights will be a priority issue for the Council of Europe in the next period as it struggles to repel the anti-LGBTI backlash identified by Human Rights Commissioner Mijatovic.




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