The rally that never took place

  • 2007-05-30
  • by Thomas Hammarberg
The ban on the planned anti-discrimination rally in Vilnius was unfortunate. Lithuania is under obligation through the European Convention on Human Rights to allow freedom of assembly and to prohibit discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation.

It would have been welcome if the city council in Vilnius had tried to prevent a potential disruption of public order, as opposed to banning the rally altogether. If authorities have a reason to fear for the safety of participants in a demonstration, they should provide protection. What is more, those who threaten public safety should be brought to justice.
The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled that a ban on a similar event in Warsaw in 2005 violated freedom of assembly and the prohibition of discrimination. It is indeed worrisome that even into the 21st century, gay pride parades and similar events are still in danger of being banned or disrupted. Such actions only further fuel existing prejudices and make it more difficult to end the vicious cycle.

Across Europe, many people live in constant fear of being exposed, while those who have declared their identities are facing discrimination and often harassment.
 It is equally disconcerting that so few politicians have stood up fully to this challenge. In discussions about demonstrations, local politicians in some countries have instead made clearly homophobic public statements. This kind of populism is most unfortunate and tends to "legitimize" discrimination.
I would therefore like to recall that the legal norms are absolutely clear on this. The European Convention on Human Rights 's which is part of national law in all Council of Europe countries, including Lithuania - does not allow discrimination on the basis of an individual's sexual orientation or gender identification. Guarantees against discrimination on any ground are provided in Article 14 of the Convention.

In significant decisions, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled that consensual sexual relations in private, between adults of the same sex, must not be criminalized; that there should be no discrimination when setting the age of consent for sexual acts; that homosexuals should also have the right to be admitted into the armed forces, and that same sex partners should have the same right of succession of tenancy as other couples. The principles established by major Court rulings should be respected by all countries that have ratified the Convention.
The authorities in Vilnius should therefore reconsider their decision and take concrete measures to protect the freedom of assembly of all individuals, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons. But the change of mentality that is needed requires a broad effort from the wider society: schools should give objective information about homosexuality and history education should be reviewed with the purpose of ensuring that Nazi crimes against homosexuals, and other aspects of their victimization, be objectively taught. Finally, I believe that courts, ombudsmen and national human rights institutions need to address discrimination based on sexual orientation as a priority.

Thomas Hammarberg is commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe.

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