Published by the New York Times April 24, 2017
The first reports about the arbitrary detention and possible extrajudicial killings of men suspected of being gay in Chechnya were bloodcurdling. The authorities began rounding up men after activists had sought permission to hold gay pride parades in other parts of the North Caucasus region, which is predominantly Muslim, according to a newspaper report and activists. At least three turned up dead. Some people reported being tortured.
Then came the baffling denial. “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return,” Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, told the Russian news agency Interfax.
This abominable crime by a Russian republic and its reprehensible cover-up warrant a strong response from Moscow and the international community. That would be a stretch for the Russian government, which is denying that there is evidence of any crimes and has sought to keep its own gay population invisible. In 2013, it enacted a so-called anti-propaganda law that criminalizes promoting or celebrating non-straight conduct and identity — while government officials claimed that all Russians were entitled to protection from discrimination and violence.
Moscow’s “reaction to the allegations of systematic human rights violations against gay men in Chechnya constitutes a litmus test on whether this rhetoric was disingenuous,” said Fabrice Houdart, a human rights expert at the United Nations who specializes in issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Moreover, it should force a debate about how that kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach contributes to the stigmatization and victimization of vulnerable communities. Gay and transgender people have gained societal acceptance and legal rights in several countries over the past two decades by demanding to be seen and heard. The Russian government persists in forcing its gay citizens to remain largely underground.
Moscow is unlikely to take meaningful action against Chechnya, or to rethink its broader policy toward gay rights, in the absence of strong and sustained international pressure. In recent years several countries from the Americas and Europe have promoted equality for gay and transgender people as universal human rights. The Obama administration, and in particular former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, deserves much credit for making this a diplomatic priority.
The crimes in Chechnya have presented the Trump administration with its first major test on this issue on the international stage. Last Monday, Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, issued a strong statement calling for a prompt investigation and accountability for the culprits.
“We are against all forms of discrimination, including against people based on sexual orientation,” Ms. Haley said. “When left unchecked, discrimination and human rights abuses can lead to destabilization and conflict.”
It would be encouraging to see Ms. Haley take on this cause with as much passion and perseverance as her predecessor, Samantha Power. Without American leadership, forging a global consensus that gay rights are human rights will take longer. Time is not on the side of gay people living in terror in places like Chechnya.