Op-ed: Why Malaysia Flight 17 Could Hurt LGBT Ukrainians

Ratcheted-up support following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 could result in less pressure on Kiev to protect and respect LGBT Ukrainians.

BY Thom Senzee

July 23 2014 7:00 AM ET

The devastating loss of noted Dutch AIDS researcher Joep Lange, who died in the recent attack on a Malaysia Airlines flight in the skies over Ukraine, may turn out to be just one of multiple tragedies surrounding the disaster with relevance to LGBT people and our allies.

Whether it occurred by negligence, malice, or both, the attack has already galvanized European and American support for Ukraine in its efforts to extricate itself from Russian domination. As a result, Ukraine's leaders in Kiev may not feel it's imperative to respond to Western pressure to make life safer and more equal for LGBT people in the country.

One of my editors and I were struck by a particular quote in a story I filed recently. The story was about the cancellation of an LGBT Pride march that had been scheduled to occur earlier this month in Kiev. The Pride march had to be canceled because government officials said they could not protect participants and that, as Kiev's mayor put it, "This is not the right time for a celebration."

No one would say that moments of armed conflict are good times to "celebrate" LGBT Pride or any other cause. However, grown-up democratic nations should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Put less cavalierly, democracies should be able to allow minorities to safely demonstrate for better treatment by majorities even while difficult national circumstances are at hand.

But the quote we found so striking was not that of Mayor Vitali Klitschko. Rather, it was a quote within a formal statement issued by Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights First in reaction to the cancellation of Kiev Pride 2014. While profoundly germane to the "lost Pride" story in Kiev and the tough situation LGBT Ukrainians face moreover, the quote had an overarching relevance to the very nature of democracy.

"For all of its talk about sharing European values the new Ukrainian government has failed a major human rights test today," said HRF's Brian Dooly, who is director of that organization's Human Rights Defenders program. "The U.S. Government should make clear publicly to the Ukrainian authorities that peaceful freedom of assembly should be respected for all." (Emphasis by editor.)

Dooly's words about Ukraine's failure to ensure that the Kiev Pride march could be safely conducted — even while a de facto war with Russian separatists to the east continued to escalate — was an answer to an unposed yet perennial question: Can democratic ideals, such as freedom of expression and the right to protest, be rightfully suspended during times of crisis by nations that claim to be democracies?

Because there is no aim of democracy more fundamental than that of protecting basic human rights, and because there are no tools more requisite to ensuring basic human rights than freedom of expression and the right to peaceably assemble, the answer must be a full-throated "no." The right to peaceably assemble cannot be compromised if democracy is to flourish or survive.

Some might point to periods during the American Civil War or even the years immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks when, respectively, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush tampered with and hampered fundamental freedoms and rights, including habeas corpus and the right to peaceably assemble, as evidence that extraordinary measures can be taken in times of war without a democracy's long-term survival being threatened.  

But is that really so? Was democracy not imperiled when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus? Habeus corpus — the constitutional right to face one's accuser in court — distinguishes truly free nations from those with some of the window dressings of democracy but none of the fixtures and furnishings. Was democracy not threatened when intelligence officials targeted the weekly meeting of a central California group that was described by Dahlia Lithwick in a 2004 New York Times op-ed as "cookie-wielding pacifists?"

Although it appears to have pretty much survived for now, of course democracy in America was threatened by those breeches of basic rights and freedoms. What is striking about Dooly's statement is how instantly and completely it eliminates the benefit of the doubt one might subconsciously want to afford the government in Kiev as it writhes under the boot of its behemoth neighbor to the north. He also rejects the notion that denying people the right to peaceably assemble is, by definition, a cancellation of basic liberty.

If an erstwhile democratic nation cannot endure peaceable assembly (in this case, an LGBT Pride parade in Kiev), then that nation cannot claim democracy as its form of government. Democracies have to be able to fight wars and protect free speech at the same time.

If the guilty party in the surface-to-air missile downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 indeed turns out to be the Russian-supported separatist rebels, it is likely the U.S. and the European Union will ramp up support for the supposedly Western values-aspiring government in Kiev of new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko without much in the way of pressure to protect sexual and gender minorities in the country.

The onus to keep the pressure on Ukraine to respect and protect the rights of LGBT Ukrainians now falls upon LGBT-rights activists as well as equality-minded politicians, business leaders, diplomats and even journalists. If we don't show up, stand up and speak out loudly in defense of our LGBT brothers and sisters in Ukraine, leaders in Kiev have proven they will do as little as possible to protect and respect their rights.

As Eleanor Roosevelt — one of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights — said about small assemblages of oppressed people at the 10th anniversary of the declaration's signing, "Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
 

THOM SENZEE is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California. He currently serves as The Advocate's world news correspondent and as a Huffington Post signature blogger. Senzee is also founder and moderator of the LGBTs in the News panel series and author of the All Out Politics syndicated column.

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