The Olympic struggle for human rights needs more than boycotts

As the dust settles on our own Pride antics, the outrage over the implementation of new anti-gay laws in Russia shows no sign of abating.  The laws which prohibits “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to young people is so intentionally vague in its wording, that it could be applied to almost anything.  It comes amidst a tide of increasing organised violence against LGBT people on the streets of Russia.  The Russian state has been active in colluding with fascists street gangs who carry out homophobic violence for quite some time, most publicly at Moscow Pride in 2011 when neo-Nazi gangs attacked demonstrators in plain sight of the cops, who joined in.  Under the new law, any LGBT activism is illegal which basically makes being LGBT illegal.  In other countries where this is the case, anti-gay violence is seen as little more than law enforcement.  Russia is increasingly moving in this direction.

The dire situation for LGBT people in Russia cannot be separated from more general abuses of human rights, rising racism and xenophobia, corruption, lawlessness, murder of journalists, wars in Chechnya & Georgia and wholesale political repression set against a backdrop of economic misery.  The total plunder of what was once the world’s second most powerful nation has created a wild-west style oligarchy in which assertive nationalism has become the dominant ideology.  Putin and his immediate allies have been in power for almost this entire millennium and despite the fact he would almost certainly have won anyway, he is widely suspected of having rigged the last election, just to make a point about what a hard man he is. Not a cheery place all round.

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Putin loves acting like a hard man and playing with his big guns.

So as that great Leninist once said, “what is to be done?”  Well, we’ve had a few suggestions and as is often the case, some really pose more questions than they answer. The biggest riddy doing the rounds was that we should all stop drinking “Russian vodka.”  In reality, this means Stolichnaya, a vodka marketed by a company based in Luxembourg which has been at odds with the Russian government over the name since it’s creation.  Their CEO instantly declared his support for LGBT rights and pointed out that the Russian state company only really markets Stolichnaya in…Russia.  Much of the Stoli made outside of Russia is made in Latvia, a country which, as one avid social mediaite pointed out “hates Russia much fucking more than any of you do.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see bars pouring vodka down the drain in symbolic solidarity with LGBT Russians but there is a whiff of something else going on, when so many bars in New York were focusing on “US-made alcohol” instead.  I’d never want to discourage anyone from doing anything, however small, to make the world a better place.  From such acorns, great oaks and all. But Stolichnaya boycotts don’t actually effect Russia at all and most of us remain firmly in the knocked-off Glens corner anyway.

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At least we have our morals intact

If there is just a whiff of jingoism/self congratulatory pish surrounding the vodka boycott suggestion, neither of these things are entirely absent from the other proposal. Stephen Fry’s call to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi seems like a good idea.  I’d go as far as to say I quite like it.  Whilst I’m generally hostile to sport in all its forms, the Winter Olympics is quite pretty and cool and annoying Putin by taking away his pet project would have a massive impact.  If this is suddenly the moment the entire world takes a stand for the LGBT rights, we‘ll not be standing in the way.  I’ve dutifully signed the petitions and filled out one of those wee cards which I’m sure the Foreign Secretary will take time out from buying, selling and using big guns, to read and reply to personally.

All sneering aside, I support the call and the spirit behind it.  Given all the silly reasons countries haven’t attended the games over the years, why not boycott for something so obviously horrendous?  It’s better than “we’re no playin wae Taiwan.”  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has now confirmed that not only will the ban be enforced during the games but that any athlete who flouts it will be banned from the games by THEM.  It’s clear from other statements made yesterday that many of the organisers are firmly on the wrong side.

This neatly leads to the only reason I’m made to feel uncomfortable by all this.  I don’t buy all this chat about the “Olympic values” and how it would such a break from tradition for the Olympics to be held in some nasty country.

Where was it the last Olympics were held again?  Oh yeah.  The Brits have been trying to prolong the Jubylimpic legacy hangover (with a wee hair of the dog, in the form of Royal Wean) for quite some time now.  It’s nice to think of the amazing celebration of human rights that was an Olympics held in a country who, at the time of bidding, had two sovereign nations under military occupation.  It was a delight to see the Paralympics being brought to us in association with ATOS, that great champion of disabled people.  If these are the Olympic values, then Russia under Putin seems to be extolling them nor more or no less than many previous games hosts.

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Weren’t they just swell? Britain’s “legacy” on human rights isn’t always so sparkling.

The last summer games were held in China, another well known bastion of freedom and human rights.  The Chinese government engaged in a massive “clear up” which sadly wasn’t limited to improving the air quality.  Human rights activists were rounded up, whole communities were cleared en masse to make way for infrastructure, industry was either moved out of town or just temporarily shut down.  Not surprisingly, as soon as the games were gone, the factories started up whilst the dissidents remained in jail.

Oh aye?  Did we mention the 1936 games held in Hitler’s Germany? Or that prior to the last summer games, the last time the Olympics were in the UK, homosexuality was a criminal offence?

So it’s fair to say the Olympic hosts don’t have a spotless record when it comes to human rights.  But why just focus on the Olympics?  What about the World Cup in Qatar, a country where sex between gay adults carries a 5 year prison sentence?

A little closer to home, what about the Commonwealth Games?  The “legacy” of the Commonwealth Games is already taking shape in the form the council’s attempt to make the East End posh/make their pals some cash by knocking stuff down. The Accord Centre which provided support to people with learning disabilities and their families was closed to make way for a temporary car park.  If we’re getting all uppity about LGBT rights (and when are we not?!?) what about 41 of the 53 Commonwealth nations in which homosexuality is illegal?  Perhaps its no wonder David Cameron is remiss to make a big deal about Russia’s record on gay rights when our own colonial legacy is about to hop, skip and jump onto our doorstep.  One floral suggestion would be sending the Commonwealth Games the fuck to Russia and transforming the East End of Glasgow into a snowy homo wonderland instead.

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The East End is already preparing for the “Greatest Winter Games in the World”

While we’re on to the council, Glasgow is twinned with Russian city, Rostov-on-Don.  Given that twinning is basically THE most pointless and tokenistic thing councils do, we could probably be doing with cutting that particular link, if it’s something more local that takes your fancy.

So an Olympic boycott certainly beats selective alcohol poisoning when it comes to making a point about gay rights.  But making life easier for LGBT Russians is a much longer battle. The changes needed to make Russia a better place, not just for LGBT people but for all its citizens, have to originate from within the country. We can’t import our struggles any more than we can just stop importing their booze.  In short, there are no easy answers.  Supporting Russians who’re brave enough to speak out and doing what is asked of us, is something we can offer.  Many Russian LGBT groups are clear that they are demanding a boycott, despite the potential for it to further risk their own personal safety.  Their victory would be a victory not just for LGBT people worldwide but for all those Russians struggling against Putin and the Oligarchs destroying their country. We must not turn our backs on them.

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Some Olympic protests leave a lasting impression.

But we must also stare our own problems directly in the eye.  In a country with such a horrendous history when it comes to foreign interventions, it’s difficult to see David Cameron as a credible international champion of human rights.  We could apply all kinds of pressure to all kinds of countries if we so desired.  We could stand up and be counted.  Those in power are always far more concerned with selling big guns or “opening up” emerging economies, not to human rights but to plunder.

A country where we actually value human rights and make them the core of our economic, social and foreign policies can speak with some authority; a bunch of unelected Tory scumbags simply can’t.  Equal marriage has been law for a whole 28 days in England & Wales and no thanks to many of Cameron’s chums.  And it’s been a mere 13 years since we finally got rid of the UK’s anti-gay “promotion” laws, again no thanks to the Tories.  Many on the Tory benches are desperate for us to ditch  the European Convention on Human Rights and remove ourselves from the European Court of Human Rights to protect our “Britishness.”  Over a fifth of the cases currently pending at the European Court are against Russia, so Britain suddenly declaring it doesn’t care anymore would do nothing but embolden Putin and his ilk. When it comes to building the basis for an ethical foreign policy, regime change begins at home.

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