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Latvia’s Imagined Status of Exceptionalism

Human rights are universal, and it is not the case that each country can pick and choose among them.

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Latvians love to be exceptional. Our nation is the only one which has such a grand Song Festival, this summer it will again bring together thousands of singers and folk dancers. Ours is the only country in which the Latvian language develops. In one wing of the Latvian people, there is the festering belief that no other nation in the entire history of the world has ever suffered such great pain. And in politics we have people who are convinced that Latvia can also be exceptional in the sense that it is allowed to choose some human rights to observe while ignoring others.

This belief in exceptionalism comes to mind as this year’s Friendship Days event approaches. Just now, for instance, the press has reported that the alliance of the First Party of Latvia and Latvia’s Way (LPP/LC) has joined the liberal group in the European Parliament, because the LPP/LC, we are told, is a very liberal formation. Oh, yes – except in one area. The LPP/LC, you see, defends “traditional family values”. Exceptionalism in liberalism. The person in Latvia who is supposedly responsible for integration, believes that it is possible to integrate society even if there is no knowledge about who should be integrated, and that the main entity which should have something to say about this is the Roman Church with the help of Protestant extremists. Exceptionalism in integration. The entire apparatus of state, in fact, is focused on the aforementioned “traditional family” — one man who is married to one woman, with whom he has children whom they raise together. Never mind that this has been the minority model for a long, long time in Latvia, and here we do not even have to think about homosexuals. If I think about the heterosexual persons who are closest to me in Latvia, then I am forced to conclude that nearly none of them is married to the person with whom the first wedding occurred. I know women who are raising children and are not married at all. I know women and men who are on their second or third husband or wife. Latvia’s gossip magazines overflow with stories about middle-aged men who instead of their existing wife prefer one who is younger. Would anyone suggest that these people do not have human rights? Of course, one can behave like the curator of children’s affairs in Latvia, Ainars Baštiks, who said with respect to the study of “untraditional families” which was conducted by the social anthropologist Aivita Putniņa, that it was not a study at all, but it is not a good thing for a government official to stick his head in the sand, because that indicates exceptionalism in common sense.

A week-and-a-half before Friendship Days, which are to take place on May 31, I had a chance to talk to the Council of Europe’s high commissioner on human rights, Thomas Hammarberg. This is a man who is no stranger to human rights — he once ran the legendary human rights organisation Amnesty International — the same one which in Soviet times sought to rescue dissidents, including Latvian ones. Hammarberg told me that he does not have detailed information about the situation with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) people in Latvia, although he was aware of the conflict which surrounded the Pride event in 2006. He reminded us of a living truth, however. Human rights are universal, and it is not the case that each country can pick and choose among them. Hammarberg denied rumours in the Latvian press that the European Union, in dealing with antidiscrimination issues, might abandon sexual minorities because Latvia, Lithuania and Poland do not like them. “I think that there will be no backsliding on the principle,” said Hammarberg.

What is the principle? First of all, it does have to be said that Latvia has confirmed internationally that it does not support discrimination against lesbians and gays. The representatives of our country’s foreign policy are mighty proud of the fact that Parliament has ratified the Lisbon Treaty. The same treaty which, in Article 21 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights, says this: “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.” In addition, we must again think about exceptionalism. Same-gender couples in the European Union have broader or narrower rights in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Finland, Spain, Hungary, Germany and Sweden – in 15 of 27 member states. The trend is unquestionable, and it is in the direction of liberalisation.

Hammarberg also reminds us of the so-called Yogyakarta Principles,[1] in which 29 experts in law and human rights describe in detail the way in which human rights principles are to be applied in the area of sexual orientation and gender identity, too. This document (known as the Yogyakarta Principles because the initial discussion about them took place in an Indonesian university of that name), which was signed among others by former Irish President and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, states clearly that ensuring human rights to LGBT people is not, as homophobes in our country and elsewhere sometimes claim, the creation of wholly new rights. The point is the universal assurance of existing human rights. As the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner has put it: “The idea is to make clear the obvious – that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people have the same rights as others. The international standards do apply to them as well. In other words, discrimination against anyone on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is a human rights violation.”[2]

These are not ambiguous words, no matter how much someone might want to deny them. There is a second side to this coin, however. In Latvia, homophobes and their informational supporters in certain newspapers can claim that there really is no discrimination. After all, it has never been heard that LGBT people are attacked. Oh, someone was beaten up? Well, that’s not anything unusual. Everyone gets beat up at one time or another. LGBT people in Latvia must be courageous about defending their rights, at the European level, too. That’s what Hammarberg said when I asked about sanctions. If a country ignores human rights, then the issue can be resolved by the European Court of Human Rights. After all, the Latvian legislature enshrined the rights of sexual minorities in the country’s labour law only very unwillingly and after Europe made it clear that this had to be done. And yet someone must file suit. No one from the outside will help people who do not want to help themselves.

As Friendship Days approach, it is worth remembering that Europe is watching. It is no accident that one of the most active supporters for Mozaika, the organisation of LGBT people and their friends, is Amnesty International. The argument that LGBT people somehow hinder “traditional families” is simply infantile. I have a family. I have a life partner, but I also have three sisters, three brothers-in-law, one former brother-in-law, one aunt, one uncle, six cousins, one goddaughter and two godsons. Even more, my life model does not keep any – any Latvian from doing what is necessary to create another child. True, that most often will not happen within the context of a traditional marriage, but apart from Baštiks most people probably do realise that this does not matter, as long as the child is ensured a safe and happy life.

That is the area in which it is worth thinking about the state’s attitude, too. All three of the areas which relate to this article – the concept of family, public integration and human rights – have been handed over in our country to the political party which wants to maintain a position of exceptionalism on the issue of LGBT people. Particularly in the parliamentary Human Rights Commission, which is chaired by the noisy homophobe Šmits, that is blasphemy against human rights.

Thank you, Thomas Hammarberg. Thank you, Mary Robinson. Thank you, Council of Europe. Thank you, European Court of Human Rights. Thank you, Amnesty International. What an international list! This is not an area in which Latvia should seek a status of exceptionalism.

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[1] http://www.yogyakartaprinciples.org.

[2] http://www.coe.int/t/commissioner/Viewpoints/Default_en.asp.

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