LGBTI activists from the Western Balkans and Turkey visit European Parliament and Council of Europe institutions

Belgrade, 25 January 2019 - Author - Amarildo Fecanji 

On 16 and 17 January six LGBTI activists from the Western Balkans and Turkey visited Strasbourg, where they held working meetings with representatives of the European Parliament, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human RightsEuropean Commission against Racism and Intolerance and the Council of Europe Anti-Discrimination Department among others. 

This working visit was organized by ERA in cooperation with and the support of the LGBT Intergroup of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe SOGI Unit as well as the participation of the World Bank SOGI advisor Clifton Cortez. Three Members of Parliament Terry ReintkeJulie Ward and Tanja Fajon hosted the presentation of the research at the European Parliament. Biljana Ginova from Macedonia, Danijel Kalezić from Montenegro, Damla Umut Uzun from Turkey, Filip Kocevski from Serbia, Kristian Randjelović from Serbia and Amarildo Fecanji from ERA were part of the delegation.  

The meetings served to provide representatives of these institutions with updates on the current situation concerning the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex persons in the Western Balkans and Turkey region. The findings of the recent survey on the lived experiences of LGBTI persons in South Eastern Europe, were also presented and shared. They reveal a distressing situation of discrimination, exclusion, mistrust towards institutions and lack of crucial legal protections and services for LGBTI persons. One of the most concerning findings of the survey is that out of all the LGBTI people who have suffered violence in the recent years, only 17% of the cases have been reported to the police, revealing the huge mistrust and fear that LGBTI persons have towards state institutions. 

The role of international organizations and international community is crucial in the struggle for more equality of LGBTI persons in the Western Balkans and Turkey. Primarily because of the relations of these countries with the European Union and the Council of Europe, and also due to the latter’s decades long work on laws and policies which ensure that citizens of Europe have their fundamental human rights met and protected.

Additionally, LGBTI rights have gained significant importance in the international community in the last years, which has also contributed to legal advancement of LGBTI rights in countries like those in the Western Balkans, where they are still widely contested by the general public, state institutions and political elites. Therefore, dialogue, cooperation and continuous exchange between such institutions, governments and LGBTI organizations operating in the region is important for human rights standards of LGBTI persons to be preserved and advanced.

As 2019 is a challenging year for the European Union, (European Parliament elections and Brexit in particular), it is important for political and technical cooperation to continue with the countries of the region. Most countries of the Western Balkans are in the process of introducing important legal and policy changes that benefit LGBTI persons. However, these processes are challenging, as all countries require more awareness, resources, expertise and even more importantly political will to introduce these changes. 

In all 6 countries of the Western Balkans, which are not yet in the European Union, LGBTI people cannot legally enter into same-sex unions or marriage. Trans persons cannot legally change their gender in most countries of the region. In countries where they do, they are still required to go through discriminatory, intrusive, lengthy and costly procedures. In the case of Serbia, where the Rulebook on gender reassignment was recently introduced, some of the procedures remain discriminatory and intrusive, still requiring psychiatric evaluation and hormonal therapy, and some institutions within the medical establishment are perceived to hold monopoly on crucial procedures related to full legal change of a person’s gender. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only country which provides legal protection from discrimination based on sex-characteristics, which is fundamental for the protection of the rights of intersex persons. A recent study conducted on intersex persons in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia, reveals how lack of institutional and social awareness on the needs of intersex persons as well as lack of legal protections has led to countless unnecessary medical interventions on intersex kids throughout the region which has had dire consequences for their wellbeing and overall legal and social situation. 

Macedonia, is still the only country in the Balkan region where the law for protection from discrimination does not explictly provide protection on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Even in light of recent government and political changes in the Macedonian government and the establishment of the Parliamentary Inter-party working group on LGBTI rights, such important legal amendment has still not occurred, as the openly anti-LGBT opposition party VMRO-DPMNE as well as members of DUI party from the ruling coalition are blocking the amendment in one of the Parliamentary committees. As a response, the National Network against Homophobia and Transphobia published a reaction letter, which demands the Macedonian political establishment to once and for all make this important legal change. 

Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the few countries in the region where some promising change seem ahead. The Montenegrin government has recently approved the draft law for same-sex registered partnership which is excepted to be voted soon in Parliament, while later last year the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina established a working group which aims to introduce legal changes in recognition of same-sex partnerships.

Overall, legal reform in the region is in stagnation and most governments are still to effectively establish working groups and policies concerning LGBTI rights and overcome serious challenges in terms of implementation such as inadequate budgeting, lack of political will and overall institutional indifference and negligence. 

Turkey, in the meantime, while it has removed the national state of emergency, continues to maintain negative stance towards LGBTI rights, with serious infringements of the freedom of assembly and expression. The Ankara Governorate has still not lifted the ban on LGBTI events while overall the LGBTI movement and organizations operate in state of anxiety due to the unpredictability of government reactions.

It is due to such a situation that closer engagement of international community with local LGBTI organizations as well as state institutions need to continue in a systematic manner in order to effectuate change. Maintaining and increasing political will for LGBTI rights in the region is important. Of course advancement of LGBTI rights should not be linked simply to European Union integration. All these countries have the political, legal and moral obligation to provide LGBTI persons with full protection and equality.