Speech of Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the Post-IDAHO Round Table “Diversity and LGBTI Inclusion in the Western Balkans”

27.06.2016 - Speech

--- translation of advance text ---

Ambassadors, Mr. Kojičić,

dear friends from Embassies and other Ministries, the business community and various civil society organizations,

distinguished guests,

I just came back from Bucharest where I took part in the Pride March on Saturday. In one of the EU’s youngest member countries, we celebrated a peaceful and colorful festival of tolerance and diversity. Our message was clear: Love is love – and it doesn’t matter at all if men love men, if women love women or if men love women.

But on Saturday our thoughts were also with the LGBTI community just a few hundred kilometers further in the south, in Istanbul, where the Pride Parade, which had been planned for the same weekend, was banned.

Even in 2016, even in a country that wants to become a member state of the European Union it is not self-evident that LGBTI people can demonstrate peacefully for their rights.

On the contrary, Romania can be seen an inspiring example of the progress that was made in the area of LGBTI rights. The country was cited by Human Rights Watch as one of five countries with “exemplary progress in combating rights abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity”, along with Brazil, South Africa, Spain and Fiji.

Today, more than 40 countries have either opened marriage to same-sex couples or at least created a civil partnership similar to marriage for them. While, just a few years ago, the idea of LGBTI rights was widely considered as a Western concept, today several countries in the global south – including Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Colombia – are among the main champions of sexual rights on the international stage.

Sadly, the example of Turkey is far from being an exception. In a number of countries worldwide, we see a backlash against the basic principle of sexual rights. This worrying development reaches from new legislation – most famously the Russian law protecting children from what is called the “Denial of Traditional Family Values” – to cases of hate speech even by government members, as witnessed recently in Indonesia. And let’s not forget that homosexual acts are still illegal in about 80 states and may even be punished by death in seven states.

With these conflicting global trends – a broad development towards LGBTI rights on one side, a backlash on the other side – we may wonder: In which of these two categories does the Western Balkans region fall?

The answer is clear, as I myself have witnessed several times during my visits to countries of the Western Balkans. Although there is no open discrimination of LGBTI people by state institutions, homophobia is still a widespread problem.

In the whole region homosexuality is still a social taboo. A lot remains to be improved, but we also see many encouraging signs in the region:

Several countries like Montenegro have passed strong anti-discrimination legislation, some explicitly out-ruling discrimination based on sexual identity. And after years of bans for Pride Parades, in recent years there were peaceful parades in Belgrade – which I myself joined in 2015 –, Pristina and Podgorica. Sarajevo hosts a queer film festival.

Many players have greatly contributed to this gradual development, both in civil society and in government. Some of the main protagonists of this development are here with us today. Mr. Kojičić, let me take the opportunity to thank you for your strong commitment, moving Montenegro and the whole region forward!

One major issue that remains to be done – in the Western Balkans, in Germany, anywhere in the world – is to close the gap that still exists between political will and public acceptance. On the one hand we have countries such as Germany where public acceptance for LGBTI rights is high and politics is rather lagging behind. On the other hand there are other countries like Montenegro or Slovenia where politics is moving ahead but the public still needs to overcome some hurdles to catch up.

The best way to win support is by showing how everybody can benefit from our policy. That’s why we need to emphasize again and again: when we talk about LGBTI rights, we don’t think of exclusive rights or privileges for minorities. Quite the opposite is true: We fight for an open, tolerant and liberal society, in which everybody is treated as an equal citizen. Human rights belong to everyone, without any exception – regardless of our ethnic and religious background, gender or sexual identity.

The Out Leadership initiative takes this idea into the business world. We need to show the business community that they can win by creating a positive climate in which every employee feels welcome and treated with respect.

I congratulate you to this great initiative. I’m grateful that you chose Berlin as the place to present it, and I’m looking forward to hearing some examples of how the initiative will help us advance our idea of equality, in the business community and in the broader society. Thank you for your commitment!

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