Mr Roth, at the presentation of the Tolerantia Award to your fellow party member Heiko Maas in late November, you said in your speech that even as a Young Socialist you had a crush on him ...
I wasn’t the only one. (laughs)
Was there a Heiko Maas fan club?
I don’t know. But that’s going right back to the 1990s. Heiko Maas caught my attention because he was a cool, level-headed and indeed attractive Young Socialist. Then, as now, I wanted to see him play an important role in our Social Democratic Party of Germany. So I just wanted to pay him a compliment. He wasn’t embarrassed by it – I’d already confessed it to him a few years ago. We’ve known each other for a long time.
In Germany there have been many positive developments, also in connection with the legal situation with regard to opening up marriage, for instance. In countries such as Turkey, the situation for LGBTIs is currently worsening. How are you dealing with this as Minister of State for Europe?
I try not to visit any country without meeting LGBTI activists in their role as part of civil society. I want to show them respect and encourage them. But I also want to send the message that gay politicians are something quite normal. There are a fair number of European countries in which there is not a single publicly gay or lesbian politician. Not one. For someone to say quite openly, “I am gay and that is a good thing” is still a rarity in many countries in Europe.
When you meet LGBTI activists in Turkey, does the Government there comment on that in any way, or are attempts made to prevent it?
Not at all, nothing is said. Incidentally, when I meet ministers or members of parliament, our talks often also touch on private issues, over lunch, for example. Then I might say that I visited my parents-in-law with my husband last weekend. I don’t present to them a family made up of a wife and three children just to do them a favour. My conversation partners deal with this in a professional manner. And they are acquainted with my biography and my political agenda. I always speak with both the Government and the opposition, but civil society is the deciding factor. In the past maybe sometimes the wrong impression was conveyed that in foreign policy politicians meet other politicians and discuss the state of the world, and that’s that. But it doesn’t work that way. In Turkey and elsewhere we are speaking of shrinking spaces for civil society. When I want to meet activists, I sometimes encounter a degree of reticence. They fear repression. But we are not working to boost my own profile, but rather trying to achieve something specific. Human rights activists or the opposition in Germany may from time to time criticise us for being too quiet, but sometimes it is only possible to exert your influence behind closed doors. Some LGBTI activists are now afraid even to meet me in a café. Three years ago the situation in Turkey, for example, was different. These days, not only in Turkey, we meet in secure spaces, at the Embassy or the Ambassador’s residence, but not in public. And we don’t hold press conferences, because we don’t want to put anyone in danger. Discretion is often essential – in the interests of those affected.
Talks are important, but are they always enough? Would it not sometimes be more effective to work with sanctions?
We have a very clear message for Turkey: We are extremely interested in normalising our relations, but this depends on several conditions: the release of political prisoners, a clear commitment to human rights, the respectful treatment of minorities. We state this in no uncertain terms. In economic and trade policy we have become more restrictive, for example in the granting of guarantees. But you have to remember that sanctions do not automatically and immediately lead to an improvement in the situation. It can be a long process. Policymakers and diplomats need to make use of the entire toolkit at their disposal. That may also involve public intervention, as in the case of Chechnyan homosexuals. It should be part of the ethos of a country like Germany, which is committed to human rights, to help those suffering persecution quickly and support them when they can no longer live in safety in their homeland. We have done so in close cooperation with Canada, Sweden and France, for example.
How many have come to Germany to date?
To date we have taken in four Chechnyans with humanitarian visas. I’m not aware of any requests for Germany to take in any more.
Let’s turn to Russia where the Football World Cup is just round the corner, and where four years ago the Winter Olympics took place – in a country that prohibits people to speak positively about homosexuality. Is that not problematic?
In view of the fact that LGBTIs are liable for criminal prosecution in around 80 countries of the world, it is somewhat naive to hope that we will be able to hold major sporting and cultural events only in flawless democracies with open and critical civil societies. Appeals to boycott these events won’t in themselves get us anywhere. It is extremely important to raise the issue of the human rights situation in the host countries and to debate it heatedly. But where could you actually allow an international sporting or cultural event to take place? In many prosperous, democratic countries there is no longer any public acceptance for mega-events of this kind, as we saw in the Hamburg referendum rejecting the city’s Olympic bid. Critical societies often no longer wish to support this kind of thing.
Time and again we are accused of wanting to export a western-oriented lifestyle with post-colonial arrogance. Rubbish! When I hear something like that, I tend to remind people that since 1948 the principle of the universality of human rights has been anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This applies not only in the supposed West, but in all the United Nations Member States, basically almost everywhere in the world. But take the example of the Russian President, who repeatedly claims that the true defender of European values is Russia. The West has decadently and one-sidedly reinterpreted these traditional Christian values in the interests of sexual minorities and gender obsession. That, at least, is what Mr Putin claims. Similar discussions are held in some African countries where politicians and church leaders express homophobic sentiments. In their view, the West has imported homosexuality. They never had anything like that, it is un-African. Unbelievable!
Many media channels focused on and criticised Ankara’s universal ban on LGBTI events in November. The fact that in early December an LGBTI film event in Uganda was broken up by the police again was not a major issue here. Not in the media, and we didn’t hear anything from you about it, either.
That is the tragedy of a world ravaged by crises, where our focus all too often only takes in the most serious incidents. You try to solve one problem, and the next crisis is already there. Some blatant violations of human rights are often sidelined. I have to admit that. We should never close our eyes to what is happening. Yet that is an obligation that not only politicians, but also the media have. That is why we need self-confident civil societies, brave human rights activists and independent journalists throughout the world. They need to keep raising our awareness and shaking us awake!
Interview: Kriss Rudolph.