Foes of Russia’s Anti-Gay Law Ponder New Tactics
NEW YORK -- The four-month campaign protesting Russia’s ban on "gay propaganda" is entering a new phase, as human rights activists try to heighten pressure on the Olympics’ top corporate sponsors to speak out before the Winter Games in Sochi.
The Worldwide Olympic Partners - among them Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa - have thus far sidestepped requests to explicitly condemn the law, rebuffing efforts that included behind-the-scenes meetings and correspondence with Human Rights Watch.
Now, that organization and some of its allies have decided to go public with their dissatisfaction.
"It’s taken months for the sponsors to formulate lawyerly responses that say nothing," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. "We’re going to work hard between now and Sochi to not let them off the hook."
The focus of the protests is a law passed with near unanimous support by Russian lawmakers and signed by President Vladimir Putin in June. It bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and imposes fines for providing information about the gay community to minors.
Its critics say the law reflects broad hostility toward gays and lesbians in Russia, fueling harassment and occasional acts of violence.
Launched in July, the multifaceted protest movement has had some successes and some setbacks. It clearly has raised awareness about the gay-rights situation in Russia and also has boosted hopes among activists that the International Olympic Committee will be more attentive to human rights issues in selecting future Olympic hosts.
Nonetheless, activists acknowledge some frustration that the contested law remains firmly in place - spared direct criticism by some of the Olympic movement’s major players.
"The reason why everyone is struggling with this is because there’s no magic bullet," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay-rights group. "There’s no easy path to victory."
Both Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign have written to all of the Worldwide Olympics Partners, urging the corporations to call for repeal of the Russian law.
To date, according to the two rights groups, none of the companies has taken that step, though several have expressed general support for human rights and touted their own nondiscrimination employment policies. There are 10 Worldwide Partners in all - including General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Dow Chemical, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and the French-based technology company Atos.
"The responses failed to recognize that their brands are propping up an event that will go down in history as the anti-gay games," said Sainz.
The next steps for the leading protest groups remain to be determined.
Activist leaders say there is little interest at this stage in proposing formal boycotts of the corporate sponsors, but they hope to find other ways to intensify the pressure. Some activists have suggested a new wave of protests as the games begin in February, targeting Russian diplomatic missions and the corporate sponsors’ offices.
"No one is prepared to back down," said Andre Banks of AllOut, one of the protest groups. "Consumers will hold these companies responsible. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far."
Human Rights Watch made available to The Associated Press the letters sent by several of the corporations in response to its requests. In general, the letters - and separate statements sent by the sponsors to the AP - conveyed the companies’ disapproval of any form of discrimination and cited assurances provided by Russian authorities to the IOC that everyone would be welcome at the Winter Games regardless of sexual orientation.
"There’s no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches," said a statement from McDonald’s. "We support the IOC’s belief that sport is a human right and the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination."