On December 17th, 2020, then-Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne issued a statement condemning Chechnya’s ongoing human rights violations against their LGBTQ2+ population. These violations are a nearly four-year continuation of those first reported by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April 2017. Since then, international media report that Chechnya’s anti-LGBTQ2+ campaign has had three waves: December 2016 to February 2017, March 2017 to May 2017 (“the big purge”), and a new wave that began in January 2019 and ended within the last year. However, reporting on the issue has dwindled over time, leaving some to consider whether or not the violations stopped. Champagne’s statement firmly puts this question to rest, citing new “credible information … about further … violations …, including an alarming increase in the number of abductions and enforced disappearances.” This issue is far from over and this minority group’s safety remains in jeopardy, which leads to several questions for consideration: what explains this campaign, how did Canada initially respond, and what must be done now?
To properly examine Chechnya’s campaign, one must first present Russia’s position. Although Russia legalized homosexuality in 1993, homophobia is deeply socio-culturally ingrained. Russian homophobia comes from three tropes: as a threat to the nation’s survival, as an influence on majority values, and as a representation of Western “modernity.” Russia points to, for example, European LGBTQ2+ rights advancement as proof of the West’s moral collapse, and in 2013 before the Sochi Olympics, Russia notably criminalized “propaganda of non-traditional behaviour,” which includes prohibiting information related to the LGBTQ2+ community. Chechnya’s campaign serves as an extremist extension of this position. Chechnya built upon Putin’s public erasure of Russia’s sexual and gender minorities by creating a campaign that looked for a more permanent solution – to silence the community itself.
Chechnya is one of Russia’s southern republics, an ultra-traditional society based on a strong family code, clan allegiance, and strict adherence to Islam that sought independence through a failed war with Russia in the 1990s. To stay the peace and allegiance today between governments, the Kremlin gave Chechnya’s Governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, significant governing autonomy. This power allows Kadyrov to build on the federal policy of erasure to more radical positions against sexual and gender minorities. Kadyrov’s campaign – which Putin’s Kremlin implicitly commends by failing to investigate and prosecute those responsible – violates many international norms and treaties. Some criminal justice scholars believe their actions go so far as to constitute crimes against humanity.
A 2018 investigation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that at least 100 victims were rounded-up, taken to police stations or military facilities, and held in cellars for weeks without access to legal assistance, food, or water. There, they were regularly beaten with plastic tubes, police sticks and subjected to electric shock. At least two men died because of their injuries in 2019. Chechen leaders subjected survivors to a “shaming ceremony,” encouraging their families to find a “proper solution” by carrying out honour killings.
While the “gay purge” was ongoing in 2017, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and the Canadian federal government officially “urged Russian authorities to investigate and ensure the safety of [LGBTQ2+] Chechens.” Covertly, the federal government worked alongside LGBTQ2+ NGOs (Rainbow Railroad and Russian LGBT Network) to rescue dozens of survivors, grant them asylum and bring them to Canada as refugees. Canada should be praised for its actions at the time to prevent further harm to these individuals; however, as Minister Champagne’s noted, Chechnya’s actions have continued. Like Freeland, Champagne urged Russia to conduct an impartial, credible investigation, prosecute those responsible and respect human rights. But Canada should and must do more.
Like Freeland, Champagne urged Russia to conduct an impartial, credible investigation, prosecute those responsible and respect human rights. But Canada should and must do more.
First, Canada must grant more LGBTQ2+ Chechens refugee protections. While recognizing the constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic related to international travel, the Canadian government must consider what further action it can take to support and rescue at-risk Chechens, just as they did in 2017. This could mean working collaboratively once again with Rainbow Railroad and Russian LGBT Network, and regional allies to provide those fearing persecution refuge.
Second, the Government must apply additional sanctions against individual Chechen and Russian officials for their involvement. Although Canada has already sanctioned some implicated Russian officials (i.e. Ramzan Kadyrov), others are absent from Canada’s list. For example, Chechnya’s Parliamentary spokesperson, Magomed Daudov, has allegedly taken a direct part in the torture sessions. Canada can apply additional measures by both freezing any of Daudov’s potential assets and prohibiting his entry into Canada.
Finally, as a member of the Equal Rights Coalition, a 42-member state forum committed to LGBTQ2+ human rights, Canada must implore fellow members to not only apply collective sanctions through their domestic legal mechanisms, but also grant asylum. This group notably includes the United States (U.S.), Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, and thus could be the opportune place to launch a multilateral response. In 2017, then-former U.S. Vice President Biden condemned Chechnya’s actions and called on President Trump to do more. In collaboration with the Biden administration and the Equal Rights Coalition, Canada should lead by imploring Russia, through diplomatic channels, to implement the OSCE’s recommendations and comply with international human rights.
COVID-19 may have allowed Chechnya to renew its persecutory campaign against its LGBTQ2+ minorities, knowing their actions might not be as widely noticed by an international community focused on combatting the pandemic. If so, Canada’s condemnation is welcome and needed; however, its words must be supported by tangible policy actions to not only save lives but also encourage behavioral change. LGBTQ2+ minorities remain vulnerable to persecution and it is time for the international community to do more – Canada’s leadership here is a great way to start.
Christopher Anthony is a MA International Affairs Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. His primary research interests are in the areas of queer international relations, human rights, diplomacy, and international law.
Banner image by Ignat Kushanrev, courtesy of Unsplash.