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EU: LGBTI hate crime initiative labelled a “missed opportunity”

by Owen Stafford

In Budapest, on a festive July day in 2013, Peter joined in the city’s annual Gay Pride parade, an event celebrating diversity, acceptance and freedom of expression. Upon leaving, about 20 people confronted him, subjecting him to verbal abuse. One woman ripped off his rainbow lapel and assaulted him.

“It seemed choreographed,” Peter tells Equal Times. “It was like she was trying to get me to hit her and so they could claim that I hit a girl,” he says.

Uninjured but nonetheless shaken, Peter tried to escape quickly. “The police intervened but did not ask the woman for identification,” he says, insisting on keeping his last name anonymous for fear of reprisal.

But a passing media crew filmed the incident. The perpetrator, known for her homophobic views, was convicted in April 2015, receiving a three-year jail sentence (since reduced to two), the first such conviction under the 2013 Hungarian hate crime provisions for homophobic violence. Members of Hungary’s lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, including Peter, welcomed the verdict as progress.

However, such incidences of hate crime, hate speech and discrimination are still regularly endured by LGBTI people across the European Union. And justice can be slow – the case involving Peter took two years.

“Even if legislation is implemented, delays add to the stress for victims who have to go the police and to court on numerous occasions,” says Tamas Dombos of the Hungarian LGBTI NGO, Háttér Society.

Dombos assisted Peter in reporting his case to police. He tells Equal Times that victims are often too fearful to report such crimes in an atmosphere hostile to LGBTI rights.

NGOs, MEPs and the EU Commission – the latter with its list of actions published in December 2015 – aim to improve the situation. But challenges remain.The EU Council, which represents national governments, has continuously blocked the 2008 Horizontal Equal Treatment Directive, which prohibits discrimination against LGBTI people in areas such as health, social protection, education, and access to goods and services.

Concerns such as subsidiarity, cost and red tape issues are cited, with Germany identified as the main reason for the blockage. NGOs are now calling on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to stop obstructing the adoption of the directive.

The Commission’s list of actions to tackle homophobia and transphobia aims to improve LGBTI rights, as well as monitoring and enforcing existing rights and legal protections, and fostering non-discrimination.

In a statement to Equal Times, the Commission said this demonstrates its “strong political commitment to take action in all areas relevant to the LGBTI people”.

But both MEPs and NGOs have expressed concerns that it does not go far enough.

“A missed opportunity to go the extra mile” says Ulrike Lunacek, an MEP for the Austrian Greens and co-president of the Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights. In a statement to Equal Times, she says: “A more ambitious, real strategy that member states have to implement would have been the appropriate thing to do in times of increasing homophobia.”

Similarly, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe), feels this initiative lacks ambition.

Katrin Hugendubel, Advocacy Director for ILGA, tells Equal Times that proactive guidance on implementing the recent EU Victims Rights Directive to protect LGBTI people is needed.

“There must be inclusion of peer training and NGOs must be invited to discuss the issue together,” she adds.

However, the Commission stresses that it is up to EU member states to develop new legislation in key areas relevant for LGBTI people. Its statement reiterates, “adoption of the proposed Equal Treatment Directive is crucial” in this regard.

 
Challenges

One of the challenges is that chronic underreporting has resulted in little statistical data on hate crimes committed against the LGBTI community.

According to a 2013 survey from the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), some 47 per cent of LGBTI people felt they were harassed or discriminated against in the previous year, with 6 per cent experiencing a violent attack because of their perceived LGBTI identity.

However, only 22 per cent of such violent incidences were reported to authorities. In cases of harassment this figure went down to 6 per cent.

One of the main reasons for this underreporting is a belief that “nothing would change.” Other concerns include authorities reacting dismissively or negatively to LGBTI victims, being “outed” to others, lack of knowledge of the reporting procedure and further intimidation by perpetrators.

Hugendubel says victims must believe that hate crimes are worth reporting. “Legislation is a core ground needed, not just for victims to believe a crime is worth reporting but also a moral signal from society that homophobic and transphobic crimes will not be tolerated.”

But according to ILGA Europe’s Rainbow Map, 11 EU countries –Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, and Cyprus – still have no provisions in place for hate crime based on sexual orientation.

In eight countries – Germany, Poland, Latvia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy – homophobic hate speech is not defined explicitly as a criminal offence.

Levent Altan, Executive Director of Victims Support Europe (VSE) tells Equal Times that a recasting of the EU Framework Decision (2008/913/JHA) on combatting racism and xenophobia “would require states to have laws specifically for this kind of hate crime.”

However, in response the Commission stated that this “would not be feasible in the current state of EU primary law, since there is no clear legal basis in the treaties.”

The recent transposition of Directive 2012/29/EU on the protection of crime victims in November 2015 is the first EU legal instrument to recognise crime based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

It calls for police training to adequately deal with victims. Such training has been recently introduced in France, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Italy and Portugal.

Altan claims that long-term commitments are needed regarding “diversity training” for police, judges and prosecutors. “Police called to handle an LGBT incident, like a domestic issue, may find it more difficult to respond to rather than that of a heterosexual couple, because they aren’t used to it.”

Hugendubel emphasises the strong role NGOs like ILGA can play in providing training. “We have on-going contact with (the European Commission’s) DG Justice and have proposed training on transposing victims directive rules on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We work with our member organisations on helping to train police forces. We’ve provided a tool kit and workshops where members can discuss a successful strategy,” she says.

 
Changing political attitudes

Hugendubel says there is “a ‘funny’ situation in Europe at the moment. Some countries are moving forward, like Greece yet at the same there’s a political sentiment that is going backwards,” referring to the recent referendum result rejecting same sex marriage in Slovenia.

The will for change must exist, states Dombos, who contends that political homophobia is still present in Hungary. As long as such a climate exists, members of the LGBTI community will continue to be afraid to report crimes, he says. It will also result in “people losing their trust in the institutions.”

The Commission, led by President Jean-Claude Juncker, claims it will roll out its first-ever awareness campaign focused exclusively on LGBTI people later this year, as it intends to make the EU a world leader in LGBTI rights.

But the EU’s internal policies on LGBTI rights must be as strong its“external guidelines”, says Lunacek. While stressing that adoption of the Horizontal Equal Treatment Directive would create strong internal/external coherence, Lunacek feels there has been “no progress since Mr. Juncker took office” in November 2014.

The Commission though stresses that its goal is “to have the Directive adopted under the current mandate.” However, given that this mandate runs until late 2019, in addition to the current Council impasse on equal treatment, LGBTI rights remain at risk.

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