In an age when western states, international institutions and non-governmental organizations consistently promote and seek to protect human rights across the world, what happens when one of the world's most powerful states openly attacks those fundamental rights?
This is the question now facing the international community in the wake of Russia's recently announced anti-gay legislation, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
Many gay athletes have rejected calls for a boycott, preferring instead to speak out, not sit out, as one LGBT organization pithily framed the issue
The law imposes fines for spreading information about gay choices to minors, totally bans any gay pride rallies or events and, in essence, makes it illegal to speak about being gay in public spaces. Western leaders and organizations have condemned the legislation as being hateful and likely to incite violence against Russia's gay population, but international attention is heightened in this case due to the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Though the International Olympic Committee had assured the international community gay athletes and spectators would not be impacted by the new law, Russia's minister of sport, Vitaliy Mutko, announced on Aug. 1 that the law would be enforced. The nature of this law and Russia's attitude towards all human rights more broadly, now lead to questions about whether there is validity in boycotting the 2014 Olympic Games.
There is certainly a strong argument in favour of boycotting, as Russia's horrific human rights record should have been considered long before awarding Russia the Games. The Russian government's recent escalation of discrimination less than a year prior to the Olympics says quite clearly that the Russian government does not care about international attitudes criticizing its treatment of gay athletes or any other segment of society.
Further, arguments surrounding the need to attend the Games in the hope of positively influencing Russia's policymakers and populous become moot when we look back to the 2008 experience in Beijing where similar justifications by the IOC were made in response to China's human rights record. Since 2008, China's stance toward human rights remains as atrocious as it was in the weeks, months and years prior to the Olympic Games.
To date, there does not seem to be much appetite for a boycott, and even gay athletes have pointed to the futility in not attending the Games. Indeed, many gay athletes have rejected calls for a boycott, preferring instead to "speak out," not "sit out," as Athlete Ally, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that supports Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) athletes, has pithily framed the issue.
While the position may have detractors, it reflects the wishes of many athletes themselves who have devoted much of their young lives to training to be an Olympian.
Personal fulfillment, aspiration and accomplishment, however, extend beyond action and lie more generally in becoming the person one is and the person one wishes to be. Human rights at their very core aim to protect this process of self-actualization, no matter the kind of person one is. And this ought to be the message we take from gay athletes wishing to press forward to Sochi. Imagine the 1936 Berlin Olympics without a Jesse Owens to show a black man could run faster and win more medals, than white athletes -- even self-professed superior ones.
Some LGBT athletes may decide to maintain a low profile. Anyone who has faced the threat of physical assault or any form of oppression probably understands. Others may wish to test if not transgress the boundaries of the law inside the Olympic venue. Thus a question arises: would any country that has criticized Russia, or any country that upholds and defends human rights, or the IOC itself, act to protect anyone who might get entangled in the Russian penal system, stand up to bigotry, and challenge Moscow? If not, they fear being exposed as hypocrites; if so, then LBGT rights as human rights takes an appreciable step forward.
Robert W. Murray is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Alberta. Matthew S. Weinert is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
-- Troy Media