Rainbow Europe findings reveal scale of challenge on LGBTQI+ rights

Paul CrickThursday 17 June 2021

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) annual Rainbow Europe Map and Index (the ‘Map and Index’), which ranks the legal and policy situation in 49 European countries, was published in May. ‘The 2021 Rainbow Europe Map reveals widespread and almost complete stagnation on human rights of LGBTI people,’ says ILGA-Europe. It is, ILGA says, ‘time for a reboot on LGBTI rights in Europe.’

Published annually since 2009, this year’s findings (available at rainbow-europe.org) were no cause for celebration. ‘The struggle for equality and justice concerning LGBTIQ+ people worldwide continues without let up,’ says the Hon Justice Michael Kirby, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. ‘That some countries impose the death penalty and some, which have abolished criminal punishment, still impose social stigma, indicates that there still remains a long way to go.’


That some countries impose the death penalty and some, which have abolished criminal punishment, still impose social stigma, indicates that there still remains a long way to go

The Hon Justice Michael Kirby
Co-Chair, IBA’s Human Rights Institute

Each of the 49 countries included in the Map are ranked from 1–100 per cent on legal and policy practices for LGBTI people. The top three countries were Malta (94 per cent), Belgium (74 per cent) and Luxembourg (72 per cent). The bottom three were Armenia (seven per cent), Turkey (four per cent) and Azerbaijan (two per cent). Among the more surprising placings were Montenegro at an impressive number 11 with 62 per cent and Italy at 35 with just 22 per cent. In July 2020, Montenegro became the first Western Balkans and first non-EU country to legalise same-sex partnerships. In contrast, a proposed amendment to the Italian Penal Code sanctioning anti-LGBT crimes divided the country, the debate continuing against the background of a rise in hate crimes in Italy against LGBTI people.

The Map and Index marks countries on six categories: Equality and non-discrimination; family; hate crime and hate speech; legal gender recognition and bodily integrity; civil society space; and asylum. This year’s findings reveal that there has been virtually no change in the legal situation of LGBTI people in Europe in the past 12 months. Randy Bullard is Co-Chair of the IBA Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Law Committee. ‘It is sad to see the lack of progress in LGBT issues across many European nations,’ he says. ‘Americans generally consider Europeans (particularly Western Europeans) to be progressive leaders in social and human rights issues. That appears to be no longer the case.’

Regarding equality and discrimination, it was noted that quality action plans expired in a number of countries in 2020, with only three countries (Finland, Ireland, and Sweden) and one region (Germany’s Saarland) proposing new plans. However, a court in Poland clarified that the law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in the workplace. Portugal and Northern Ireland revoked all restrictions on LGBTI people for blood donation, making it possible for everyone to donate blood safely and equally.

Regarding family, 2020 was a year of stagnation. Not a single country proposed legal or policy changes that would affect LGBTI people. Meanwhile, only Norway extended its protection against hate crime and hate speech, adding gender identity to its Penal Code as a ground for protection.

This year, only one country made positive changes to trans and intersex rights, with Iceland advancing rights for trans people by implementing legal recognition of non-binary people. In many other countries the situation remains one of stagnation or even regression. The UK government continues to prevaricate over its declared intention to ban conversion therapy. In Northern Ireland, trans people remain unable to access the medical reports required to go through trans-specific healthcare processes without paying for private care, creating a class barrier to accessing legal gender recognition.

In terms of civil society space, Georgia has witnessed many attacks on LGBTI people. In Poland, LGBTI people were actively attacked by police at public events, and anti-LGBT resolutions have been passed by several local governments. ‘The attempt to create “LGBT-free zones” in Poland is frightening,’ notes Joseph Catanzariti, Co-Chair of the IBA LGBTI Law Committee. Such attempts are continuing despite the EU Equalities Commissioner declaring the move to be against EU values and fundamental human rights and stripping towns of European town twinning funding.

The only positive development in the category covering asylum was in Malta, where new amendments to the Refugees Act were introduced and new guidelines on asylum claims were published.

‘It is deeply worrying to report an almost complete standstill on LGBTI rights and equality, especially at such a critical time for LGBTI communities,’ says Evelyne Paradis, Executive Director of ILGA-Europe. Katrin Hugendubel is ILGA-Europe’s Advocacy Director. ‘In too many countries, progress is stopped because there’s increased political polarisation on LGBTI issues, […] and because governments don’t see it as a priority issue,’ she says.

The 2021 Map and Index makes for difficult reading, with LGBTI equality and human rights appearing to be under threat across the whole of Europe. However, it does find some positives, pointing out that a number of countries have legislative proposals, action plans and policy discussions underway, which need to move forward. Equally, countries that have adopted new laws need to make sure they are efficiently brought into force.

Europe is at a juncture. ‘As Europe and the rest of the world re-open after pandemic lockdowns, these negative trends regarding LGBTI legal rights will be turned back,’ says Catanzariti. Michael Kirby adds that ‘lawyers have a special role in this struggle. This is why the IBA has long been an advocate worldwide, for full equality for people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.’

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