On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I write to address the failure of Latvian police and authorities to protect the physical security, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community as it observed “Riga Pride 2006” on July 22. In the past, you have shown support for LGBT people’s equality and freedom to exercise their rights, and we call on you now to ensure that your government and all relevant Latvian authorities will undertake to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the attacks on peaceful lesbian and gay pride activists in Riga, and guarantee that all persons’ rights are protected and respected in the future, without discrimination.

As you are aware, on July 19, the Riga City Council denied an application by several LGBT organizations for Riga Pride 2006. On July 21, the Administrative Court of Latvia upheld the City Council’s decision. Both the court and the city council justified their decisions with claims that the parade posed a serious threat to national security. Most of the information about the case was classified as a state secret, unavailable to the organisers of the parade, and sealed from the public for the next five years—a fundamental failure of transparency which renders it insuperably difficult for the LGBT activists to contest or respond to the excuse given for the ban. Given the 2005 city council rejection of the pride application on what Andris Grinbergs, city council deputy executive director, termed “moral grounds,” the justification for this year’s permit rejection, and the secrecy surrounding it, raises serious concerns about discrimination.

In lieu of a parade, gay pride activists organized alternative events on July 22. While they attended a morning service at the Anglican Church in Riga, anti-gay protesters gathered outside. As participants exited the church service, the protesters pelted them with human excrement, eggs, and other projectiles, and verbally abused them. According to reports, police refused assistance to individuals who requested protection as they were trying to reach their vehicles, as they left the church in the face of the mob.

Later that day, lesbians, gays, and their supporters, including clergy, a member of the European Parliament, and members of national parliaments from several European countries, held a meeting at the Reval Hotel Latvija. Anti-gay demonstrators again gathered outside the main entrance. They pelted lesbian and gay community members as they left the hotel, and nearly ran off the road a taxi carrying LGBT people.

Prior to the administrative court’s ruling, both you and President Vaira Vike Freiberga denounced the city council’s decision, stating that discrimination on any grounds, including sexual orientation, is unacceptable. On July 20, President Vike Freiberga stated, “It lies at the very foundation of the Constitution of Latvia that human rights shall be respected in Latvia without any discrimination, which means that nobody must be restricted in his/her activities based on his/her religious beliefs, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender or belonging to some other group. Furthermore, the Constitution guarantees to the residents of Latvia the right to the freedom of speech and assembly.”

Echoing these views, in 2005, you wrote, “The Government of Latvia is clearly against discrimination of any kind. … [T]he Government of Latvia has never retreated from the principles of democracy and that its whole operation is aimed at protecting every citizen of Latvia, fighting race intolerance and persons fueling hate on national or any other grounds.”

Yet equality for members of Latvia's LGBT community has taken several blows in recent months. First, there was the amendment in 2005 to the constitution, banning equality in civil marriage. Then last month the parliament refused to pass a law it was obliged as an E.U. member state to do, outlawing discrimination in employment against persons based on their sexual orientation. If respect for the fundamental human rights of Latvia's LGBT community is to mean anything, this recent weekend of attacks cannot go without an appropriate response from your government. Police have reportedly arrested fourteen alleged participants in the July 22 violence. However, an active commitment by your government is needed to ensure both justice and a climate in which diversity is respected.

In response to the banning of Riga Pride, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights proclaimed that “Peaceful demonstrations for sexual minority rights must be allowed. The fact that some people harbour homophobic prejudices is no reason to limit the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly of others. The police have the duty to protect such manifestations and – while in extreme situations it might be necessary to recommend alternative demonstration venues – banning them is certainly unacceptable as it undermines core human rights principles.”

International law and standards obligate the Latvian authorities to respect the rights to assembly and expression. As you are may be aware, with the 1988 case Plattform “Ärzte für das Leben” v Austria, the European Court of Human Rights established that states not only must refrain from interfering with the right to assembly (Article 11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms), but that it may have to take positive measures to ensure the fulfillment of the freedom of assembly. “Genuine, effective freedom of peaceful assembly cannot, therefore, be reduced to a mere duty on the part of the State not to interfere: a purely negative conception would not be compatible with the object and purpose of Article 11…Article 11 sometimes requires positive measures be taken.” Furthermore, everybody is entitled to equal protection of the law, without discrimination on any grounds. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee made clear in its 1994 decision, Toonen v. Australia, sexual orientation should be understood as a status protected against discrimination by the equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that the authorities’ actions in Riga against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Latvia directly violate these international standards. We urge you ensure a full investigation of the July 22 attacks, see that those responsible for the attacks are prosecuted, and make public the documents that allegedly justified the denial of the pride permit. In particular, we urge you to ensure that future LGBT gatherings are both permitted and protected by Latvian authorities. As the experience of LGBT people in Riga this past week demonstrates, the struggle for a successful democracy in Latvia, one that protects all, has yet to be determined.

Sincerely,

Scott Long
Director
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program
Human Rights Watch

Cc:

Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President
Mr. Guntars Grīnvalds, Minister of Justice
Mr. Dzintars Jaundzeikars, Interior Minister
Mr. Artis Pabriks, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ms. Karina Petersone, Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration
Mr. Aivars Aksenoks, Chairman of the Riga City Council and Mayor of Riga
Judiciary / Administrative Court of Latvia