(Berlin, May 31, 2012) – Authorities in the Croatian city of Split should permit the 2012 Gay Pride March on June 9, 2012, to end on the city’s waterfront as planned, Human Rights Watch said today. Croatian police have an obligation to facilitate the peaceful passage of the pride march, protect the safety of the participants, and ensure that anti-gay protesters are not allowed to disrupt or interfere with the parade, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 28, the Split City Council issued a decision refusing permission for the march to take the same route as last year, to the city’s waterfront. The City Council cited the need to avoid a repeat of the violence during last year’s march, when an estimated 10,000 anti-gay protesters turned up and some attacked 200 peaceful demonstrators. The decision followed several written petitions against the march by Split residents.
“Denying Split’s Gay Pride March its chosen route rewards violent bigotry against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It sends a signal that LGBT people don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else.”
The Split gay pride organizer, Kontra, a lesbian association, stated on its website that it will challenge the City Council decision in court. Kontra and national media have reported that Split police had not expressed any security concerns with the original route.
On May 28, the Croatian Gender Equality Ombudsman condemned the City Council’s decision and called on the City Council to allow the march to proceed on its chosen route. The Ombudsman said the refusal constitutes “direct discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” as it was not based on security concerns but rather on the complaints made by civil organizations with “homophobic attitudes.”
Croatian media reports indicate that Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic and Public Administration Minister Arsen Bauk have both expressed their support for the original route on their personal social networking sites. Several people were injured when the anti-gay protesters rioted at the 2011 march. Police arrested 137 people, resulting in seven convictions in April 2012.
The incident happened the day after Croatia was accepted for membership in the European Union. Respect for human rights is a precondition for membership. The October 2011 European Commission Annual Progress report on Croatia stated that the government needed to do more to address homophobic and xenophobic sentiment in society.
Bans and cancellations of gay pride marches are not uncommon in the Balkans. Following violence during a gay pride march in Belgrade, Serbia, in 2010, local authorities banned the 2011 gay pride march, citing the risk of renewed violence. No gay pride marches have ever been organized in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, or Kosovo.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is enshrined in article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In cases against Poland and Russia in previous years, the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously that banning a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) pride parade violated the rights to freedom of assembly and association.
In 2010, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a set of recommendations – CM/Rec (2010)4 – on measures to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. The recommendations oblige Council of Europe member states, which include Croatia, “to protect and ensure the respect of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons who wish to assemble and express themselves, even if their views are unpopular or not shared by the majority of the population.”
The Council of Europe recommendations further specify that “local authorities, the courts, the police and national human rights structures, including ombudspersons thus have a duty to protect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly also of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and organisations defending such persons’ rights.”
“Croatian local authorities should not use the threat of homophobic violence as an excuse to escape their duty to ensure that the pride march goes ahead where planned without disruption,” Gall said.