On December 8-11, 2015, the project partners from Armenia and Georgia within the EU-funded action Solidarity Network for LGBTI in Armenia and Georgia, implemented by the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus Regional Office, as well as an LGBT activist from Azerbaijan, participated in an annual event organized by the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Ms. Ulrike Lunacek, in cooperation with the Greens/EFA, the EP Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, and the Heinrich Boell European Union office. The programme included a Conference at the European Parliament focusing on the status of LGBTI rights in the South Caucasus, as well as a number of related side events.
The visit commenced with introductory sessions at the HBF EU office, and the sharing of expectations and plans, followed by a meeting with Ms. Emma Achilli, Head of EU Office of Front Line Defenders, an organization aimed at the protection of at-risk human rights defenders, and Mr. Raphaël Fišera, Advisor on Human Rights with the Greens/EFA at the European Parliament (EP) who gave valuable advice to the participants on how to approach the MEPs and EU institutions and cultivate effective cooperation, also giving details on the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2015-2019, which is aimed at the incorporation of human rights into the heart of the EU agenda. The meeting was then enriched by Mr. Evert Jan Jacobsen, Secretary of the EP’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, who expounded on the functions and composition of the Intergroup, as well as the tools it can employ to exert pressure on member states to comply with their obligations to protect the human rights of LGBTI persons. Mr. Paolo Bergamaschi, the Greens/EFA Advisor on Foreign Affairs gave an introduction to the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the recent review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which spells out the EU’s new approach to its neighbors.
The participants also took part in relevant meetings with the members of the EEAS, including Ms. Elisabeth Edland, Policy Officer for Human Rights in the Caucasus, as well as the desk officer for Georgia, and a representative of DG NEAR. Unfortunately, desk officers for Armenia and Azerbaijan were unable to attend the meeting, which featured a presentation of the EU-funded action Solidarity Network for LGBTI in Armenia and Georgia by the HBF South Caucasus Project Coordinator, as well as introductory presentations conducted by the project partners, highlighting, among other things, the need for increased awareness raising on the EU Association Agreement in both Georgia and Armenia, and an overview of the general situation in terms of LGBTI rights in Azerbaijan. EEAS representatives proceeded to offer their feedback on actions that can be taken to promote LGBTI issues on the ground in the three South Caucasus countries and to engage EU institutions. Following the meeting with the EEAS, the participants of the event formulated a set of recommendations to be offered to EU institutions to ensure the protection of LGBTI person's rights.
The side events were followed by the Conference on December 10, titled "Europe, Let's Speak Out for LGBTI Rights in South Caucasus", which effectively coincided with the International Human Rights Day. During the Conference, another presentation of the EU-funded action was conducted, followed by individual presentations by the project partners on anti-discrimination legislation and the lack of effective legal enforcement mechanisms in Georgia, Armenian laws and regulations applicable to LGBTI persons, and specific legislation on NGOs in Azerbaijan and its influence on the LGBTI situation in the country. The second panel of the conference was chaired by Ms. Ulrike Lunacek herself and focused on the conflicting values of the East and West in the South Caucasus with regard to LGBTI issues. Participants spoke about pro-Russian forces labeling LGBTI rights as a Western import in Georgia, through the lens of a shifting view on secularism, the polarization and politicization of LGBTI issues between East and West in Armenia, and the consequences the prospect of Azerbaijan joining the Eurasian Union would have on LGBTI rights in the country, including the possibility of anti-propaganda laws. Conference participants, MEPs and representatives of the EEAS shared their viewpoints on the new European Neighbourhood Policy document, and how the EU works in each of the three countries to advance LGBTI human rights, highlighting the Guidelines to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of All Human Rights by LGBTI Persons, adopted by the EU in 2013 and their importance in providing benchmarks in combating discrimination and homophobic violence, promoting anti-discrimination, and protecting LGBTI human rights defenders.
The Conference was followed by meetings with representatives of the Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM) and the Working Party on Eastern Europe and Central Asia (COEST) of the Council of the European Union, where a conference debriefing was held and similar issues and questions were covered. At the conclusion of the visit, the participants met with Ms. Anne Gaspard, Executive Director at Equinet (European Network of Equality Bodies), as well as Mr. Oliviero Aseglio of RainbowHouse, who spoke about the scope and purpose of their organizations and the methods each employs to lobby for, advance, and protect LGBTI rights in EU member states. The final meeting of the visit was hosted by ILGA-Europe, namely Mr. Björn van Roozendaal, Programmes Director, and Ms. Sophie Aujean, Senior Policy & Programmes Officer, who spoke about the current and planned projects in the region and gave a highly comprehensive presentation on the situation of Intersex individuals and offered practical advice on how to reach out to the practically invisible community in the South Caucasus countries, which will have a direct benefit to the EU-funded action and assist in raising awareness on intersex issues.
Following the meetings, a wrap-up session was held at the HBF EU office, where a set of general and country-specific recommendations to various target audiences was drafted. The recommendations are to be consolidated into a joint document and shared with the interlocutors and other identified relevant actors in follow-up communication.
To sum up, the visit provided an opportunity to share the project partners’ concerns and work experiences with European Union (EU) institutions representatives and other Brussels-based stakeholders, revealing the difficulties the former can experience while attempting to support LGBTI people’s rights on the ground, obtain clear recommendations from the Georgian and Armenian partners, as well as the Azerbaijani participant, to the EU institutions on how they can better contribute to ensure the respect, protection and promotion of LGBTI people’s human rights in the South Caucasus. The project was a capacity-building initiative, which allowed the participants to gain new knowledge and skills on how to employ EU institutions for advocating for LGBTI issues in the South Caucasus, it also provided an opportunity to meet with MEPs and LGBTI groups and share experiences and best practice examples. The initiative also facilitated networking opportunities, including among the partners and the Azerbaijani activist, which is a crucial point given the difficulty and lack of visibility of LGBTI issues in the country, and generally served as a positive and productive team-building experience among the project partners.