OPINION: EuroPride was not a political victory - we walked into a trap

by Evelyne Paradis | ILGA-Europe
Tuesday, 20 September 2022 16:34 GMT

People attend the European LGBTQ pride march in Belgrade, Serbia, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Zorana Jevtic

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The first EuroPride in the Balkans finally took place in Serbia after weeks of protest, but it was not a victory for human rights and democracy

Evelyne Paradis is the executive director of ILGA-Europe.

From the moment Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić announced he would cancel the EuroPride march in Belgrade, the message from every European decision maker should have been crystal clear: freedom of assembly is an established human right and cannot be compromised.

Instead, everyone got caught up in a politician’s game – a politician who appeared to be pushing back the rights of LGBTQ+ people to appeal to the far right and religious base in Serbia.

EuroPride went ahead after all and is being roundly declared a political victory by most of us in Europe. But really it is not.

Yes, it was a victory for every brave soul of the reported 10,000 who showed up in much larger numbers than expected, demonstrating enormous courage amid huge anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.

Yes, it was a victory for LGBTQ+ people from Serbia, the Balkans and beyond, who reminded each other that they have every right to come together in a public space and to do so without shame nor fear.

But let's make no mistake, this was not a victory for human rights and democracy. The way EuroPride came about, what unfolded before, during and afterwards, was not what freedom of assembly should look like in Europe in 2022.

Administrative obstruction after obstruction and a cancellation followed by a ban on the route complete with alleged security concerns that were never substantiated all led to a compromise at the 11th hour.

On the day of the march, the route that organisers had to agree to was just two blocks long, winding up in a park that was completely closed off by police for everyone’s protection.

Fifteen years ago, when many European cities were holding their first Pride marches, we could consider such an event a success for human rights; a first important step for the community. But this is no longer acceptable.

Not when case law from the European Court of Human Rights on freedom of assembly for LGBTQ+ people is one of the most robust and well established in the world.

The purpose of the Serbian government’s actions was so clearly to use LGBTQ+ people as pawns in high-stake political manoeuvres. Vučić wanted to cause a distraction from the Serbian government’s agreement with Kosovo for free movement and an increasingly challenging economic context in the country.

Large far-right protests were allowed in the streets of Belgrade just days before EuroPride, while Vučić and his political cronies grandstanded that Serbia would not be lectured by European institutions.

In the end, Vučić won his political game. Globally, it looked as if Serbia did allow Pride to go ahead, and even protected activists against the counter demonstrators, who were arrested. But on home turf, he is seen as someone who stood up against the external movement to promote LGBTQ+ rights.

As of Sunday, the narrative in the Serbian media has been that this was a private event that the government graciously allowed to go ahead – not a public Pride march marking the first EuroPride in the Balkans.

Tragically, those who do and will suffer the consequences of this are the local LGBTQ+ people. While many of us came and went, there exists a real community now at increased risk of attack.

A group of 10 activists were attacked and many injured on the streets of Belgrade in the wake of EuroPride. The beatings took place in front of police, who allegedly failed to protect the victims, according to a witness.

We can likely expect more of the same in the coming days, weeks and months.

There is so much true courage in the LGBTQ+ community. The very least elected officials and decision makers in Europe should do is to be as courageous as them.

We cannot shy away when democracy and fundamental rights are being challenged by different governments. Europe needs to make it loud and clear that democracy is fundamental and human rights are inalienable.

When our freedoms are challenged, we cannot let those who bully dictate our behaviour and weaken our response.

At this moment in time, Europe – its institutions, its governments, its elected officials ¬– need to stand up unequivocally and unapologetically for human rights and democracy, and do so without compromise.

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