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Let’s talk less about UEFA – and more about Hungary’s new anti-LGBT law

Where discrimination leads, corruption often follows. We need a combined strategy to tackle both

Matt Jenkins Ellie McDonald
1 July 2021, 12.01am
Somebody runs on the pitch waving an LGBT+ flag during the national anthems at the Germany vs Hungary game, 23 June
Peter Schatz / Alamy Stock Photo

UEFA’s decision to block the illumination of the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours during Germany’s Euro 2020 match against Hungary brought homophobic laws and policies into the spotlight – for a few days at least. As a symbolic gesture of solidarity, the rainbow-festooned response was heartening.

Yet as the sound and fury subside – along with more than a pinch of commercial and political opportunism – discrimination against LGBTQI+ people continues to be a year-round reality for millions around the world.

Laws like those in Hungary and Russia that serve as a tool for outright discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation are sadly not uncommon. There are currently 67 UN Member States who criminalise consensual same-sex conduct.

Discriminatory laws grant public officials – notably those in law enforcement – enormous discretionary power in their interactions with LGBTQI+ people. This is not only a problem in its own right, but creates a permissive environment for other abuses of power, such as corruption. There is solid evidence that police officers in certain countries frequently exploit this power to target LGBTQI+ people for extortion.

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Take the example of Russia, where a discriminatory legal framework – exemplified by the notorious ‘anti-propaganda’ law – sets the tone for officials’ treatment of the LGBT community. This is a relationship characterised by human rights abuses, as the case of Fedor*, a young gay man from the south Russian city of Krasnodar, indicates.

Fedor made a match on the popular dating app, Hornet. When he arrived for the date, Fedor says he found several police officers lying in wait, who dragged him to the police station, beat him and threatened him with trumped-up criminal charges, alleging that his date was still a minor. They then escorted him to a cash machine and forced him to hand over a bribe of around $2,250 in exchange for release.

Discrimination criminalisation map reformatted.jpg
This map is based on the Fuller projection, which offers a more accurate indication of the relative size of each country and avoids the cultural bias of depicting the northern hemisphere as ‘up’ and the southern hemisphere as ‘down’

Fedor had done nothing illegal, and although he had the courage to report the incident to an investigative committee, the body has refused to open criminal proceedings. More than two years later, no investigation has been carried out.

But Fedor’s story is not unique. Nor is the fact that the corruption he encountered was fuelled by discriminatory laws and attitudes that stigmatised his very identity and ensured that his complaint would be ignored.

In fact, this case is just one among many that show how corruption and discrimination cause and enable one another, in a vicious cycle that is making inequality worse. For the past year, we have listened to grassroots activists and international experts around the world, creating a picture of a global phenomenon we call “discriminatory corruption” – the corrupt abuse of power that discriminates against people on the basis of age, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, belief, gender, sex or sexual orientation. (Our report, ‘Defying Exclusion: stories and insights on the links between discrimination and corruption’, is published on 6 July.)

From the sexual extortion of female medical students in Madagascar, to illegal land grabs against Indigenous peoples in Guatemala, we found recurring patterns regardless of the where or when the abuses occurred. The bottom line is that discrimination makes certain groups more exposed to corruption, and far less able to report it. Certain forms of corruption are in fact inherently discriminatory because they specifically target vulnerable groups – like the sexual exploitation of women and girls, or the extortion of gay men.

Discrimination and corruption are not standalone social evils; they are deeply interwoven behaviours

The powerful and intimate testimonies we gathered suggest that Hungary’s new law will only further entrench abuses of power. These voices also make it clear that we need a shift in approach. Discrimination and corruption are not standalone social evils; they are deeply interwoven behaviours that people often encounter in tandem.

Governments like those of Hungary and Russia must introduce, implement and enforce anti-corruption and anti-discrimination laws. Fedor’s case, for example, demonstrates the need for safe, easy-to-use reporting mechanisms for people at the sharp end of discrimination.

We need the same kind of combined approach from the United Nations and regional organisations, which have been working separately on anti-corruption and anti-discrimination mandates until now. One possibility is establishing a special rapporteur on corruption and discrimination.

Typically, abuses of the kind reported by Fedor happen in the intimate and unseen parts of people’s lives. These are the spaces in which the two phenomena interact, at great cost to the most marginalised people in society.

Symbolic gestures such as rainbow-clad stadiums are a useful start – a declaration of intent. But this must be followed by sincere and concerted attempts to listen to those exposed to discriminatory corruption, and act together on the solutions they propose.

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