Sexual minorities may not be the most fashionable topic in international cooperation, but there is quite a lot more that Europe can do - and in a better way. Human rights, the NGO sector, and neo-colonialist ghosts in a conversation with Svetlana Ðurković

22/09/2009 -  Irene Dioli

If you had to define yourself and your work as an activist, would you use the notion of queer, LGBT, or something else altogether?

For myself I use the word queer, and I'll tell you why. While society identifies each one of us by sex, gender, and sexual orientation, the layers of my self-identification are far more complex and break the norms on more than one level. So, the combination of the parts of my identity and my activist and research work are oriented towards queer theory. Queer theory deals with the construction of sex, gender, and gender norms. On the other hand, as a human rights activist, I am engaged with defending the rights of LGBTIQ individuals that are alone in this country and I believe every identity is entitled to visibility. In my country, where most people have some kind of segmented identity based on religion and nationality, everyone is easily read by their name or language. So people don't ask, they assume who you are. Our organisation works specifically on the rights of each person to self-define and self-identify, even when those identities do not fit social norms and common understandings.

What are your main activities?

My activities include raising media visibility and doing public awareness campaigns, workshops and seminars addressed to the LGBTIQ population and lobbying institutions for laws against discrimination and for gender equality laws. We also carry out studies, file reports (e.g., as regards education, or textbooks), and sit on a series of boards within civil society - sometimes ornamentally, sometimes not. It is unfortunate that there is only one organisation in BiH. It would make it easier for us if there were more, with different kinds of expertise. As it is now, we have to react to everything - every media trouble, every political statement - or nobody will.

Is activism your full-time job?

It is. I actually worked on UN human rights projects while meanwhile I was already working for Organisation Q and putting a lot of time into it, though I was not getting paid back then. So, my full attention has been devoted to the organisation for seven years now.

What do you think are the main results of these years' work?

One of the primary results was achieving some media visibility in a way that was not derogatory. This happened because, with someone being open and available to the media, they finally had somebody to talk to. Secondly, we were able to become inclusive of transgender and inter-sex issues in our activism - not because we had inter-sex members, but because it needed to be done. We were also one of the 20 organisations that initiated the creation of a network at the regional level, which is now dormant.

What about the main problems?

More visibility raises more violence, as we started experiencing last September at the Queer Sarajevo Festival. Another problem is that it is difficult to involve people in activism. Of course, when we invest in people through workshops and seminars, we do not do that in order for all of them to become activists and save the world, but for them to be educated and able to lead their lives forward. And most people do use that knowledge to get a better life, e.g. getting a job somewhere else and moving out of the country. Thus, only a few people are willing to stay here and be openly involved in activism. And even then, it is not easy to find people who are skilled in professional work and communication, which is very important when you need to develop lobbying and positive visibility of sexual minorities in a traditionalist country.

So, how many of you are there now?

Overall, I can say that we have a group of 20 people, but only three of us work full-time for the organisation.

What about the organisation's financial support? Where do funds come from?

Prior to registering, we received our first donation. It came from the Heart and Hand Fund. When we registered, our first official grants came from the Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and COC-HIVOS. Other donors include the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and the Global Fund for Women (both from the US), the embassies of Switzerland, and the Netherlands. We have never been funded by our government.

Can you tell me something more about the regional network that you mentioned, and the reasons why it is not currently active?

It was initiated in September 2003 and included both individual activists and organisations from all over the region of the former Yugoslavia because these countries share history and language. We met four times a year and initiated communication about a regional project, e.g. involving training in advocacy, lobbying for public policy, and activist methods. In the end, activities just slowed down and stopped simply because everyone was involved both at the national and regional level and we did not have the resources or the energy to carry on both paths. Now, it is as if there were a moment of silence, as happens when everybody is talking at the same time, and, every now and then, there is a pause. We are now in that pause, waiting for someone to speak up and re-initiate this regional discourse, which would be needed since networking at the regional level would provide for better leadership and coordination of initiatives.

And what kind of contacts have you had with countries outside the region?

We do get in touch with other organisations and institutions outside the region, including at the EU level. I am also starting to think we should cooperate more with organisations from South America, that perhaps we could find more common ground with them and benefit from this interaction. Our society bears a huge remembrance of oppression in its recent history, of being repressed, banned. In this regard, our history is more similar to South America's, as Western Europe does not share this burden, but has been a colonialist power and is, by majority, a neo-colonialist power. So, I think we might benefit from learning about different activist tactics that have worked in South America as opposed to, say, adopting models from the UK because we live in a different context - not only as regards the LGBTIQ population, but the general population as well. In our country, for example, where we are dealing with huge corruption and a weak government, activists have nobody to support them, for example in terms of political parties or government. The government is, in fact, your obstacle, which is not the case, for example, with UK or France, where the government itself is pushing the change.

What are the problems that you encounter in the cooperation with international organisations?

Since we cannot count on domestic institutions, it is crucial for international organisations to get involved in the region and promote human rights. Yet, again, the word neo-colonialism comes to mind. It so happens that an international organisation may regard the local counterpart as an implementer rather than a partner, and if the work is not carried on in a participatory way from the beginning, the relationship and the work itself become problematic...on more than one level. First, in terms of attitude. If a country is on its way to develop its trajectory towards the goals of inclusiveness and human rights guarantees that have been achieved elsewhere, it does not mean that local activists are less educated and less able to shape their own work. What they need is to be empowered, not directed. A second problem involves the work's actual outcome: if an international organisation is simply looking for a new place to implement a model or a strategy that has been applied to "x" countries in Western Europe without taking local specificities and contribution into account when planning a project, it is probably going to fail or be irrelevant or not sustainable and we are going to be the ones left to deal with the consequences after the international partner uses the work and leaves. On the other hand, I do understand why international NGOs are, at the same time, accountable to their donors and need to present them with clear concepts, strategies, and results. The exchange needs to go both ways.

Can you give me some example of situations where there was a conflict of approaches?

For example, in international contexts, we have struggled to promote an inclusive strategy that addresses transgender and inter-sex issues in addition to gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights. We met a lot of resistance in this and yet it was a crucial step because a human rights-oriented organisation simply cannot work with a strategy that has elements of exclusion. Another problem I encountered during trainings with international partners involved different methodologies. For example, our approach is strictly connected to human rights, which fits the context we operate in. Everything we do, in terms of public policy, lobbying, and advocacy, is based on a human rights approach. The human rights platform gives you more leverage in our relationship with the institutions because even the government has to be accountable in terms of human rights, while not necessarily so in terms of, let's say, sexual diversity or feminism - which are problematic concepts in a traditionalist context. Yet, we happened to work with international partners that used a SWOT analysis approach (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) and did not really take ours into consideration, so we ended up having discussions about the issues to be addressed. For example, media interest - or lack thereof - is not necessarily a human rights issue, while media using derogatory language is...but the core issue here is that "assessing needs" cannot be done externally - it cannot be done for us by someone who has never lived here or is not familiar with the context of our cultures.

In your experience and/or knowledge, how did the situation change through different historical phases, e.g. before and after socialism, or the wars?

In other former Yugoslav countries, such as Serbia, the wars did great damage to civil society. The case with BiH was a bit different. I'm not aware of any single grass-roots human rights-oriented organisation before 1991. The war and mobilisation - especially the feminist movement - created the ground for all sorts of human rights associations to develop - for women, for children, for refugees, for minorities. And this prepared a space for dealing with gender and sexual diversity as well. Yet, if you look at society as a whole, we still have the same nationalistic, sexist, and patriarchal mentality, also because people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not invested in terms of education, information, and quality media. Schools need to educate students about human rights - you cannot go through war and keep education exactly the same. Furthermore, the lack of a strong and fair political system, the lack of a system of checks and balances, has a huge negative impact on minority issues. Initiatives are often stopped because there is no political consensus on the need for gender and sexual equality. It is all too easily dismissed as something brought from outside. For example, a woman member of Parliament, who was supported very much by women NGOs to be in that position, during the first reading of the anti-discrimination law draft, wanted to exclude sexual orientation from the list of elements to be safeguarded against discrimination.

The same happened in Italy, where the Minister for Equal Opportunities declared, right after her appointment, that there was no need to address discrimination of sexual minorities because she was not aware of any discrimination...

Yes, the problem lies in the arbitrary character of the way these policies are handled. It is not about articulated information, it is not about any communication based on evidence, it is literally about who likes what and who doesn't like what and how much power they have. There is no cultural dialogue and rational social policy making, just the waving of this little flag of paranoia. In conclusion, I would say that yes, war, nationalism, and religious extremism have been devastating for activism as such.

Do you think internationalisation - e.g. European integration - can play a role in eliciting more sensitivity in the country's political elites?

Yes, European integration - or the prospect of it - makes things easier, inasmuch as it provides some basic democratic criteria the government needs to go by. Anti-discrimination laws are also being pushed by international pressures, and the moment there are legal obligations, the government at least becomes more accountable.