Besieged Queer Chechens Are Getting No Help From the U.S.

Thousands gather in Grozny, capital of the Russian region of Chechnya, on Jan. 22, 2016, for a state-sponsored demonstration in support of strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Elena Fitkulina/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to the differences between the Trump administration America has and the Clinton administration we might have had, there’s no more chilling example than the government’s response to the unfolding crisis facing gay and bi men in Chechnya.

The country has always been extremely hostile to queer people, but at some point in recent weeks, authorities began a large-scale rounding-up of queer men, bringing them to illegal prisons where survivors described being subjected to brutal beatings, electrocutions, and killings. In accounts corroborated by humanitarian organizations, victims reported that security forces tortured them to extract the names of other queer men. Many of those released now face the possibility of “honor killings,” a practice whereby family members are expected to murder their queer or otherwise “dishonorable” relatives.

That Chechen forces would round up and abuse vulnerable minority groups is nothing new. In recent years, authorities have carried out similar illegal abductions against religious minorities, human rights activists, media critics, petty criminals, and even fortunetellers. But the attacks on queer men have been particularly brazen with the approval of top government officials. A spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen head of state and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, claimed that the reports must be false because there are no queer people in the region in the first place.

“If there were such people in Chechnya,” he added in a statement, “the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

There are various theories about why the crackdown against gay men started in late March or early April, though no cause has been verified. Some reports have speculated that the violence is a response to plans to hold a Pride parade in the region, but for human rights activists, identifying the cause of the violence is far less important than finding a way to end it.

“I don’t think the question ‘why’ is the most important,” Svetlana Zakharova, communications manager at the Russian LGBT Network, told me via phone. “The question is: ‘Why don’t the Russian authorities do anything?’ ”

Chechnya is a part of Russia, and for over a decade Zakharova’s organization been working to move queer people out of the country’s most hostile locations. Groups like Amnesty International and ILGA-Europe agree: What’s needed now is for Russian authorities to intervene, to conduct an investigation, and to prosecute those responsible. America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had a perfect opportunity to press for Russia to take action this week. And he appears to have blown it.

The occasion was a previously scheduled trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin—himself no friend to queer people, having compared homosexuality to pedophilia in 2014. Putin, Trump, and Kadyrov are all peas in a pod, sharing an obsession with displays of aggressive masculinity and power. Kadryov went so far as to select an assistant in a televised competition inspired on Trump’s The Apprentice. Human rights groups hoped that the atrocities in Chechnya would be on the agenda for Tillerson’s meeting. But there was no indication the subject was broached; and conditions on the ground seem to have worsened, with The Russian LGBT Network reporting that they’ve lost contact with several survivors.

So far, the State Department has only issued a brief statement calling for the release of “anyone wrongfully detained.” Crucially, the statement made no mention of protecting the survivors, who will be in grave danger after their release; nor is there any mention of providing asylum. Tillerson has not spoken publicly about the situation. In contrast, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop strongly condemned the arrests. “We have raised our concerns directly with the Russian government,” she told Fairfax Media.

It’s disappointing—but not surprising—that Donald Trump’s State Department has been so quiet. It was less than a decade ago that Vice President Mike Pence, then a member of Congress, attempted to block the State Department from intervening in similar situations. At the time, the State Department was contemplating a program that would have tracked international state-sanctioned violence against LGBT people, and encouraged foreign governments to reform their practices.

This was too much for Mike Pence. “I oppose mandating that our Secretary of State, diplomatic and consular staff essentially promote a gay rights agenda around the globe,” he said in a 2009 speech before Congress. “We ought to identify race, color, religion, sex, national origins, those matters upon which the American people broadly agree, rather than introducing and singling out an issue that divides so many in our nation.” His attempt to curtail international human rights in 2009 failed. But today, he seems to have gotten his wish.

This is a far cry from the State Department under Hillary Clinton, who declared that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.” She oversaw the drafting of a United Nations resolution (previously blocked by the Bush administration) that directly led to the U.N. considering LGBT equality as a human right. Under her leadership, the State Department created the Global Equality Fund to promote advance LGBT rights worldwide. She worked with the White House to make foreign aid contingent on curbing abuses of queer people, over GOP protests.

In other words, Secretary of State Clinton took proactive steps to prevent violence of the sort occurring right now in Chechnya; and all the while, she was opposed by Republicans. It’s impossible to know how she would respond to the current crisis as commander in chief, but if history is a guide, it’s certain President Clinton would have more to offer now than a silent shrug. Whether through economic sanctions, diplomacy, or providing resources to nonprofits, a Clinton State Department could have drawn on years of expertise to address the atrocities—or prevent them altogether. Unfortunately, counterfactuals won’t help the situation on the ground in Chechnya; but as we search for ways to aid our queer siblings, they’re an important reminder that our votes in America impact lives far beyond our borders.