In Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia, NGOs are collecting hate crime data and leveraging the countries’ EU ambitions to push for rights.
The young gay activist slowly stirs sugar into his coffee as he says he’s never had a boyfriend who would hold his hand in public.
“Most people from my generation are too scared to come out,” says 22-year-old Liridon Veliou, who works with the LGBT rights group QESh. Behind him, is a cafe scene from any European city – smartphones and MacBook computers illuminating the faces of young men and women against a backdrop of bookshelves stacked with 60s American novels.
But beyond the cafe’s terrace and its young, open-minded clientele, lies a country where 81% of the LGBT community has suffered threats or insults because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is the highest rate of discrimination in the western Balkans, according to a 2015 poll by the National Democracy Institute. The statistics are a sharp reminder that, despite appearances, this isn’t London or Rome – this is Pristina, capital of Kosovo.
On paper, Kosovo looks modern and inclusive – its progressive constitution written in the aftermath of the 1998-99 war includes a ban of discrimination based on sexual orientation. But LGBT groups say this image contradicts reality. “If you look at the constitution in Kosovo, you’d think this is a pretty good place to live as an LGBT person,” says Gemza Burgija, programme manager at the Centre for Equality and Liberty (CEL), an LGBT rights group based in Pristina. “But that’s not really the case.”
To unveil the difficulties faced by the LGBT community in Kosovo, Burgija and her colleagues have started working on the country’s first public database, which will document cases of discrimination and violence against the LGBT community and will be available online by June.
Evidence-based advocacy is an important tool, says Lilit Poghosyan who works with Ilga Europe. “In the beginning, [governments in the western Balkans] said there was no discrimination. To prove this was an issue, organisations started to collect data because no government had a system in place to do so.”
Using data to fight discrimination has helped the cause in Bosnia. In 2013, survey data collected by the human rights group the Sarajevo Open Centre (SOC), revealed that 73% of the LGBT community did not trust the police. Armed with this evidence, the group approached the ministry of interior and begin working with the police department to educate them about LGBT hate crime.
SOC staff members Vladana Vasić and Maja Lukic Schade believe they were invited to be involved in police training because their data allowed them to be “very loud” about the increasing number of hate crimes. “Had we not documented cases, conducted research among the LGBT community and presented the ministry with concrete data, we probably would not cooperate with them as closely as we have so far,” they said. Vasić and Lukic Schade believe that data is crucial for pressuring the authorities. “Since the LGBT community is invisible, most people and institutions we work with ask for certain numbers and percentages to establish relevance of the issue. When there is no data , relevant authorities might claim there is no need to work on that issue.”
Exploiting EU ambitions
A collaboration between six NGOs across the region is aiming to use the fact that respect for gay rights is a criterion for joining the EU to improve the treatment of LGBT people in the western Balkans. Activists document the situation on the ground, so that candidate or potential candidate countries, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia, cannot exaggerate the progress they’ve made.
Whereas Kosovar campaigners use data to push the country’s institutions to fulfil their responsibilities, in Serbia, collection has become an important tool to check state institutions are not manipulating statistics.
“Data is important for us because the state tends to lower the rates of hate crime, hate speech and discrimination,” says Jelena Vasiljević, programme coordinator at Belgrade-based LGBT group Labris. She believes the Serbian justice system does this by processing crimes against the LGBT community as ordinary violent crimes, removing the hate crime label.
As rights organisations in the western Balkans cooperate more, the power of data has spread slowly throughout the region, reaching Albania – also an EU candidate country – where the Pink Embassy is currently working on its first ever survey.
Artan Karoli, director of the group, says that as the Pink Embassy gathers more and more evidence of discrimination in Albania, the country’s institutions are starting to see the organisation as “more powerful, more serious”.
Ultimately, data is giving civil society groups, such as the Pink Embassy, the muscles to challenge their country’s LGBT rights record because, as Poghosyan of Ilga Europe says, “personal stories are not enough”.