Sending homosexual delegates to Sochi doesn't begin to address Russia's gay rights crisis

Barack Obama gravely overlooks the unfolding HIV epidemic in Russia

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The Independent Online

Three cheers for the infinite wisdom of US presidents. Bravely crusading against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay law, the US head of state has picked two openly gay athletes as part of a team of US delegates travelling to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Ex-tennis star Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow will travel to the coast of the Black Sea, while Obama himself will stay at home. Neither – unusually – will his wife, the vice-president or any former president attend.

Sadly, it is a gesture of defiance laughably incommensurate with the human rights crisis currently unfolding in Russia. The country elected to host the next Olympic Games is quietly spiralling into a country-wide HIV epidemic and its president’s recently passed anti-gay legislation has just made things exponentially worse. Talking to young Russians about HIV  – and therefore taking steps to prevent its proliferation – is now illegal. That is especially troubling when you consider the claim of Robert Heimer, an epidemiologist at Yale, who says as many as five per cent of all young people in Russia are infected with the virus. And meanwhile, rather than deigning to admit or address the problem, the international community has just congratulated itself for sending two gay athletes to a country putting a substantial percentage of its male homosexual community at peril through wilful negligence.

People hold a placard and rainbow flags as they call on the Russian authorities to lift anti-gay laws ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympics during a protest

The statistics demand attention. Figures from the World Bank estimate that by 2020 as many as 20,000 Russians will be dying a month from AIDS. HIV is spreading five times faster in Russia than the global average. When Putin came to power in 2000 there were 100,000 recorded cases of HIV in Russia. Now there are 1.2 million, and Yale University estimates that figure is a gross underestimation – reckoning the actual figure to be closer to 2 or 3 million.

As Russia-specialist Ben Judah has expertly pointed out: given the circumstances, Vladimir Putin’s controversial legislation is not just a homophobic law, but a murderous law. In a country where HIV is already rampant, and predicted to get worse, the Putin administration has ensured that it is considerably harder for Russian citizens to know how to protect themselves from the virus, or indeed how to seek treatment. And Putin is helped by the state controlled news agency. To see what the channel's head anchor thinks about gay rights, watch him speak here:

To make matters worse, Putin’s controversial anti-NGO law has made it increasingly difficult for charities working within Russia to fight HIV. Dozens of AIDS clinics operating in Russia are now under threat. The anti-NGO law has the power to brand charities as foreign agents, subsequently drown them in paperwork, and ultimately threaten to close them down. And the double demonization of homosexuals and NGOs has had instant ramifications. In November masked gunmen reportedly broke into an HIV clinic in St. Petersburg during broad daylight, shooting one man in the face and beating a young woman with a baseball bat. When Russian police arrived, they apparently said they could found no evidence of a crime.

Neither should it come as a surprise, too, thatin 2013 the Russian budget for AIDS prevention was cut in half, from 400 million ($12 million) to 200 million rubles ($6 million) - apparently for ideological reasons.

The figures and the anecdotal evidence are in agreement: Russia is facing a human rights catastrophe with has the potential of becoming a quiet genocide as a result of government indifference.

All of which renders the United States’ boast of a homosexual envoy to next year’s Olympics the soft power swindle of the year. It is an announcement which trumpets the pretence of action, where instead a boycott or meaningful international discussion is called for. The long-held belief that the Olympics are an apolitical affair or an opportunity for a free pass to political apathy is a fallacy. In 1964 South Africa was banned from the competition for apartheid and the country did not compete again until the 1992 Barcelona Games. Now is the time for similar decisive action.

Obama forces a smile at the G20 with Vladimir Putin