From: Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Norway Signals Worsening LGBT Rights Situation in Albania

On August 14, 2017, Norway updated its asylum regulation for LGBT persons from Albania. Whereas previously LGBT asylum seekers from Albania were processed through the “extremely accelerated” 48-hour procedure, they will now be processed through the regular procedure. This means the applications of LGBT asylum seekers will be inspected in detail, signaling that intention of the Norwegian government to take these applications more seriously.

Even though this is just a minor regulatory adjustment, it shows that European countries are slowly starting to realize that the last four years of the Rama government have brought little to no progress for the human rights situation of the Albanian LGBT community. Ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections, both PD leader Sali Berisha and PS leader Edi Rama met with representatives of the LGBT community, and the road toward the EU appeared to offer the possibility of a momentum to implement several legal reforms to improve the human rights situation.

In 2015, I became involved in coordinating the LGBT Action Plan of the Council of Europe, drafted in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth, back then headed by Minister Erion Veliaj. The Action Plan had been approved in Parliament, and included a broad legal reform package that would provide amendments to the Penal Code articles 100 and 102 (removal of explicit mention of “homosexual”), broadening the anti-discrimination articles in the Labor Code and the Asylum Law, drafting a Gender Recognition Law based on Irish and Argentinian examples, and changing article 163 and 164 of the Family Code to open up partnership contracts to same–sex couples.

All of these legal changes were in line with the EU’s legal framework and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. The amendments were drafted by legal and constitutional experts (including ECtHR candidate Aurela Anastasi), in conversation with civil society, political representatives, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth, the Chamber of Notaries, and the diplomatic representations of EU countries. The final presentation of these legal amendments was attended by all of the above, including PD deputy Albana Vokshi, head of the Parliamentary Commission for Labor, Social Issues, and Health, and Deputy Minister of Social Welfare Bardhylka Kospiri. All approved this was an important step forward for human rights in Albania.

But then, the process stalled. Erion Veliaj became Mayor of Tirana and bragged in private to foreign diplomats that he had passed the partnership law. He had done no such thing. After hearing nothing from the Parliament for months, it turned out that the amendments to the Family Code were stalled in the Ministry of Justice, back then headed by LSI Minister of Justice Nasip Naço. He had personally stopped the legislative process, in spite of bipartisan and broad international support for the amendments. Aleanca LGBT director Xheni Karaj, Pro LGBT director Kristi Pinderi, and I met with then Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta, head of the LSI. He promised to mediate and expressed his support. Nothing happened.

Two years later, all of the work, financed by millions of euros from European donor countries, has gone to waste. Although the LGBT community is more visible in Albanian society, the legal framework to protect their rights is still highly insufficient, something that is pointed out perfunctorily by the EU. But the coalition that drove this change two years ago has fallen apart. The EU is focusing mainly on “stability” and has not even once raised the issue of minority and human rights in public, the embassies of EU countries have followed suit, hoping for a justice reform that will most likely fail. Without international pressure, the political parties left and right have lost any reason to improve the lives of all Albanian citizens, and have resorted to a pathetic display of self-centered justification strategies and petty infighting. Donors have lost their interest in LGBT rights, and funding streams are drying up. Meanwhile, STD and HIV infections are on the rise with very little means available to the community to combat this very real threat. Absent any proper sexual education program, proper distribution of contraception, and government-sponsored awareness campaign, Albania is sitting on a healthcare timebomb – Albania, which managed to escape the Balkan epidemic of HIV infections in the 1990s, may now find itself a belated victim.

In one of his most cynical political moves, Prime Minister Edi Rama has completely dismantled Veliaj’s Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth, which back in 2013 was an example of political innovation. Social welfare has been moved to Health, Labor to Finance and Economy, and Youth to Education and Sports. Cut into three, the millions of euros in donor money poured into this ministry – training, conferences, seminars, capacity building, project funding, etc. – will have gone fully to waste.

Recently I heard that the Council of Europe was working on a new LGBT Action Plan. What it will soon find out – if they get the donor money together – is that the entire infrastructure from 2015 that supported this Action Plan has changed or mostly disappeared. It will take some time, probably forever, before there is a realization of the opportunities that were missed, but it leaves LGBT activists in Albania with little choice. The institutional road – international and domestic – has been closed. This leaves us, again, only the streets.