Yesterday, during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on her first visit to Russia since 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Putin to “use his influence to guarantee the rights of minorities” after hearing “negative reports on the treatment of homosexuals, particularly in Chechnya.”
Her comments make her the first and only world leader to speak out amid the ongoing reports of widespread kidnapping, detainment and torture meant to eliminate all suspected gay and bi men from the southwestern Russian republic by Ramadan (May 26).
Why are all other world leaders staying quiet?
It’s possible they’re not speaking because the reports have not come from government officials, first-hand humanitarian organizations or from mainstream global newspapers. While global newspapers have repeated the claims of abuses in Chechnya, those claims have largely originated from gay Chechen refugees, Novaya Gazeta — the investigative newspaper that first reported the situation and whose staff has been threatened into hiding ever since — and LGBTQ non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The lack of first-hand reports can create uncertainty about what’s actually happening there. For example, last month, Novaya Gazeta reported the existence of six different detention sites for detaining and torturing gay Chechen men. So far, Radio Free Europe has only corroborated the existence of two sites — this doesn’t mean the four others don’t exist, they’re just hard to verify because Chechnya isn’t exactly welcoming outside investigators and journalists.
Early into the crisis, the sensationalist British tabloid The Daily Mail also spread rumors of gay “concentration camps” in Chechnya, an emotionally charged term that Amnesty International later downplayed, preferring the more accurate term “detention sites.” But even if the words and exact situations aren’t entirely clear, world leaders still have an obligation to speak against the violence and pressure Russia for its complicity.
Although world leaders are silent, their governments are not
One could argue that world leaders haven’t been silent but have just been speaking through foreign diplomats and lower-level officials. For example, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has condemned the violence, as have 50 members of U.S. Congress and the United Nations’ international human rights experts.
The U.S. State Department, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the President of the European Parliament and the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office have all issued statements as well condemning the persecution and calling on Russia to intervene. But while these add diplomatic pressure, they fall far quieter than the megaphone provided by a presidential or prime ministerial bully pulpit.