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LATVIA: Concerns Over Proposed Constitutional Amendment Which Seeks to Limit LGBTI Rights

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– ECF Update to the CIVICUS Monitor, published on 31 March 2021, available here.

Association

New draft Law on Local Governments

In the first week of December 2020, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development held an inter-institutional conciliation meeting regarding the new Law on Local Governments. The new law will replace the outdated law “On Local Governments”, which was adopted 25 years ago. Most significantly, the new law proposes to reduce 119 local governments to just 40. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have expressed concern that this could result in local administrations being further away from citizens, leading to limited space for participation and consultation. The new draft law proposes mechanisms to encourage civil society participation, such as the creation of citizen councils, which will provide input and guidance on laws and decision making. However, CSOs have raised concerns regarding the current proposed mechanism for citizens to be selected for these councils, which is via elections conducted by politicians, thus raising concerns regarding conflict of interest. Civic Alliance Latvia commented that “society would benefit if certain positions were held by persons whose previous activities do not cause doubts”.

A new report on open governance in Latvia has been published

In December, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) published a new report on open government initiatives in Latvia. The report evaluates Latvia’s Action Plan 2019-2021, which addresses important national challenges related to government transparency.

The OGP, which Latvia joined in 2011, is a global partnership that brings together government reformers and civil society leaders to jointly develop action plans with the aim of making governments more inclusive, responsive and accountable. Since joining the OGP, Latvia has introduced several significant improvements in open governance, including reforms in public procurement, protection of whistle-blowers and transparency of beneficial owners.

Latvia has also implemented three action plans to ensure greater government transparency. The latest OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) report assesses Latvia’s fourth action plan. The report positively evaluates the commitments on public procurement, disclosure, anti-corruption and transparency in lobbying, which are seen as essential for greater transparency. In view of the forthcoming structural reforms of local government, the commitment to introduce transparency standards and more transparent decision-making at the municipal level is particularly emphasised.

At the same time, the report states that Latvia must continue to work actively to ensure transparency in lobbying. The report also states that anti-corruption initiatives should in future include more community-based measures. The full report is available here.

Annual NGO forum attracts higher number of deputies than ever before

On 5th March 2021, the annual forum of the Saeima and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took place, where the resilience of state and society during the COVID-19 pandemic was discussed. The forum was attended by more than 20 government deputies, the highest government representation there has ever been. Key priorities discussed included the rule of law and social resilience in COVID-19 recovery. Inese Vaivare from LAPAS reported that the high representation from government reflected recognition for the ability of NGOs to adapt and respond to the COVID-19 crisis, with CSOs currently in more strategic positions to be able to influence decision-making.

Civic Alliance Latvia launches three new think tanks to improve public participation in decision making

Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL) has launched a collaboration initiative to improve public involvement and participation processes. With the theme of Public Participation: Key to the Future of Democracy, the initiative involves the creation of three new think tanks:

  • Accountability and transparency in the civil society sector
  • Involving effective public participation
  • Public participation in the planning and monitoring of public funding

With the first and second think tanks already launched, the third will be launched in April 2021. Of particular interest to CSOs is the issue of finance, due to the current poor regulation and exploitation of NGOs for money laundering. Kristine Zonberga from CAL commented that the initiative was a positive opportunity to significantly improve the involvement of CSOs in decision making and counteract reputational damage to improve funding opportunities for CSOs. The initiative is in cooperation with the State Chancellery and the Icelandic Citizens Foundation and will run until March 2022.

CSOs call for meaningful participation in the distribution of COVID-19 recovery funds

Kristine Zonberga from CAL reported that it was only in March 2021 that she learnt that national governments were obliged to engage civil society in consultation on the distribution of COVID-19 recovery funds. Following this, CAL learnt that the government had already put forward plans in August and September 2020 without holding a consultation process with civil society. Since then, CSOs have had some (albeit limited) opportunities to participate in planning discussions. They have expressed concerns over the exclusion of certain groups from decision making and emphasised the need to concentrate on resilience (not just economic recovery). In the second stage of funding, CSOs hope to have more opportunities to influence government decisions. Inese Vaivare from LAPAS reported that she had recently been invited to sit on a strategy group for COVID-19 recovery and resilience as a sector expert. She also emphasised that the biggest challenge is the focus on economic recovery above everything else.

Court recognises the right of paternity leave for same-sex couple

In December 2020, the Constitutional Court of Latvia granted ‘paternity’ leave to the female partner of a woman. This comes after the partner had been refused leave due to not being the biological father of the child. In deciding to grant the leave, the Constitutional Court acknowledged that under Article 110, which obliges the legislator to ensure protection for all families (regardless of marriage), the partner was entitled to leave. It was also stressed that ‘family’ is not simply a marriage-based union, and thus the state has a duty to protect and support same-sex partner families as well.

This Constitutional Court’s decision sparked a move by the far right-wing National Union Party to submit an amendment to article 110 to constitutionally strengthen the concept of family as a union between a man and a woman. The Party commented that “this is an arbitrary interpretation of the concept of family, which does not correspond to the will of the legislator expressed in the current wording of Article 110 of the Satversme, nor to the understanding of the Latvian society about what a family is”. (translated from Latvian). Their amendment read as follows: “The state protects and promotes marriage – the union between a man and a woman, a family based on marriage, kinship or adoption, the rights of parents and children, including the right to grow up in a family based on mother (woman) and father (man).”

Minister for Welfare Ramona Petraviča also expressed opposition to the decision of the Constitutional Court, stating that the judgement was a “threat to family values and understanding of the traditional family”.

In reaction to the National Union’s proposed amendment, several youth organisations (including ProtestsPar! Jauniešiem, Jaunieši AttīstībaiVienotības Jaunatnes organizācija un biedrība Klubs, Māja – jaunatne vienotai Eiropaikā arī LGBT un viņu draugu apvienība Mozaīka) wrote an open letter criticising the move to redefine the concept of family. In their letter, they state that the amendment is “clearly reactionary”, and intentionally deprives single parents and same sex parents of family status. The youth organisations invite the Saeima deputies to vote against the draft law submitted by the National Association and to consider the possibility of returning Article 110 of the Satversme of the Republic of Latvia to its original wording – “The state protects and supports marriage, family, parents and parental care or victims of violence.”

On 14 January 2021, during the Plenary session of the Latvian Parliament, the draft bill “Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia” passed and was sent to the respective Committee for review. The European parliament LGBTI intergroup also condemned the National Unions proposed amendment as an affront to LGBTI persons, rule of law and European values. Liesje Schreinemacher MEP (Renew Europe), Vice-President of the LGBTI Intergroup, said:

“The recent developments in Latvia baffled the LGBTI community in Europe. Instead of focusing on the impact of COVID on its citizens and proposing measures to further protect them, the NA party unilaterally proposed a bill that would strip some citizens of their rights. This bill perfectly sums up illiberal politics: it delivers radical ideas only to sow hatred and polarise society. We condemn the proposals of this draft bill in the strongest terms and urge the Parliamentarians to listen to their people, as well as civil society and the organisations which have called for its rejection.”

People’s Power Front dissolved due to dissemination of fake news

On 8th January 2021, the Riga City Vidzeme Suburb Court took the decision to terminate the operations of the ‘People’s Power Front’ foundation led by Valentin Jeremejev, who is suspected of spreading fake news about COVID-19. This comes after the foundation organised a protest protest against the epidemiological and social restrictions due to COVID-19 on 12th December 2020. The decision was made after the Prosecutor’s Office received a letter from the State Security Service (SSD) requesting an assessment of the public activities of the People’s Front. It was found that the foundation systematically failed to comply with legal norms and publicly invited others to protests, creating risks not only to public health, but also to state and public security. Evidence reviewed includes a video by Jeremejev, which purports that COVID-19 is fictional, that statistics of those infected are fake and that vaccines are deadly.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests against COVID-19 restrictions

Around 300 people demonstrated against epidemiological and social restrictions in Rīga on 12th December 2020. The government’s COVID-19 measures stipulate that gatherings of up to 25 people are allowed.

Police said that several arrests had been made. They stated that they had not intervened to disperse the gathering after assessing the situation and making a decision based on the need for public order and a desire not to escalate the situation.

Latvian Television reported that following the protest, on 14 December 2021, the Rīga City Council called on the government to ban pickets and public demonstrations during the emergency.

Solidarity campaign: Baltic Way to Freedom for Belarus

On 23rd August 2020, the Baltic Way to Freedom for Belarus campaign organised by the CAL volunteer movement and Protest youth organisation came to an end. The campaign included a series of events that began on 22nd August 2020 with a 70 km long solidarity “Freedom for Belarus” march, a symbolic event in support of the Belarusian people in their struggle for freedom and democracy – from the Eastern Tree (the monument in dedication to the farthest border point in the East of Latvia) to Piedruja, on the border with Belarus. The event started at 7pm and ended on 23rd August 2020 at 12pm in Piedruja, where the flag of the Belarusian opposition was hoisted on the banks of the Daugava and songs of power were sung in support of the Belarusians.

In turn, on 23rd August 2020, the Baltic Way to Freedom for Belarus solidarity campaign took place in Rīga, where a chain of people from the Freedom Monument to the People’s Front Museum, was created by about 400 people. People in white clothes with flags and support posters had come to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Baltic Way and to show solidarity with the people of Belarus. After the joint singing of the Latvian national anthem, the event was opened by Romualds Ražuks, the second chairman of the People’s Front. The speech was followed by the handing over of the white-red-white flag through a chain of Latvian and Belarusian people, with special emphasis on the unity of Latvia and Belarus. The flag chain ended at the People’s Front Museum, where participants concluded the event with the anthems of Belarus and Latvia and Latvian songs.

State officials participated in the event – in agreement with the people – including President Egils Levits, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the People’s Front and Member of the European Parliament Sandra Kalniete and other significant persons.

Following the movement in Rīga, the formation of people’s chains took place elsewhere in Latvia and other countries like Lithuania. This solidarity went on to Vilnius, where 50,000 people from all the Baltic States formed a chain of solidarity to the Belarusian border, jointly confirming their support for Belarus’s struggle for democracy.

Expression

As documented by Mapping Media Freedom, on 3rd December 2020, Latvian state security service VDD searched the homes and detained and charged five Russian- speaking journalists from Baltnews.lt and Sputnik Latvia. The journalists targeted were Andrei Yakovlev, Vladimir Linderman, Andrei Solonenko, Alla Berezovskaya and photographer Sergey Melkonov, who have reported critically on Latvia’s policy in relation to national and language minorities. A travel ban was issued against the journalists, who were charged with violating EU sanctions on Russia. It is alleged that the charges are related to the journalists’ links to Russian media group Rossiya Segodnya’s General Director Dmitry Kiselyov, who is himself targeted by EU sanctions for supporting the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Sputnik is one of its brands.

Related to this, during the raid on journalist Vladimir Linderman’s home, journalist Oksana Chelysheva (who is a member of the Union of Journalists in Finland) had her equipment seized by the state security service. While she was not questioned, her laptop and cell phone were confiscated until 7th January 2021. Her camera and USB remain in the possession of the state security service.