October 3, Tallinn – The Estonian Parliament will take a vote on Civil Partnership Act next week that would secure equal family rights to same-sex couples. If the Act passes, Estonia will set a precedent as the first country in the region to provide legal protection for same-sex families. The Act under consideration in the Estonian Parliament will create and formalize civil unions for all couples, regardless of the gender of the partners. Under current laws, there are no legal provisions to offer protection to same-sex couples and children growing up in their families.
Introducing legislation that recognizes same-sex partnerships and provides equal rights to same-sex couples is a historic event in the region. It stands in stark contrast to the Kremlin’s efforts to portray Russia as the leader of an anti-Western traditionalist order, encapsulated in a draconian anti-gay law passed last year. “We are extremely happy that Estonia has the courage to stand up to Putin and to take a leadership role in this matter by acknowledging that same-sex couples should have a fundamental right to be recognized as a family,” London-based film director and an advocate for the bill Peeter Rebane said.
“Passing this bill sends a strong message in support of equality and human rights not only to people living in Estonia, but to the whole region,” added Kari Käsper, the Head of Estonian Human Rights Centre, a human rights watchdog NGO. At the first reading of the Civil Partnership Act in the Estonian Parliament in June this year, 45 MPs voted for and 25 were against the bill. The second reading of the bill is scheduled for October 7, with the final vote on October 9.
The law has wide support among the liberal and Western-minded leadership of Estonia. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves introduced the opening session of the Parliament a few weeks ago with the following words: “Estonia must be a tolerant and liberal country in which there is respect for basic rights and the equality of all before the law. For this reason I am pleased that the draft bill guaranteeing the rights of same-sex couples is finally before you.”
With the Russian border three hours east of the capital Tallinn, many Estonians are keenly aware of the wider significance of the bill. Given that the country is probably best known in the West as part of the NATO frontier with Russia, with a large minority of ethnic Russians that could be used in a Ukraine-style campaign of subversion, it is easy to see the bill as part of a larger struggle between the West and Russia. But in a country that has struggled with a declining and rapidly aging population after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this bill is first of all about fundamental human rights and recognition of a rising number of civil partnerships common especially among younger couples.
The Speaker of the Estonian Parliament Eiki Nestor does not think the draft law is only about letting go of the past: “Estonia does not need the Civil Partnership Act for sticking up our noses and saying: look at us, we are not Soviets any more. Estonia needs this Act so that everyone living here could make sensible arrangements for cohabitation, instead of living with the knowledge that their minority status makes them marginalized or somewhat inferior to the others.”
The path to achieve equal family rights for same-sex couples has not been easy in Estonia, even though many individuals and NGOs have voiced their support for the bill. The well-financed anti-gay group Foundation for the Defense of Family and Tradition has actively campaigned against the recognition of same-sex families, spending hundreds of thousands of Euros to ferment anti-gay paranoia and hatred. Russian interference in Estonia is well-documented and its traditionalist campaign would stand to gain from a failure to pass the law, whereas passage of the law sends a clear signal that human rights are respected in Estonia. Indeed, the anti-gay organisation has been linked in Estonian press reports to organisations related to the World Congress of Families, which is partially funded by Vladimir Yakunin, the president of the state-run Russian Railways company and one of the targets of EU and US sanctions over Ukraine.
Until 1991, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union where there was no freedom of speech, democracy or freedom of religion, and homosexuality was a crime. Today this small country between Russia, Finland and Latvia is known as an innovation hub of Europe because of its progressive e-governance and booming IT sector, including global inventions like Skype, GrabCAD, and Transferwise.
Estonian Human Rights Centre is an independent human rights advocacy NGO dedicated to the advancement of protection of human rights in Estonia.
The Estonian LGBT Association is the official representative of LGBT citizens in Estonia. It focuses on informing the general public about LGBT people, sexual education, and advancing LGBT rights.
Film director and equal rights advocate
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Executive Director, Estonian Human Rights Centre
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President, Estonian LGBT Association
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