Bulgarian LGBTI Organizations Leverage Partnership with the ABA Justice Works Program for Effective Local Advocacy

By: Denitsa Lyubenova

Disclaimer: The following blog was written by Denitsa Lyubenova, Legal Director of Deystvie, who is not an employee of ABA ROLI. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.

True democracy starts with human rights, and hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are violations of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. By failing to recognize these crimes and their bias motivation, a country fails in the very first step to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens. My organization, Deystvie ("Action" in Bulgarian), has partnered with the ABA Justice Works Program and ILGA-Europe for two important activities that enable us to present a clear case to Bulgarian authorities for inclusive hate crime laws. First, Deystvie, through the support of ILGA-Europe, collected data from survivors of violence and witnesses through an online questionnaire, as well as through a series of meetings with survivors, witnesses, the LGBTI community, and others affected by violent crime. This civil society-led effort was integral to documenting the situation for LGBTI people who experience violence in Bulgaria; the National Statistics Institute does not have a mandate to collect information on sexual orientation or gender identity since criminal law is silent on these important characteristics.

To complement our documentation report, the ABA Justice Works program produced an in-depth comparative analysis of hate crime laws in three jurisdictions. The report has empowered Deystvie to make the case for a Bulgarian hate crime law. Our Bulgarian partners, GLAS Foundation and Bilitis Resource Center, engaged in complementary activities over the past year that also strengthen the case for inclusive hate crime laws. GLAS Foundation provided targeted outreach to law enforcement officials about the prevalence of hate crime in our country, showing the necessity for legislation in addition to close and constant communication between the police and the LGBTI community. Bilitis Resource Center conducted in-depth interviews with experts from hate crime reporting centers and organizations providing services to survivors of violence. The results clearly showed that only a few NGOs in the country, primarily the LGBTI NGOs, are adequately prepared to provide services to survivors of bias-motivated violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. On the other side, the survivors of homophobic or transphobic hate crimes rarely report to the police, and they prefer to look for help at NGOs (if at all) because of fear of retraumatization.

The three reports from Deystvie, GLAS Foundation, and Bilitis Resource Center on these activities demonstrate the need for official data collection on bias motivated violence, increased training of law enforcement on hate crimes, and capacity building for survivor support centers. The comparative research provided to Deystvie through our partnership with the ABA Justice Works Program provides exactly what we need to show to the authorities: that legislative solutions exist to address the exact gaps that we have identified in the Bulgarian criminal code. The technical legal assistance by Justice Works amplifies the work that we have done here in Bulgaria, providing in-depth research that we would not otherwise have been able to produce. The ABA’s support of our advocacy has tremendous impact, not only by communicating to advocates that we are not alone in our efforts, but also contributing the authority of the ABA when we meet with representatives of the government.

On March 7, 2018, Deystvie, GLAS Foundation, and Bilitis Resource Center took a giant step toward convincing decision makers that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people should be protected by inclusive hate crime laws in national legislation. The three organizations convened a watershed meeting with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health, the Commission for the Protection Against Discrimination, officials from the Sofia municipality, and local law enforcement authorities. In partnership with the ABA Justice Works program and with the support of their research, we hope to see legislative change come soon so that everyone in Bulgaria is protected from harm, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Denitsa Lyubenova is the Legal Director of the Deystvie Legal Defense Program based in Sofia, Bulgaria. To learn more about Justice Works, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.