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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 13, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 33
Gay rights activists win in Costa Rica - Supreme Court blocks referendum on civil unions
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Gay rights activists win in Costa Rica - Supreme Court blocks referendum on civil unions

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Gay rights activists won a victory in Costa Rica on August 10, when that country's Supreme Court ruled that a referendum on same-sex civil unions scheduled for December 5 could not go forward.

'Minority rights that are derived from claims against the majority cannot be subject to a referendum process where majorities are needed,' the court said in its ruling.

The referendum was being promoted by Observatorio Ciudadano, an organization backed by the Catholic Church. Like most Latin American countries, Costa Rica is overwhelmingly Catholic, and referendum supporters believed voters would reject same-sex unions.

Gay rights activists, on the other hand, challenged the referendum in court.

Costa Rica's parliament has been discussing a civil union bill that would include same-sex couples since 2006 without reaching a decision.

To break the deadlock, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal approved a proposal made by four Catholic lawyers - and backed by 150,000 signatures - to hold a referendum on the issue. It set December 5 as the date for the vote.

Human rights organizations accused Roman Catholic leaders of religious interference in political affairs.

Government Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum told IPS news service "we are completely against" holding the referendum.

"It is about human rights, which cannot be left in the hands of a group of homophobic Catholics," she said, adding that it would be detrimental to a social minority whose rights must be defended.

Nine organizations formed the Costa Rican Coalition of Sexual Diversity Organizations and Groups (CONODIS), to campaign against the referendum, which they argued was an attempt to violate human rights.

CONODIS attorney Esteban Quirós filed an appeal with the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court on the grounds that a popular vote on Gay rights would be in breach of the constitution, which guarantees these rights.

"I think they [the Supreme Court] will block it," Quirós told IPS before the court handed down its decision. Costa Rica has signed several international treaties that confirm that basic rights cannot be subjected to a referendum, he said.

Quiros cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as examples.

In the event the court ruled against CONODIS, Quirós planned to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which happens to be based in Costa Rica's capital, San José.

CONODIS also had a "Plan B" ready in case the referendum was held and same-sex unions were rejected by voters.

According to Abelardo Araya, President of Movimiento Diversidad (Diversity Movement), Gay rights activists would have backed a different bill recognizing the legal status of same-sex couples.

That bill is a draft law on "sociedades de convivencia" (cohabitation partnerships), which enjoys more support from lawmakers than the same-sex civil unions bill.

While Health Minister María Luisa Ávila and Education Minister Leonardo Garnier sided with the LGBT community in the run-up to the Supreme Court ruling, no other officials spoke out about the referendum.

Ombudswoman Taitelbaum criticized the government's silence on the issue.

She warned that agitation against civil unions, "will unleash a wave of violence against sexual minorities."

"It is a matter of national security," she added, calling for a public statement from the executive branch.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who is close to Catholic Church authorities, called for a respectful debate on civil unions, "free of stigma or oversimplifications," but added that it was "not a priority" issue.

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