(IPS) – Human rights organisations and the gay community in Costa Rica have joined forces to try to block a referendum on a law for civil unions between partners of the same sex.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) approved a proposal made by four lawyers, backed by 150,000 signatures — 20,000 more than are legally required — calling for the referendum, rather than the legislature, to determine whether to allow gay and lesbian civil unions. It set Dec. 5 as the date for the vote.
The fate of the referendum is now in the hands of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court, which must rule on a legal challenge to the ballot, based on the principle that human rights cannot be subject to a vote.
Since 2006, the single-chamber Costa Rican parliament has been discussing a civil union bill that would recognise same-sex couples.
The referendum is being openly promoted by Observatorio Ciudadano, an organisation backed by the Catholic Church, in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Human rights organisations accuse the Church leadership of religious interference in political affairs.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who is close to the Church, called for a respectful debate “free of stigma or oversimplifications,” and hinted at her personal opposition to gay civil unions when she said it was “not a priority” issue.
Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum told IPS “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 also be detrimental to a social minority whose rights must be defended.
The TSE fixed the referendum date to coincide with the municipal elections. This makes it likely that more than 30 percent of voters will vote, a requirement for the referendum result to be binding, lawyer Alexandra Loría, who is promoting the initiative, told IPS.
Opinion polls indicate, and social movements believe, that the outcome of the referendum is unlikely to put Costa Rica among those countries that have approved same-sex unions, given the pressure exerted by the Catholic Church and other churches, and the resistance of the conservative majority of the population to expanding gay rights.
Many of the signatures for the referendum were collected, in fact, at Catholic and Protestant places of worship.
Nine institutions formed the Costa Rican Coalition of Sexual Diversity Organisations and Groups (CONODIS), which is campaigning against the referendum, regarded by its members as an attempt to violate human rights.
Lawyer Esteban Quirós, a supporter of the CONODIS coalition, lodged an appeal with the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court on the grounds that a popular vote on the issue of gay rights would be in breach of the constitution, where these rights are guaranteed.
“I think they (the Supreme Court) will block it,” Quirós told IPS. Costa Rica has signed several international treaties that confirm that basic rights cannot be subjected to a referendum, he pointed out.
He cited, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
If the Supreme Court rules in favour of holding the referendum, Quirós plans to take the case to international courts, like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which happens to be based in San José.
Loría dismissed the idea that the debate involved human rights. “We believe in marriage and the family as established by the constitution. The name of the bill is irrelevant, it’s the content that matters,” she said, claiming that the words “civil union” had been used instead of “marriage” in order to avoid conflicts.
Ombudswoman Taitelbaum criticised the government’s silence on the issue, although in their personal capacity, both Health Minister María Luisa Ávila and Education Minister Leonardo Garnier have sided with the gay community.
In her view, there is a homophobic campaign in favour of holding the referendum which, if left uncontrolled, “will unleash a wave of violence against sexual minorities.”
“It is a matter of national security,” she said, calling for a public statement from the executive branch.
Meanwhile, gay organisations have a Plan B ready in case the referendum is ultimately held and the legalisation of same-sex unions is rejected, as expected.
They will present a “mega-motion” for the approval of another bill which would also recognise the legal status of same-sex couples, Abelardo Araya, president of Movimiento Diversidad (Diversity Movement), one of the most visible groups in the struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) rights, told IPS.
The bill is a draft law on “sociedades de convivencia” (cohabitation partnerships), which enjoys even more support from lawmakers than the bill on civil unions for same-sex couples.
“If the referendum takes place, it will be a waste of resources, because the bill on civil unions it refers to will be superseded by the cohabitation bill,” Araya said. This tactic was possible because “the question put in the referendum is very specific.”
Voters are to be asked quite precisely whether they approve or disapprove of draft law 16390 (the law on civil unions), so even if the referendum is held and the ‘no’ vote prevails, it will not be an impediment for consideration of the cohabitation partnership bill.