US President Barack Obama has cancelled a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the Obama administration has been unclear on whether their primary motivation is Russia’s recently-passed homophobic laws, or Russia granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Russia passed laws banning adoption by same-sex foreign couples and outlawing the dissemination of “homosexual propaganda” to minors in June. The laws have provoked international condemnation and calls to boycott imported Russian vodka and next year’s Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
The relationship between the two former Cold War adversaries has also been impacted by Russia’s decision earlier this month to grant former-National Security Agency (NSA) computer specialist Snowden temporary asylum in the country for one year.
Snowden has been pursued by the United States government since revelations in June he was responsible for leaking NSA documents to The Guardian newspaper disclosing the existence of vast and far-reaching domestic surveillance programs.
It was revealed these top-secret programs enable the NSA and other agencies to intercept and collect information from the internet use and telephone conversations of over a billion users in over a dozen countries. Reports have also emerged that Australian intelligence agencies receive vast amounts of data collected by the US programs.
In public statements about the souring relationship between the US and Russia, President Obama has downplayed Snowden’s influence. In an interview with The Tonight Show‘s Jay Leno, Obama took the opportunity to attack Russia’s anti-gay laws, comparing them to the treatment of Jewish people by Nazi Germany.
“Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country. And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama said.
“But one of the things that I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly, because that’s what we stand for. And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America, that’s something that should apply everywhere.”
Political commentators have been divided on how important a factor LGBTI rights has been in the US’s decision to cancel the planned summit, with some arguing Obama’s opposition to the laws is a convenient excuse to condemn Russia’s decision to harbour Snowden.
Snowden’s document leaks have led to major diplomatic crises internationally and widespread civil rights-based criticism of US surveillance practices.