Human rights advocacy groups worldwide hailed Albania’s inclusive anti-discrimination law as a victory for equal protection from all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A unanimous Legislative Assembly and Prime Minister Sali Berisha signed off on the broad anti-discrimination bill on February 4, 2010. The law, which is expected to take effect in March of this year, expressly protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Albanians, but also extends protection on the grounds of disability, race, ethnicity, and religion.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) played a vital role in bringing this law to fruition through over a year of campaigning for the issue. In February 2009, HRW organized a roundtable discussion in Tirana with the participation of ten Albanian human rights organizations, including Aleanca Kunder Diskriminimit LGBT (Alliance Against LGBT Discrimination), to discuss anti-discrimination protections. These ten organizations prepared and submitted the first draft of the bill to the Albanian government for discussion.

This law is a response to high levels of homophobia documented in Albania and the absence of legal protections for LGBT communities. While human rights groups hail the bill as a major victory, there are concerns that religious groups will try to slow down its adoption into civil society. Few modern Albanians are actively religious; however, three strong religions continue to dominate the country’s value system: Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam. Due to lobbying by these religious groups, a same sex marriage-equality provision, included in the proposed draft of the bill, was omitted from the text of the final law.

If properly enforced, the anti-discrimination law will be the most progressive in the region, since it bans discrimination not only in employment, but also in other areas of life.

LGBT communities are frequently subjected to intolerance, physical, and psychological violence by fellow citizens, and are often mistreated by police. Thus, human rights groups actively encourage the Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality and the Ministry of Labor to implement an adequate enforcement mechanism, with the staff and expertise needed to fight discrimination and ensure that homosexuality and gender identity are no longer taboo.

Some view this law as an attempt by the Albanian government to fulfill part of the human rights requirements placed on it as a candidate for ascension to the European Union. EU membership requires all country-candidates to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination against LGBT persons. Albania’s initiative in civil rights provides a strong example for other EU-membership candidates, such as Macedonia, which recently removed sexual orientation from one of the banned grounds for discrimination in an anti-discrimination bill. Although homophobia remains prevalent in Albanian society and discrimination based on sexual orientation is widespread in the Balkans, this law is the first step to building a more open-society founded on equal protection for all, and gives human rights activists a strong legal platform to battle discrimination.