Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Liberian president and Nobel peace prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's shocking defense of, and justification for, a law that criminalises adult consensual same-sex practices represents a significant boost for the forces of intolerance and discrimination - and another serious blow to hopes of building more open societies in Africa that accept sexual minorities and protect their human rights.
President Sirleaf seems to base her position on the belief that homophobia is a home-grown and integral part of Liberian culture. It is deeply unfortunate and unacceptable that any form of intolerance and hate can be equated to the preservation of cultural norms and traditions, particularly by a leader who is trying to help heal a nation that was almost totally destroyed by war.
It’s noxious notions like these that led UN chief Ban Ki-moon to recently call on countries to abolish laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians saying “cultural concerns cannot justify discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation.”
But clearly his message did not influence President Sirleaf, whose statement and actions clearly violate the African Charter of Human and Peoples' Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other treaties that Liberia is party to – as well as Liberia’s own constitution that affords citizens the right to live in human dignity. And in a manner that can only contribute to the abuses and discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians in Liberia and the rest of the continent.
Indeed, gross violations of human rights perpetrated on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity continue to escalate across Africa. Many states refuse to heed the calls to decriminalise adult consensual same sex practices, citing the practice as western and against African norms and traditions, and against religious values. Meanhile, new and even more draconian laws are on the cards – and legislative agendas – in a number of countries. Sirleaf’s comments will only serve to strengthen the hand of those who want to persecute sexual minorities – and leave gays, lesbians, gender variant and gender non-conforming Liberians at much greater risk.
The protection of sexual minority rights is not explicitly included in either the African charter or core international human rights treaties so many people claim that no protection based on ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’ exists. However, scholars argue that both international instruments and the African charter were not meant to be exhaustive and that the reference to “or other status” clearly encompasses protection for unnamed categories such as sexual minorities. But whether it is specifically mentioned in international instruments or not, Sirleaf is President of Liberia and has sworn to serve and protect all her fellow Liberians - and she is certainly not doing that right now.
And if she won’t do it then other people must. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights must rise to the occasion and publicly denounce her statement and all state-sponsored and endorsed homophobia. African civil society and human rights activists should advocate even more forcefully for the decriminalisation of adult consensual same-sex relations, despite the very ugly and very public backlash in many parts of the continent.
But Sirleaf’s homophobia also shows that the full realisation of sexual minority rights in Africa does not solely depend on legal recourse but also on social change. Civil society must embark on targeted education and awareness campaigns aimed not only at the political elites who can bring about legislative change but also at religious, cultural and traditional leaders who can help bring about social change. Only then will sexual minorities be able to live in dignity – and will the views of President Sirleaf and her fellow homophobes be consigned to the dustbin of historical discrimination