New strategy needed to combat anti-homosexuality laws

Key populations – the people and communities most affected by HIV - remain stigmatised, discriminated against and criminalised. The Alliance’s Regional Representative, Javier Hourcade-Bellocq, asks: when will the international outcry reach a tipping point?

Updated by Javier Hourcade Bellocq from his original article posted on Corresponsales Clave and on AllAfrica.com.

In recent months the list of countries which have new laws which further criminalise the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has grown. Just weeks ago Uganda was added, now Nigeria. In Asia, India has also taken a step backwards in the history of human rights for sexually diverse people.

On 13 January 2014, the Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed a law criminalizing same-sex unions, as well as clubs, establishments and organisations where LGBTI people meet.
With this law coming into force, people in a same-sex union, if they do not disavow their union, could be sentenced to a maximum of 14 years in prison. The law also explicitly refuses to recognise same-sex marriage or union documents or certificates issued by other countries. Those in Nigeria who organize a society, organization or open a social meeting place (clubs, bars or discos), face a maximum of ten years in prison under the new law.

Anti- homosexuality laws in Africa

In Cameroon on 10 January, Roger Mbede, who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for sending loving text messages to another man, died at his home after leaving prison due to the advanced deterioration in his health. The risk of such human rights abuses, as suffered by Mbede, is increasing in a number of African countries.

On 20 December 2013, the Ugandan parliament passed a draconian “anti-homosexuality” law which establishes sentences up to life imprisonment. It was sent to President Yoweri Museveni, but so far he has not signed it into law. Since then, the country and its politicians have come under a great deal of international pressure not to pass the law, both from international development agencies and the private sector. The British multi-millionaire Richard Branson called for an international boycott against Uganda if the law is passed, abstaining from travelling to or engaging in trade with the country.

But many political leaders and members of the supreme court of Uganda have called on each other not to be bullied by western powers. Paradoxically, international pressure could lead politicians and officials to close ranks to defend this bill.

Turning back the clock in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe

At the end of last year, the Supreme Court of India revoked a 2009 decision that had annulled the infamous section 377 that criminalized homosexual activity. This law dates from 1861 when India belonged to the British Empire, and there are many countries in Africa and the Caribbean that were similarly influenced. It is worth remembering that homosexuality was penalized in the United Kingdom until 1967 and not totally overturned until 1982, yet this harsh heritage has remained in the former colonies.

The NAZ Foundation had managed to bring an end to penalization in 2009 with a Delhi High Court decision, but this decision has been systematically challenged by religious groups. And just over a month ago the latter won the fight.

In Latin America, there are high degrees of criminalisation in the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as fairly recent acts of violence and hatred in Haiti.

In Russia the LGTBI community has not only been the victim of violence with impunity from extremist groups and from the state itself, but also pressure from Russian Orthodox leaders has led to penalization initiatives being analysed. Recently, in protest, LGBTI campaigners have called for a boycott on the Sochi Winter Olympics, and on companies who are sponsoring the games.

How do we combat legislative hatred in a divided world?

This wave of anti-homosexuality legislation in the Global South is taking place at a time of significant advances in LGBTI rights in the Global North. Both France and the UK have recently recognised same sex marriage and, earlier this week, Northern Cyprus was the last European country to decriminalise homosexuality.

This widening divide across different parts of the world only heightens the pressure felt by governments in the South. Fundamental religious groups of all faiths are gaining influence and power, and are often drivers of legislative hatred against the LGTBI community. Not only have they won valuable seats in parliaments and courts but they have a great deal of influence in executive branches, because of electoral and economic influence.

So how can we stop this wave of fundamentalism which has translated into increasing violence and criminalisation of the LGTBI community?

Are international sanctions and media pressure the best tools? Are United Nations documents any use when they are full of language plagued with cultural relativisms? Do these tools only serve to make the lives of LGBTI communities even more difficult?

It’s time to rethink our strategies, or continue losing the fight. It’s essential that the voices of the LGBTI community and wider civil society are heard. There can be no viable solution without dialogue and action within the countries where this mounting criminalisation is taking place. Support for this is what is now urgently needed.

Find out more on this issue at 76crimes website
View this map showing how the views of homosexuality differ greatly by region