Activist: Cheers, fears over historic African resolution

Juliet Mphande
Juliet Mphande

Much work needs to be done throughout Africa to follow up on an African Commission resolution opposing violence and human rights violations against sexual minorities, says Juliet Mphande, a human rights, media and peace activist from Zambia.

In this commentary, Mphande  describes the message the resolution  sends to African governments and  its meaning to African human rights defenders and sexual minorities:

“Resolution 275 belongs to all Africa’s sexual diverse and gender variant children and their defenders, including those who have gone before us …

“The devastating consequences of exclusion, bigotry, hate and intolerance on Africa as a whole cannot be overstated.”  

By Juliet Mphande
May 29, 2014

Logo of the African Commission on Human Rights
Logo of the African Commission on Human Rights

Resolution 275, passed during the 55th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) in Luanda, Angola (April-May 2014), is a timely and monumental resolution that intends to respond to eminent threats against individuals on account of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and their defenders. [See the full text of the resolution here.]

This resolution comes at a time when most of the African continent is engulfed with increased violence against the LGBTQ community and its defenders notably in countries like Nigeria and Uganda were governments have moved to strengthen existing draconian laws that promote violence against LGBTQ individuals and outlaw the important work of human rights defenders.
The adoption of Resolution 275 coincided with the ACHPR’s 2014-2017 strategic plan that envisages on

promoting the protection of human and people’s rights, peace, stability, democracy and good governance as foundations for sustainable development and stable societies in Africa’.

It is also worth noting that this important resolution was passed a few days after the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandese genocide that has prompted most concerned parties to remind African nations to strengthen their resolve to never allow another genocide on the continent.
As an African human rights defender, I celebrate this timely resolution and the laudable strides that the African Commission is making towards attempting to resolve the current continental impasse targeted against sexual and gender diverse persons.
Worries and problems
However, I cannot help but worry that, the fact that ACHPR has decided to lend its voice towards condemning violations against sexual diverse and gender variant persons is a major sign of the heightened incidents of violence and harassment that individuals have, and continue to experience on the African continent.
It is also evident for all to see that this message sent to African governments through an ordinary session of the ACHPR albeit welcome, will not fix all the problems that the continent faces in this regard.
This year alone, Nigeria and Uganda have both capitalised on efforts to strengthen their existing anti-equality and sodomy laws and have further made it illegal for human rights defenders working on these issues to continue to do their important work. A further example is Cameroon, a country where currently a gathering of more than two women can be interpreted as a lesbian meeting.

Image of murdered activist Eric Lembembe, with quote from HRW researcher Neela Ghoshal.
Image of murdered activist Portrait of Eric Lembembe, with quote from HRW researcher Neela Ghoshal.

In the year 2013, Cameroon lost a formidable human rights defender – Eric Lembembe to a violent hate crime, and is one of those countries where arguably more sexual diverse and gender variant persons have been arrested over the past one-year but continues to receive very little media attention.
Take a trip down town to South Africa, a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the World and sexual diverse and gender variant individuals still endure violent acts of rape and murder with little redress from their governments, yet again, this is a glaring example of how the law fails to protect individuals from violence and often times fatal harm.
Gambia President Yahya Jammeh (Photo courtesy of WIki Commons)
Gambia President Yahya Jammeh (Photo courtesy of WIkiMedia Commons)

In Gambia, President Jammeh has threatened to eradicate sexual diverse and gender variant individuals from the country whom he labels as “the biggest threat to human existence”, at the same time asserting Gambia’s sovereignty to resist international pressure, which in this case may include the African Commission, to acknowledge their rights.
In Zimbabwe, sexual and gender diverse persons have become the brunt of President Robert Mugabe’s verbal attacks that often border on inciting both state and non-state actors to enact violence against this community.
Raiding the ‘gays’ in Zimbabwe has become a form of cheap sporting event where law enforcement officers will single out and embark on harassing existing human rights organisations for their personal amusement. However, the arrests are real, the fear unimaginable and the debilitating loss to self-esteem and life regrettably permanent.
In Zambia, a country often portrayed as tranquil by government forces, dissenting voices (including those of opposition politicians, media, civil society leaders and human rights defenders) that challenge the status quo are relentlessly targeted and often times charged with a myriad of offences and dragged before the police and the courts without much redress nor sympathy.
On May 30th, 2014 the world is poised to hear the final verdict in a much anticipated high profile sodomy case in Zambia where two individuals have been detained for over a year and denied their fundamental right to bail, subjected to torture and cruel and inhumane punishment for the alleged crime of engaging in “consensual” same sex relations. [Editor’s note: The conclusion of that trial has been delayed.] According to Zambian law, engaging in sodomy acts attracts a penalty of fifteen years to life. At least twelve other Zambians have been arrested and handed over to state forces over the past one-year with six currently appearing before the courts.
‘A mere drop in the ocean’
However, these cases out of the many, are a mere drop in the ocean as they are many more that never make news headlines and this leaves me wondering how bad things may be in some of our deeply conservative countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali and Senegal to mention but a few.
Afrique - graphique de
Africa – graphic courtesy of

The ACPHR and most African civil society groups have their work cut out for them and praise for passing this historical resolution cannot be attributed to the African Commission alone, it was as a result of innumerable efforts made by beleaguered and uncelebrated human rights defenders, civil society groups, policy makers from the global South with unrelenting support received through collaboration with government agencies and a network of global allies, including the United Nations.
How much difference will it make?
What does this landmark resolution mean to the African sexual and gender diverse person and their human rights defenders? What immediate action does it translate to in real terms for persons who have to live these realities everyday? Will it lessen the problem of increased violence and heightened political sponsored impunity in countries like Uganda and Nigeria? Will it open previously closed doors for their future protection in environments that are free from violence and harassment?
Will the ACPHR now have a mandate to hold governments like Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to mention but a few accountable beyond receiving their reports? Or will this resolution be written in ink as just another resolution passed by an overburdened and often times underfunded ACPHR whose only power rests in passing resolutions and then waiting for ‘sovereign’ nations to act or follow their lead?
Scene from the Rwandan genocide of 1994. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Scene from the Rwandan genocide of 1994. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I am guessing there’s no immediate answer to these questions as it is still early days yet and the jury is still out on this one, however for the African human rights defender and the sexual diverse or gender variant person facing eminent arrest, violence, and in some cases death, time has run out and every second that passes is crucial for it may sadly be their last.
If there’s any lesson that Africa as a continent can learn from it would be the Rwandese genocide of 20 years ago and even here it started with hate, blame, ignorance and intolerance and as a result millions perished and many others were displaced as a result of their perceived difference.
Right now a silent genocide and displacement is happening on the African Continent even as I write this article, entire communities are turning against their own, state actors are violating their right to protect by hiding behind archaic laws, presidents that once swore to uphold constitutions are abrogating their oath of office by vilifying their own citizens and currently so called ‘friendly’ nations are turning their backs on those in urgent and dire need of protection by hiding behind the law and visa requirements.
Resolution 275 belongs to all Africa’s sexual diverse and gender variant children and their defenders including those who have gone before us for defending their humanity, its for those who have fought tirelessly without fatigue often to their own detriment and those who remain fighting on the frontlines alongside each other, without any protection for their dream of a tolerant Africa, an Africa that our forbearers may have envisioned, where every person shall be protected from being subjected to unquantifiable indignities and even death, on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
The devastating consequences of exclusion, bigotry, hate and intolerance on Africa as a whole cannot be overstated. It’s a sad day when Africa participates in the breakdown of its own social and moral fabric – a sad day when governments and political leaders will sacrifice their own for political gains. It’s a sad day when much as they want, the ACHPR can only issue sweeping declarations but it’s still a start, albeit a small one and it’s in this spirit that I celebrate Resolution 275.

This commentary was originally published by SOGI News.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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