A few days ago in Gambia, the president Yahya Jammeh declared that he will personally slit the throats of homosexuals. He’s reiterated his hatred of the LGBT community, increasing penalties for same-sex relations and has dared the west to stop him from implementing this regime. Whether born of a loathing of gays or as a ploy to enhance his political popularity, either way the Gambia has a president who sees nothing wrong with threatening to murder his citizens.
President Jammeh, who came into power in 1994, rules a country with such an abysmal human rights record that donors including the United States have withdrawn development aid and Gambians, especially the youth, are migrating in droves to Europe and neighbouring countries. As the US National Security Advisor, Susan E Rice, said in a statement, “We condemn his (Jammeh’s) comments, and note these threats come amid an alarming deterioration of the broader human rights situation in the Gambia. We are deeply concerned about credible reports of torture, suspicious disappearances…”.
Jammeh’s persecution of gays is in perfect accord with his abuse of the human rights of the general Gambian populace, the difference being that he is able to air his homophobia without any attempt to conceal it. The case of the Gambia underscores the relationship between Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual rights (LGBT) and the broader human rights situation and adherence to the rule of law in a country. While many states practice some sort of secrecy or deception regarding the human rights situation in their territories, the abuse of LGBT persons can be public because, to a certain extent, this abuse has mass approval.
Public displays of homophobia, state-led violence and civil society’s acquiescence or silence, offer clues to the state of human rights in general within a nation. The gross and public abuse of LGBT rights occurs in states in which political or religious leaders have excessive power and are able to contravene the rule of law or where the concept does not or no longer exists – the Gambia for instance. Religious and secular lawmakers have impunity and are able to blatantly violate human rights in the pursuit of religious fundamentalism or political dominance. In many of these countries a corresponding abuse of women’s rights, political opposition and religious or ethnic minorities can be seen, for instance, in Egypt, Uganda and Iran.
The LGBT rights barometer can also be applied to countries such as Zambia, which, though it has generally been spared the vehemence seen in the Gambia, has seen an upsurge in state and church sponsored homophobia.
Zambia has recently begun to enforce anti-LGBT laws that date back to the colonial era (1911-1964). Upon independence much of Zambia’s legal system was co-opted from the British system and despite the development of a constitution and the revision and annulment of significant legislation the legacy of British colonialism is still clearly at the core of the legal system.
Thus, sexual and reproductive rights in Zambia are governed by antiquated concepts of “the order of nature,” and “unnatural acts.” Under this terminology forms of sex between consenting adults, include anal and oral sex – regardless of it being heterosexual or same-sex, are illegal. Where the law and personal distaste or traditional beliefs concur, an individual can find him or herself at the mercy of archaic attitudes that are enshrined in law. For example, in 2001 magistrate Aloysius Mapate called oral sex “a gross abomination against Zambian laws,” while passing a six-year sentence on a man for having consensual oral sex with his girlfriend.
Rights focused non-governmental organisations in Zambia do not recognise that discrimination against LGBT is rooted in the same laws and traditions that discriminate against women. While civil society in Zambia has struggled to bring into force women’s rights legislation, such as a comprehensive gender based violence bill, and to end customary discriminatory practices, non-governmental organisations have refused to acknowledge LGBT as a legitimate minority group, citing the very traditions, customs and government that they oppose in order to improve the status of women.
The reluctance of successive Zambian governments to fully overhaul the required legislation and to domesticate international human rights treaties is indicative of its unwillingness to legally acknowledge women’s equality and protect women from violence and harmful traditional practices. However, the state cannot readily admit this while it can publically declare its homophobia, denounce LGBT people and politicise abuse and discrimination knowing the majority of the electorate are in agreement.
Furthermore while Zambia has seen an effort to improve the rights of women, the recognition of men who have sex with men (MSM) considers same-sex relations as a problem area or as a vector in the transmission of HIV. Aspects of LGBT life such as identity, self and community acceptance and safety from violence have been ignored. Despite these differences, the violation of LGBT rights in Zambia does correspond with the general state of human rights.
Currently, the rule of law and the observance of human rights are heavily vested in the whims of political and traditional leaders. Leaders can issue decrees and orders that are contrary to prevailing laws and the process of creating a new constitution has been highly contentious and subjected to political influence. Depending on the will of the leadership the mood could swing in favour of LGBT and as easily swing against them with the next government as has been seen with women’s rights.
Furthermore, leaders are not held to account for human rights abuse, nor are civil society able to exert enough pressure to force significant change for instance, in subjects such as access to medical care and social security, the right to free assembly, safety and security and an end to gender based violence.
The LGBT barometer is not always negative. Countries such as Finland have been in the forefront of sexual equality that is matched by its focus on the rights or women and minorities. In Mozambique, same-sex sexual activity will become legal as part of a much broader rewrite of its national laws, while South Africa predated many European countries in the recognition of same-sex marriages. Though the situation in these countries is not perfect, all have made legal and social change a part of creating progressive, human rights focused nations in which access to justice and rule of law are seen as fundamental not just for LGBT individuals but for all citizens.