Source: The New Civil Rights Movement, 23 November 2010.
By Professor Tanya L. Domi.
Tens of thousands of readers of The New Civil Rights Movement over the weekend read, “UN General Assembly Votes To Allow Gays To Be Executed Without Cause,” the shocking news about the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural issues vote last week that approved 79 to 70 (17 abstentions and 26 absent) removing “sexual orientation” from a resolution protecting persons from extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. This UN vote reinforced an already very difficult and challenging environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and their defenders, who live in continual fear of violent attacks and experience blatant discrimination throughout most countries on the African continent.
But who is behind this vote? And just what is generating this animus toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Africa?
Since the 1980s, massive numbers of Christian fundamentalist missionaries, many if not most from the United States, have flooded the African continent in search of new converts to their retrogressive and narrow beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church, decidedly anti-gay, and the Mormons, known as the Latter Days Saints, who condemn homosexuality, both proselytize throughout Africa. Africa is also a Muslim continent. During a period of rising fundamentalism within many Muslim sects throughout the world, Islam shapes the cultural and religious life of people who live in Northern, Western, Eastern and some Central African countries. Of 53 African countries, 26 countries are members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIS).
The most blatantly destructive policy outcomes of pervasive Christian fundamentalist proselytizing in Africa has been in Uganda, where “ The Family,” also known as “The Fellowship,” a Christian and political organization based in the United States, played a key role in advising its parliament to adopt legislation last year that called for the death penalty of known homosexuals.
(MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has covered the exploits of “The Family” in depth, including relentlessly profiling its role in what became Uganda’s “Kill The Gays” bill. Ugandan MP David Bahati, chief sponsor of the bill, has said, “Homosexuality it is not a human right. It is not in-born.”)
The Family’s key role in advising members of Parliament caused an international uproar against the Ugandan government’s actions by member states of the European Union, as well as from the United States. It also exposed “The Family” to unprecedented public scrutiny, which had managed to avoid the public limelight, despite their continual presence in Washington, D.C. since 1935, hosting the annual National Prayer Breakfast which has been attended by every President since Eisenhower.
Human Rights Watch published Together Apart, Organizing Around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2009, which points out the deep influence of culture and religion upon LGBT persons’ lives throughout the world, and manifestly speaks to the African experience.
Sexuality has become a cultural and religious battleground. The danger comes from the weight, political importance, and emotion increasingly attached to issues of gender and sexuality. “Fundamentalism”—the impulse toward a forcible return to what are postulated as religious or cultural fundamentals—is a modern term with many definitions. One common characteristic of so-called ”fundamentalisms,” proposed by Human Rights Watch elsewhere, is a “drive to seize the state, turn its spotlight on private life, and make it the agent of a newly codified tradition.”
Cultural norms they believe families and communities can no longer uphold. Some governments and politicians try to use fundamentalists in their turn, to prop up their own authority. Fundamentalisms weave together elements from religion, nationalism, and other ideologies and traditions to invent a “cultural authenticity” that is fixed, unalterable, and monolithic—but threatened by the supposedly corrosive influences of human rights. Sexuality and the body are increasingly its chosen battlegrounds. The argument from culture devastatingly undertakes to paint LGBT people as beings who do not belong, cannot be accommodated, and—because they are intrinsically alien—cannot even be listened to or understood.
From Egypt to The Gambia, from Cameroon to Uganda, from Zimbabwe to Mozambique, the LGBT community on the African continent faces immense discrimination, physical violence, imprisonment, jailings, arrests, deportations and are many times referred to as “lower than dogs,” attitudes and values internalized from colonization, especially Anglo-Saxon laws emanating from the former British Empire.
At the end of the day, despite objections by Sweden, Switzerland and Finland, Mali, Morocco, on behalf of the OIS and Benin’s language, removing “sexual orientation” from the resolution carried the day. From the African Activist blog,
Mali and Morocco are listed as main sponsors for the amendment. A UN press release includes Benin as a main sponsor. Based on the amendment’s footnote, these nations were representing larger blocks of States:
On behalf of the States Members of the United Nations that are members of the Group of African States. On behalf of the States Members of the United Nations that are members of the Group of Arab States and those that are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Morocco provided the following reasons for passing the amendment removing sexual orientation:
The representative of Morocco, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the Group was seriously concerned by controversial and undefined notions that had no foundation in international human rights instruments. Intolerance and discrimination existed in cases of colour, race, gender and religion, to mention only a few. Selectivity intended to accommodate certain interests over others had to be avoided by the international community. Such selectivity would set a precedent that would change the human rights paradigm in order to suit theinterests of particular groups. An attempt to create new rights was a matter of concern for the Group. All Member States were urged to continue to devote special attention to the protection of the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society.
Morocco stated that sexual orientation has “no foundation in international human rights instruments.” Readers, you can be assured that Morocco, the Holy See (The Vatican) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference will band together in unity to oppose the inclusion of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” into any international treaty that protects human rights. My next blog will explain the international system of human rights laws and the Yogyakarta Principles–the application of international human rights principles to the sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.