Colonial legacy

It is the first time that a statement condemning abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has been presented in the United Nations General Assembly. In December 2008, 66 countries at the Assembly supported a groundbreaking statement confirming that international human rights protections include sexual orientation and gender identity. The participating countries urged all nations to “promote and protect human rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity” and to end all criminal penalties against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite of this fact, according to calculations by ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association) and other organizations, more than six dozen countries still have laws against consensual sex between adults of the same sex. The majority of these laws were left behind by colonial rulers (Read the report “This Alien Legacy: The Origins of “Sodomy” Laws in British Colonialism”).

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has documented how, in many African countries, sodomy laws and prejudice deny rights protections to Africans engaged in same-sex practices amid the HIV/AIDS pandemic – and can actually criminalize outreach to affected groups. A primarily Muslim nation in West Africa, Senegal is one of 38 countries on the continent that criminalize homosexual acts. In 2008, nine men, including a prominent activist, have been convicted of homosexual acts and sentenced to eight years in prison.

“Senegal was a former French colony, and we have several types of laws. The law that bans homosexuality was an old French law that was kept in our Penal Code, as laws against abortion. That does not mean that this is the vision of the majority of Senegalese. As far as homosexuality is concerned, for centuries, Senegalese population has been very tolerant about homosexuality”, says Codou Bop, coordinator of the Research Group on Women and Law in Senegal (GREFELS – Groupe de Recherche sur les Femmes et les Lois au Senegal) and member of the Sexuality Policy Watch‘s advisory group.

According to the researcher, in Senegal it’s not the Head of State who ostracizes homosexuality, differently from Gambia, a neighbor country. “It’s a group of people. Senegal has signed all International Conventions protecting human rights, so it’s possible to support the rights of LGBT people. It’s the duty of the State to protect them”, she added.

Codou Bop notes that within the Muslin Community there’s a diversity of visions, practices and cultures. “In my country, 95% of the population is Muslin, but the Senegalese Muslin is totally different from Saudi Arabia Muslin. I think that we should not say that one country is Muslin. Even if the majority of the population belongs to the Muslin faith, it does not mean that this majority is practicing everything that is either in Koran or what the Prophet says. When we understand this, we can desmistify the fundamentalists’ vision. It’s not true that all Muslins have exactly the same visions and practices”.

Click here to read Codou Bop’s paper “Senegal: homophobia and Islamic political manipulation”

The British legacy

In Trinidad and Tobago, Catholicism represents 26% of the population. Hinduism, Protestants and a significant group of Muslins share the rest 70%. But these religions do not affect the decisions of the State, according to Rhoda Redock, professor at the Centre for Gender and Development Studies (University of the West Indies) and member of SPW’s advisory group.

“In most parts of the region we inherited British colony laws against buggery, which technically means anal intercourse. But since then, we’ve had a number of new legislations. For example, the new equal opportunities legislation, which is now being implemented. That excluded homosexuals from being covered, and there’s been a big movement for the inclusion of homosexuals. There’s a lot of movements to change legislations as well as practices”, said Rhoda.

On the other hand, besides the influence of colonial period, she agrees that, in some cases, religions extremism can also affect politics in that country. “Two years ago we developed a national agenda policy, proposing the discussion on the decriminalization of homosexuality. The government agreed with this proposal, but as soon as the document was made public, the Roman Catholic wrote to conservative groups, which began to mobilize evangelicals and Pentecostals and ran a public campaign against it”, she examples.

At least, she remembers, in the country there’s also space for reactions. “There was a kiss of a homosexual man who was beaten up by the police. Nevertheless, he took the case to the Court and he was compensated by the State”.

Situations like these, common in countries such as Senegal and Trinidad and Tobago, show the importance of the statement presented in the United Nations General Assembly in December, which drew unprecedented support from five continents, including six African nations. The 66 countries reaffirmed “the principle of non-discrimination, which requires that human rights apply equally to every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity”. They stated they are “deeply concerned by violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms based on sexual orientation or gender identity” and said that “violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization and prejudice are directed against persons in all countries in the world because of sexual orientation or gender identity”. The statement condemned killings, torture, arbitrary arrest, and “deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health”.

The signatories to the General Assembly statement are: Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Click here to read the full text of the Statement (in Spanish, French and English)