With reports that police are arresting suspected “gay organization” members in Nigeria following the President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing last week of the country’s “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013,” the impacts of the new law are just beginning, according to agencies and organizations addressing health and human rights.
In addition to prohibiting marriage and civil unions between people of the same sex, the legislation prohibits “the registration of gay clubs, societies, and organisations, their sustenance, processions and meetings . . .” It defines “civil union” as “any arrangement between persons of the same sex to live together as sex partners and includes such descriptions as a) adult independent relationships, b) caring partnerships, c) civil partnerships . . .” It carries a penalty of 10 years imprisonment for anyone who supports “the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.”
In short, public health and human rights responders have noted, in a country where an estimated 3.4 million people live with the virus that leads to AIDS, making it home to the world’s second largest population living with HIV, and where prevalence of the virus is estimated at 17 percent among men who have sex with men, it is a law that not only violates human rights but will effectively incapacitate efforts to fight the epidemic there.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement Monday expressing “deep concern” over the law, and calling it “inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations.” A joint statement from The Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria and UNAIDS notes that “In the 2011 United Nations Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, all UN Member States committed to removing legal barriers and passing laws to protect populations vulnerable to HIV.” A joint press release from the International Centre for Advocacy on the Right to Health (ICARH), the initiative for Equal Rights (TIER) and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) points to a trend, quoting AMSHeR program director Kene Esom: “increasingly some African governments use homosexuality to whip up public sentiments and to divert attention from key national challenges such as rising unemployment, poverty, collapse of healthcare systems, corruption and police brutality.” All, along with statements from the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, and from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, cite the blow the law deals to HIV prevention and treatment efforts and call on the government to reconsider the legislation.
But events of the last year indicates a trend in the opposite direction. President Jonanathan’s signature on the legislation, which was the subject of a petition more than a year ago urging him to leave it unsigned, follows Uganda’s passage of an anti-gay law that carries a penalty of life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality” and includes provisions against people living with HIV. It follows India’s Supreme Court reinstatement of the country’s anti-sodomy law and Zambia’s arrests of gay men and of HIV treatment activist Paul Kasonkomona. It follows the unsolved torture and murder in Cameroon of HIV treatment and gay rights activist and journalist Eric O. Lembembe. It is only the latest in a series of events in the last year to raise the question of how, 10 years into an international response to the global HIV pandemic, the link between effective responses and human rights remains broken.
AIDS-Free World Co-Directors Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan have issued an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, calling it “an urgent appeal to the UN for information and guidance. The questions they ask include whether Nigeria will be banned from hosting U.N.-sponsored global or regional HIV meetings, how UN meetings dealing with sexual minorities in Nigeria can involve members of those communities, and whether Nigeria’s government will be asked to “voluntarily relinquish the Security Council seat it assumed on 2 January 2014, until such time as the Member State is no longer acting in violation of its international obligations?”
“The U.N. is given constantly to generalities,” Lewis said this morning. “They say ‘we’re in favor of human rights.’ But they don’t name countries, they don’t hold press conferences. Ban Ki-Moon should be saying publicly, ‘We want Nigeria to be dealt with by the Human Rights Council, as a human rights violator.” The Global Fund, he said, should be looking into how grants to the Nigerian government for HIV services for marginalized populations are being used.
Lewis, who was named by former U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan in 2001 to to be the first United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and served in that capacity until 2006, also sees a role for the Commonwealth of Nations to bring pressure for human rights recognition among member states. “Where is the Commonwealth?” he asked. “Not a word.”
While those living and working in Nigeria wait to see what happens next, the Ugandan anti-gay life-in-prison bill rests in the hands of that country’s President Yoweri Museveni, Lewis notes. He believes Museveni can be persuaded not to sign it. But, he adds, “You’ve got to be really focused and not revert to generalities. That’s not going to save lives, that’s not going to change legislation.”