Wales should lead on Africa abuse

Steve Brooks argues that we need stronger ties with Uganda to promote equality and human rights

In January this year, I wrote an article for the Institute of Welsh Affairs, arguing that Wales must never stay silent on human rights abuses.  At the time, First Minister Carwyn Jones was visiting programmes supported by Wales for Africa in Uganda. The country’s Parliament had just passed an anti-homosexuality bill, which sat in President Museveni’s in-tray, waiting for his final assent.

A large number of development activists and equality campaigners questioned the timing of the First Minister’s visit, and called on him to speak out against human rights abuses. Regardless of whether or not it was right for the First Minister to travel to Uganda at that time, he should be commended for the renewed leadership he has shown on LGBT human rights since his visit. Now is the time for the Welsh development sector to ask itself, how do we, as a small nation, help protect and promote the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in countries within which we work?

The Act makes pretty grim reading, and sadly sets the confines within which we must work. It divides ‘homosexual behaviour’ into two categories. Aggravated homosexuality relates to acts committed by an individual who is HIV+, is a parent or authority figure, administers intoxicating substances or “targets” minors or people with disabilities. The offence of homosexuality, the second category, covers same-sex sexual activity, involvement in same-sex marriage, and failure to report gay people to the authorities. Those who have committed repeated felonies under the offence of homosexuality are upgraded to the charge of aggravated homosexuality, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The law not only applies within the legal jurisdiction of Uganda, but covers those with Ugandan citizenship overseas.

It is important that those in the development sector continue to challenge this and every other abuse of human rights globally. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General has asserted that LGBT rights are central to the United Nation’s mission. He rightly recognises that without human rights, citizens of the world cannot enjoy full social and economic rights. Put simply, human rights and social justice are two sides of the same coin.

Scratch the surface, and it becomes quickly apparent that those who peddle hatred towards LGBT people are often the perpetrators of discrimination against women and other marginalised groups. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa documented the “persistence of patriarchal patterns of behaviour and the existence of stereotypes relating to the role of women” in Uganda. Inaction by the state has enabled the continuation of social and culturally-driven practices that push violence against women.

A Coalition Against Gender Violence and UNFPA survey found 11 per cent of women are forced into marriage, and detailed perceptions of how women are “bought, kept and controlled like property”.  The practice of corrective rape, whereby a man seeks to ‘turn’ a woman ‘straight’ is increasingly being recorded. In his BBC documentary Out There, Stephen Fry interviewed a Ugandan lesbian who had been subjected to corrective rape aged 14. The attack left her suicidal, pregnant and HIV+.

While some in the West express queasiness in speaking out against these human rights abuses, others, particularly in the United States are happy to influence events. American evangelicals including Scott Lively and Rick Warren have focused their missionary work in Uganda. Evidence documented in the American media shows how US evangelicals have sought to directly involve themselves in this debate and incite hatred towards gay Africans.

Their’s is no Christianity I recognise. Whilst the church’s response in Uganda has been muted, religious leaders did play a key role in ensuring the death penalty was removed from the Bill and replaced with the sanction of life imprisonment. Bishop Senyonjo publicly campaigned against the Bill, and the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams questioned how any Anglican could support the Bill, with Pope Benedict stating the Bill constituted “unjust discrimination”.

The reaction of world leaders and our own First Minister since the passage of the Bill is to be commended. DfID has pulled the plug on direct funding to Ugandan government projects, channelling aid to civil society groups and communities directly. Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – all nations with impeccable aid credentials – have cancelled direct finance to the Ugandan government.  The World Bank has suspended direct funding, and US Aid is undertaking a review.

Carwyn Jones has added nuance to the debate. Speaking at the International Development Summit on 21 March, he said:

…the values that we hold to be true: democracy, fairness, equality and human rights are not purely ‘Western’ or Welsh ideals.  They are the right of all people, gay or straight, in this world that we share.

He defended the delivery of development programmes while being crystal clear on human rights:

…we support projects in Uganda because they alleviate poverty. Poverty and inequality in all forms hinder a society from growing and developing. Human rights therefore cannot be separated from the right to live a healthy life and have a decent education.

This position is in line with the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition which has also expressed concern about the deteriorating policy space within civil society to discuss human rights.

The First Minister’s call for Wales to consider its role in protecting and extending human rights is particularly urgent given a vacuum now exists.  After years of championing the international human rights agenda in Wales, Amnesty UK has closed its Cardiff office. Organisations including Wales for Africa Community Links, Stonewall Cymru and the Welsh Refugee Council have stepped up, but they need to be supported to do more.

Turning the First Minister’s call into action will take effort. The next step should be the Wales for Africa Human Rights Summit.  The event will enable civil society organisations in Wales working internationally to come together and better understand the unfolding situation in Africa. Southern voices must be heard at that summit as should the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. It should be a practical event that begins a programme of work which equips the sector with the skills and understanding on how best to deal with human rights abuses within the confines of often unjust law.

We should stand together with those in Africa whose human rights have been abused and remember the wisdom of an old Bondei proverb: “sticks in a bundle are unbreakable”.

Steve Brooks is a member of LGBT Labour, a former Head of Oxfam Cymru and writes in a personal capacity. He Tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

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