June 11th marked a historic day for the LGBTQ people of Botswana as consensual homosexual relationships were decriminalized. In a case taken to Botswana’s High Court, sections of the penal code originating from the colonial era were deemed to be unconstitutional and were overturned. According to Botswana’s penal code, section 164 deemed “unnatural offences” as “Any person who- (a) has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature … or (c) permits any other person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature.” As such, any person in violation of this section “is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.” Under section 167, “Indecent practices between persons” included, “Any person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another person, or procures another person to commit any act of gross indecency with him or her, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any person with himself or herself or with another person, whether in public or private.” Not only does such criminalization incur punishments of arrest, but in some countries of Africa today it can incur the death penalty. Furthermore, it is a violation of human rights, and can have devastating effects on the lives of the “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people [which] could lead to them being denied healthcare, education, employment and housing,” as UN high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, points out.
However, Botswana is only one of the few countries of Africa that have made such progressive strides in recognizing and fighting for LGBTQ rights. On the same day that we learned of such a joyous victory for the LGBTQ people of Botswana, we also heard some truly disappointing testimony that suggested how far there is yet to go. During a press briefing of the Representatives of the Elders held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the correspondent for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Sherwin Bryce-Pease, asked Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Liberian president, and Madame Mary Robinson, former Irish president, to comment on Botswana’s High Court’s decision to decriminalize same-sex relations in their country. Mr. Bryce-Pease presented this statement:
“Given that part of your bedrock and the pillars of the Elders is justice and human rights, I wonder if you can comment on that decision. Of course, after a month a similar penal code was upheld in Kenya when attempts were made to decriminalize same-sex relationships, and if I could get the former president of Liberia, Madame Sirleaf, you are on record of saying in 2012 that you will not sign any law that would deal with decriminalization of homosexuality in Liberia, ‘We like ourselves just the way we are. We have certain traditional values in our society that we want to preserve.’ Now that you no longer have the political incumbency perhaps as an albatross around your neck and as an elder, has your position changed?”
After seeming amused at this statement, but abruptly becoming rather serious, Madame Sirleaf responded with a resounding, “It hasn’t. As simple as that.” Refusing this as a sufficient answer, Mr. Bryce-Pease persisted, “So LGBT people do not have human rights?” To which, Madame Sirleaf exclaimed, “Oh, that’s not true,” and further elaborated with misinformation stating, “We’re not going to go to a law because there is no law. There is no law that decriminalizes or criminalizes at all. We believe that those matters are private matters. They are to be respected on the part of individuals and as long as there is no law that restricts it, there is no reason to try and get a law.” Not to be deterred from getting a straight answer from Madame Sirleaf, Mr. Bryce-Pease ended with one final question: “Sodomy is not illegal in Liberia?,” to which, Madame Sirleaf, after a pause, responded, “No, it’s not.”
The truth is that Madame’s Sirleaf’s statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Liberia does have laws in place that criminalizes same-sex relations. Madame Sirleaf and others may believe that these matters are and should remain private, but the fact remains that these matters are still punishable by law. According to the “Human Rights Violations Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People in Liberia” report submitted for consideration at the 122nd Session of the Human Rights Committee, “Under Section 14.74 of the Penal Code, entitled ‘Voluntary Sodomy,’ it is a first degree misdemeanor to engage voluntarily in ‘deviate sexual intercourse.’ Section 14.79 of the Penal Code defines ‘deviate sexual intercourse’ to mean ‘sexual contact between human beings who are not husband and wife or living together as man and wife though not legally married, consisting of contact between the penis and the anus, the mouth and the penis, or the mouth and the vulva.” Furthermore, the report states that, “The penalties for violating the prohibition of voluntary sodomy are specified in Chapter 50 of the Penal Code. Sections 50.7 and 50.9 provide that a person convicted of a misdemeanor of the first degree, such as voluntary sodomy, may be sentenced either ‘to a definite term of imprisonment to be fixed by the court at no more than one year,’ or to a fine of up to LBR $1,000.13. Repeat offenders can be subjected to even more onerous penalties.”
Unfortunately, Liberia is not alone in this tragedy of criminalizing same-sex relationships. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), 31 of the 54 African countries still have laws that criminalize same-sex relations. Furthermore, there are still 76 countries globally that criminalize same-sex relationships. Even worse, globally, there are six countries that have an effective death penalty and five with a possible death penalty for having same-sex relationships.
During the press briefing of the Representatives of the Elders, when asked what could be done about numerous urgent issues that the world is facing today, Madame Sirleaf’s response was that it was the youth that would lead the movement to change and that it was the Elders’ responsibility to back them. But how much truth is behind these words? It was a 21-year-old student who brought the LGBTQ case to the Botswana High Court and it was through her that these unconstitutional laws were overturned. Don’t these young LGBTQ activists that are fighting for change within their communities deserve just as much support in their fight for human rights as any other marginalized group of people? Coming from a Harvard educated, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and advocate of women’s rights, Madame Sirleaf’s words were devastating, to say the least.