As I get ready to head back to Geneva, my thoughts turn to my last visit to the United Nations, back in March. As I wandered through the Palais des Nations complex of buildings after a busy day, I came across an exhibit that left me speechless. This exhibit was in the majestic main hallway of the old League of Nations building—a space with towering ceilings and beautiful views of Lake Geneva. But in that grand setting was a photo exhibit about a pernicious contemporary global human rights violation: child marriage. Child marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, but as it turns out, several of the girls in the exhibit are from Ethiopia.
And the exhibit is particularly timely right now. On Monday, Bangladesh approved a law that will impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who marries a girl under age 18. And on Wednesday, a judge in India admonished the parents and in-laws of a 14-year-old bride, stating “Child marriage is an evil worst than rape and should be completely eradicated from the society.” The magistrate continued:
There are serious outcomes of child marriage. It is the worst form of domestic violence against the child, not only by the respondents (husband and his family) but also by her own parents. Child brides have a diminished chance of completing their education and are at a higher risk of being physically abused, contracting HIV and other diseases, and dying while pregnant or giving birth.
The traveling exhibit, called “Too Young to Wed” (more information at the bottom of this post), is a striking example of how art can inform our understanding of human rights issues:
Too Young to Wed is part of a transmedia campaign led by VII Photo Agency photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has documented the global issue of child marriage for nearly a decade. The original photos in the exhibit were taken by Sinclair and Jessica Dimmock. Too Young to Wed is a partnership between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and VII, a premier photo agency known for focusing on social issues and human rights. Sinclair and Dimmock collaborated on the project. Learn more about the project here.
Today, the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down that country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which had been signed into law in February of this year. And earlier this summer, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Africa’s regional human rights body, issued a landmark resolution calling on its member states to respect and protect the human rights of sexual minorities. Meanwhile, however, as friends and family of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe recently gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of his brutal murder, the police investigation remains at a standstill.
Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act Struck down on procedural grounds
Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act imposed harsh penalties for “homosexuality” and “aggravated homosexuality,” and even criminalized “aiding and abetting homosexuality” and promoting homosexuality. A Ugandan LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights group has alleged in ongoing proceedings in U.S. court that American Scott Lively played a central role in lobbying for the legislation.
Ten petitioners, including academics, journalists, human rights groups, activists, and members of parliament from the ruling and opposition parties, challenged the law on several grounds, arguing that it violates the privacy and dignity rights enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They also argued a procedural point, contending the act was adopted unlawfully because parliament lacked a quorum when it voted on the bill.
The Court considered the procedural argument first, and agreed with the petitioners. The five-judge panel ruled that the speaker of parliament acted unlawfully in allowing the bill to come up for a vote, because there were at least three objections that not enough members of parliament were present. “The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum,” the court ruled. “We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally.” The vote was unlawful, the court concluded, and therefore the act is null and void.
Because the court ruled on procedural grounds, rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed. The Ugandan government is considering whether to appeal the decision of the Constitutional Court to the Ugandan Supreme Court.
The Advocates and partners mobilize in wake of Cameroonian activist’s murder Uganda is not the only country in Africa where laws, the justice system, and societal homophobia endanger LGBTI people and human rights defenders who work on their behalf. In advance of the African Commission’s 54th Ordinary session in October 2013, The Advocates for Human Rights and its partner organizations, Le Reseau des Defenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and L’Association pour la Defense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO), submitted a report to the African Commission detailing rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in Cameroon.
The report came on the heels of the brutal torture and murder of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe, executive director of CAMFAIDS. Just weeks before his murder, as the report noted, Lembembe had spoken out about the dangers facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people:
“There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
Before the African Commission session, REDHAC and CAMFAIDS also participated in an NGO forum that culminated in an oral presentation to the African Commission and the NGO forum’s adoption of a resolution on violence and human rights violations based on imputed or actual sexual orientation and gender identity. The African Commission’s history-making resolution mirrors the resolution adopted by the NGO forum.
Coalition condemns Cameroonian authorities’ lackluster response to Lembembe’s murder, calls for thorough and fair investigation
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, along with CAMFAIDS, ADEFHO, REDHAC, Alternatives Cameroon, and MDHC, recently denounced the dysfunctional justice system in the case of Lembembe’s murder. One year after the murder, the investigating judge has summoned only Lembembe’s family members. Authorities never took any photographs or fingerprints at the scene of the crime. The medical certificate indicating the nature of the death does not mention the burns and other obvious injuries visible on Lembembe’s body. In what seems to be an attempt at intimidation, several of Lembembe’s friends and family members were placed in police custody early in the investigation.
Coalition members fear that the attitude of the police and judiciary authorities in the investigation reflects those institutions’ disregard for the respect and protection of LGBTI people’s human rights in Cameroon. “The Cameroonian authorities’ inertia in this case is all the more worrying that it might reinforce the sentiment of impunity of the authors of the crimes and persecutions against LGBTI people, and feed the stigma and discrimination against these people and the defenders of their rights,” added Michel Togue, a Cameroonian lawyer and Legal Advisor for CAMFAIDS.
The coalition renewed its call for Cameroonian authorities to conduct an independent, effective, rigorous, impartial, and transparent investigation in order to identify the perpetrators, bring them before an independent, competent, and impartial court in accordance with international and regional human rights protection instruments, and to apply criminal, civil, and/or administrative sanctions as provided for by the law.
The Commission expresses alarm at the ongoing violence, abuse, and discrimination against sexual minorities by state and non-state actors as well as the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. The Commission directs state parties to the African Charter to comply with their obligations to protect all Africans from human rights abuses and violence and urges them to enact and enforce laws to prohibit and punish violence directed at the LGBTI community and its defenders.
Laws and public attitudes in many African countries reflect and foster widespread discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
The African Commission is responsible for setting the human rights standards to be observed by states that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; essentially every African country except South Sudan and Morocco. A significant number of those states outlaw same-sex activity, and African governments continue to enact new repressive legislation, such as the Anti-Homosexuality Act that the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down today.
In January, the president of Nigeria signed a law that mandates a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union and a 10-year term for anyone “who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.” “Supporters” would include health centers providing treatment and counseling for AIDS and other health concerns as well as civil society organizations and human rights defenders. The potential impact on HIV transmission and treatment alone is tremendous, yet public opinion appears to favor these laws.
According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of the population in Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal consider same sex activity “unacceptable,” according to The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Over the past year, reports of mob violence, murder, rape, assault, arbitrary arrests, and detention have increased.
African Commission Resolution is groundbreaking step toward tolerance
In this context, the resolution is especially meaningful and groundbreaking. Taking a firm stand against the widespread intolerance of non-conforming sexual minorities, the Commission has articulated a legal basis for the protection against discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and advised its member states that their commitments to universal equality under the African Charter require them to respect the human rights of sexual minorities.
The resolution states:
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), meeting at its 55th Ordinary Session held in Luanda, Angola, from 28 April to 12 May 2014:
Recalling that Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) prohibits discrimination of the individual on the basis of distinctions of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or any status;
Further recalling that Article 3 of the African Charter entitles every individual to equal protection of the law;
Noting that Articles 4 and 5 of the African Charter entitle every individual to respect of their life and the integrity of their person, and prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;
Alarmed that acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations continue to be committed on individuals in many parts of Africa because of their actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity;
Noting that such violence includes ‘corrective’ rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings and executions forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail;
Further alarmed at the incidence of violence and human rights violations and abuses by State and non-State actors targeting human rights defenders and civil society organisations working on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in Africa;
Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Deeplydisturbed by the failure of law enforcement agencies to diligently investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence and other human rights violations targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Condemns the increasing incidence of violence and other human rights violations, including murder, rape, assault, arbitrary imprisonment and other forms of persecution of persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Calls on State Parties to ensure that human rights defenders work in an enabling environment that is free of stigma, reprisals or criminal prosecution as a result of their human rights protection activities, including the rights of sexual minorities; and
Strongly urges States to end all acts of violence and abuse, whether committed by State or non-state actors, including by enacting and effectively applying appropriate laws prohibiting and punishing all forms of violence including those targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identities, ensuring proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims.
Adopted at the 55th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Luanda, Angola, 28 April to 12 May 2014.
By Julie Shelton and Amy Bergquist. Guest-blogger Julie Shelton was the team leader on The Advocates for Human Rights’ trip to Cameroon in February 2013. The team conducted a pro bono needs assessment with over 35 Cameroonian organizations that work to promote human rights and rule of law. Shelton led the project to draft the shadow report to the African Commission on LGBTI rights in Cameroon. She was honoredfor her volunteer work on June 25 at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner.
More from The Advocates Post on LGBTI rights in Africa:
The request comes on the heels of last month’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where the Government of Ethiopia agreed to “grant full access to Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedures Mandate holders to visit the country, notably the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education,” and to “accept the outstanding requests for visits from the special procedures” of the United Nations.
“Moreover,” the letter notes, “the situation is grave. The June 1 death of a student in custody suggests that demonstrators are being subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment while in custody.”
This account of events that took place during the second week of May in Ambo, Ethiopia, was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. As the authors note in their first post in their series about the Oromo student protests, they are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. In their first post in the series, Ambo Protests: A Personal Account, Jen and Josh describe in gripping detail what they saw and heard from April 25 to May 1: Students and others in the town of Ambo began to protest against the Ethiopian government’s “master plan” to expand the territory of Addis Ababa and annex lands belonging to the state of Oromia. Federal police hunted down Jen and Josh’s two young neighbors, who were university students, and shot and killed them in their own home, far away from the student protests. Jen and Josh decided to flee, witnessing hundreds of demonstrators packed into the prison at the Ambo police compound, many showing signs of having been beaten. With the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, the Ambo police authorities allowed Jen and Josh to leave. In their second post, Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy?, Jen and Josh describe being followed by two strange men during their time in Addis Ababa, and their fears that the Ethiopian government was closely monitoring the Peace Corps Volunteers’ words and actions. This post takes up their story from there.
After deciding that we wanted to leave Ethiopia, we had [to] return to Ambo to pack our bags and say goodbye to our friends. Packing our bags turned out to be the easy part.
When we arrived back in Ambo, the destruction was still apparent, although the cleanup had already started. The burned cars were pulled to the side of the road. The debris from the damaged buildings was already being cleared. The problem, however, was that the courthouse was one of the buildings that was burned. How do they plan on having trials for those hundreds of people we saw in jail, we wondered.
We wanted to tell all our friends why we were leaving, but how could we say it? Maybe we should say, “It’s not OK for the police to hunt down young people and shoot them in the back.” Or maybe we should say, “It’s not OK for us to have to cower in our home, listening to gunshots all day long.” Or maybe we should say, “It’s not OK for the government to conduct mass arrests of people who are simply voicing their opinion.” Since the communication style in Oromia is BEYOND non-direct, with people afraid to really say what they mean, we knew exactly what to tell people:
“We are leaving Ambo because we don’t agree with the situation,” we repeated to every friend we encountered. Everyone knew EXACTLY what we were talking about.
We told our friend, a town employee, we were leaving, and he said, “Yes, there are still 500 federal police in town, two weeks after the protests ended.”
We told a neighbor we were leaving, and he said, “Now there is peace in Ambo. Peace on the surface. But who knows what is underneath?”
We told a teacher at the high school we were leaving, and she was wearing all black. “Maal taate? (What happened)” we asked. One of her 10th grade students was killed during the protests.
We told the local store owner we were leaving, and she said, in an abnormally direct way, “When there is a problem, your government comes in like a helicopter to get you out. Meanwhile, our government is killing its own people.”
After a traditional bunna (coffee) ceremony, and several meals with some of our favorite friends, we were the proud owners of multiple new Ethiopian outfits, given as parting gifts so we would ‘never forget Ethiopia.’
How could we forget?
We still don’t know exactly who died during the protests and the aftermath. It’s not like there is an obituary in the newspaper or something. But questions persist in our minds every day:
Our two young, dead neighbors remain faceless in our minds…was it the tall one with the spiky hair?
Students from the high school were killed…had any of the victims been participants of our HIV/soccer program?
What about that good-looking bus boy that is always chewing khatand causing trouble…is he alive? in jail?
How many people were killed? How many arrested?
If we knew the exact number of people killed or arrested, would it actually help the situation in any way?
This account of events that took place in early May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. As the authors note in their first post in their series about the Oromo student protests, they are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. In their first post in the series, Ambo Protests: A Personal Account, Jen and Josh describe in gripping detail what they saw and heard from April 25 to May 1: Students and others in the town of Ambo began to protest against the Ethiopian government’s “master plan” to expand the territory of Addis Ababa and annex lands belonging to the state of Oromia. Federal police hunted down Jen and Josh’s two young neighbors, who were university students, and shot and killed them in their own home, far away from the student protests. Jen and Josh decided to flee, witnessing hundreds of demonstrators packed into the prison at the Ambo police compound, many showing signs of having been beaten. With the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, the Ambo police authorities allowed Jen and Josh to leave. This post takes up their story from there.
After the protests and violence in Ambo, we fled to the capital city of Addis Ababa and stayed at a little hotel called Yilma. Immediately, we started telling everyone about what happened in Ambo. We called and texted our friends, we talked to anyone at the hotel that would listen, and we posted things on Facebook. If we tell everyone about the protesters in Ambo being imprisoned and killed, surely it will stop, we reasoned.
The next day, two strange men – one tall with dark skin, the other short with lighter skin – struck up a conversation with us in the hotel restaurant.
“We’re from Minnesota, here to visit our family in Wollega,” they said.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul!” we replied, excited.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul, too!” they said, pulling out a fake-looking Minnesota driver’s license.
The address said Worthington, not St. Paul.
“How long have you lived in St. Paul?’ we asked.
“Yes.” the tall man said, nervously.
“I mean…how long have you lived in St. Paul?” we said, slower.
“Just 2 weeks.”
“And you’re already back in Ethiopia. And you just drove through Ambo, past all the protests and the police, to visit your family in Wollega?” we asked, thinking about the single paved road that heads west through Ambo.
“Yes.” he replied.
“You must be very brave,” we said, thinking about how the road was closed due to the violence.
“Why?” he asked, baiting us with a stoic face.
We froze, afraid to speak further. At that moment, after 20 months in Ethiopia, we finally understood why so many people in Oromia are afraid of spies. When we first arrived in Ambo, people thought WE were C.I.A. spies, which we found amusing…spies who couldn’t even speak the language? If we had beenspies, we certainly weren’t very good at our job. But now, the tables were turned.
The two men began following us around the hotel area, sitting next to us whenever possible, walking slowly past our table, then returning slowly past our table – sometimes up to 10 times per hour. A different man followed us to a restaurant about a mile from the hotel, then sat at the closest table to ours, rudely joining a young couple’s romantic dinner.
For the next three days, we stopped telling people about the protests and the imprisonments and the killings in Ambo. We were afraid that the two men would be listening. We were afraid that someone was monitoring our communications on the government-controlled cell phone service and the government-controlled internet. Were we just paranoid? Were we really being monitored? Maybe we had just integrated too much, to the point where we had become Oromo, afraid of government spies and afraid of speaking out and being put in jail. While being ferenji (foreigners) gave us some level of protection, thoughts of the Swedish journalists thrown into an Ethiopian jail in 2011 lingered in the backs of our minds. The journalists “were only doing their jobs, and human rights group Amnesty International said the journalists had been prosecuted for doing legitimate work.” Did we seem just as suspicious to the government as those Swedish journalists? We didn’t want to find out.
Peace Corps gave all the volunteers strict instructions NOT to blog or post on Facebook about the protests or killings across Oromia. It is just too dangerous to say anything about the Ethiopian government, they pointed out.
That’s when we decided to leave Ethiopia. For us, staying in Ambo, not ruffling any feathers, was not an option. How could we go back and pretend that our neighbors, students, and and fellow residents didn’t die or didn’t end up in prison?
Disclaimer: We are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers, and the following is a personal story, not a news report, and does not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, the Ethiopian Government, or the people of Ambo.
Friday, April 25th, the protests began in Ambo. We heard the sounds of a big crowd gathering at the university, walking east, yelling and chanting. The single paved road in town was barricaded, and traffic was diverted around the outskirts of town.
“What is going on?” we asked a group of high school boys.
“Oh, the students are angry. They have some problem,” they responded.
We called some friends at the university, who were able to explain further. Apparently, there are expansion plans for Addis Ababa, which would displace poor Oromo farmers and considerably shrink the size of the Oromia region. Justifiably, many Oromo people were upset. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, so demonstrations started across Oromia, mainly in towns with universities. Some of the protests turned violent.
Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were quiet, somewhat normal days in the town of Ambo. However, in other parts of Ethiopia, journalists and bloggers were arrested and thrown in jail.
Tuesday morning, the protests resumed. Friends in town called us to warn us not to go into work and not to leave our compound. Apparently there were protests at the preparatory school and the federal police were in town. We stayed home all day, listening to the sounds of the protests, denying to ourselves that the ‘pop, pop, pop’ we heard in the afternoon was gunfire. That night, the government-run news station reported that there was a misunderstanding between Oromo university students and the government. Other online reports said that the protestors were defending the Oromo’s right to their land.
Wednesday morning, the protests resumed, and our friends emphasized NOT to leave the house and NOT to answer our front gate. This time, we heard sirens. Ambo only has one ambulance – no police cars or fire trucks – and it wasn’t the normal noise. Again, we heard the ‘pop, pop, pop,’ every few minutes. We poked our heads out of the compound gate and talked to our neighbor, who confirmed that they were, in fact, gun shots. Neighbors said the federal police had already shot and killed demonstrators who were participating in the protest. As we were finishing our conversation, a group of at least 30 adults ran past, glancing nervously behind themselves as they ran.
“Maalif fiigtu? (Why are you running?)” I shouted.
“Poliisii as dhufu! (The police are coming here!)” a man responded, ducking behind a corner.
An hour later, we headed to the nearest store to stock up on phone cards so we could put minutes on our cell phones and data on our internet device. The storekeeper is a tough older lady who doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.
“Maal taate? (What happened?)” we asked.
She paused, looking down at her hands, her eyes welling with tears.
“Hara’aa….sirrii miti, (Today…..is not right)” she said, fighting back tears.
Ironically, as we sat at home, listening to gunshots all day long, John Kerry was visiting Ethiopia, a mere 2 hours away in Addis Ababa, to encourage democratic development.
Around 3pm, while the sounds of the protests were far on the east side of town, we heard gunshots so close to our house that we both ducked reflexively. An hour later, we talked to a young man who said, numbly, “I carried their bodies from their compound to the clinic.” Our two young neighbors – university students – had been hunted down by the federal police and killed in their home while the protest was on the opposite side of town.
Other friends told us other violent stories of what was going on in town, including an incident at a bank. Apparently, students attempted to enter the bank, and one was shot by the police. Not being armed with weapons, protesters retaliated against the shooter by hanging him.
Another friend told us about 2 students who were shot and killed by the federal police in front of a primary school…again, far away from the protest.
Wednesday night, we slept fitfully, listening to the sounds of the federal police coming around our neighborhood. They were yelling over a bullhorn in Amharic, which we didn’t understand, but was later translated for us: “Stay inside your compound tonight and tomorrow.”
Thursday, the bus station was closed and there weren’t any cars on the roads. That morning, a Peace Corps driver finally came to get us, looking terrified as he pulled up quickly to our house. We had to stop at the police station to get permission to leave town. While waiting at the station, we saw at least 50 people brought into the station at gunpoint, some from the backs of military trucks and many from a bus. Inside the police compound, there were hundreds of demonstrators overflowing the capacity of the prison, many of them visibly beaten and injured. After the U.S. Embassy requested our release, we headed out of town. The entire east side of town, starting from the bus station, was damaged. A bank, hotel, café, and many cars were damaged or burned. Our driver swerved to avoid the charred remains of vehicles sitting in the middle of the street.
We couldn’t help but shed tears at the sight of our beloved, damaged town.