Minnesota is home to a wide variety of immigrants who fled violence and oppression in their home countries, but some groups are better known than others. Roger Akembom, who has volunteered for The Advocates, wants to draw attention to some residents who have attracted little political or media attention: his fellow English-speakers from Cameroon, in central western Africa.
Cameroon is a predominantly French-speaking country whose government, according to human-rights watchdogs, has committed serious abuses against residents of the former Southern Cameroons, two Anglophone regions that comprise about 20 percent of the population. These include forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, mass arrests, excessive force by security services, bans on public meetings, and periodic government restrictions on internet access.
Akembom, whose father was a political prisoner, arrived in the U.S. about 17 years ago and won asylum. He says he is among more than 5,000 English-speaking Cameroonians who have settled in Minnesota. But people here are more familiar with larger populations like the Somalis, he says: “There are other immigrant groups like mine. We are facing the same issues.”
He and other Anglophone Cameroonians have been working to raise awareness among policymakers and the public about the dire situation facing their compatriots. One area of deep concern: the tens of thousands of people who have fled to Nigeria to escape military crackdowns. Those escalated last Oct. 1, when Anglophones staged protests about their marginalization in society and activists declared independence for a state they call Ambazonia. Security forces killed more than 17 protesters, according to Amnesty International. (The government argues it needs to take strong action to fight “terrorists” who are waging an armed insurrection and have killed members of security forces.)
Akembum says the refugees need food, medicine, clothing, hygiene products, and money to pay for hospital care. Minnesota Cameroonians have just launched a new nonprofit, Partners in Hope for Southern Cameroons Refugees (PHOSCAR), to ship goods and pay for services at Holy Family Catholic Hospital, in Ikom, Nigeria. Many of the refugees have no money, Okembuom says, and “this is a new country to them; they don’t have transferable skills.”
PHOSCAR will work with a nonprofit that is on the ground in Nigeria. A group called The Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Women of Minnesota raised about $11,000 for the refugees at a fundraising gala last month. For more information about PHOSCAR, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
French speakers in Cameroon are also victims of human-rights abuses by the government of Paul Biya, who has held power for 35 years. The Advocates has helped 87 Cameroonian clients in the past 10 years with asylum claims. In 2017, it accepted 13 cases, the highest number in any given year over the past decade, says Sarah Brenes, Director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. While she didn’t have hard numbers, she believes the majority of the claims have come from Anglophones.
Akembum says a major problem for Cameroonian immigrants is integrating into society. Many are highly educated, he says, but have trouble finding work to match their qualifications. He cites himself as an example: he earned a master’s degree in public policy at St. Thomas University but is working at the post office.
Meanwhile, he is working with other members of the Cameroonian diaspora in the United States who advocate independence for the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions, which activists call by the historical name “Southern Cameroons.” They argue that option was wrongfully denied to Anglophones when Cameroon became independent from France and the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Anglophone representatives ended up negotiating a federalist ystem that was supposed to grant them a large degree of autonomy, but over the years the central government has consolidated power.
During my time this summer as an intern at The Advocates for Human Rights, I’ve encountered many horror stories of human rights violations around the world. Yet none has shaken me more than the terrorist group Boko Haram’s new war tactic: kidnapping children and deploying them as suicide bombers.
Since its uprising against the Nigerian government in 2009, the militant Islamic group with allegiance to ISIS has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced nearly 2.3 million people. According to the Global Terrorism Index, it is the world’s deadliest terrorist group over ISIS. Much of the world, however, learned of Boko Haram only after its abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Most of the girls remain missing to this day.
The latest development in Boko Haram’s violence that has spread beyond Nigeria’s borders is the harrowing use of children in suicide attacks, and the country with the highest incidence is Cameroon. According to UNICEF, 21 suicide attacks involving children took place in Cameroon between January 2014 and February 2016, while there were 17 in Nigeria and two in Chad.
As with children taken by Boko Haram elsewhere, those captured in Cameroon are forced to serve as not only suicide bombers, but also combatants on the front line, human shields, and guards – collectively known as “child soldiers.”
What have Cameroonian authorities done in response to Boko Haram’s increasing exploitation of their children as tools of war?
Cameroon joined a multinational task force to fight against Boko Haram and continues to conduct offensive military operations, but the protection of child soldiers embroiled in the conflict has not been a priority of the government. In its periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, ― a body of experts monitoring implementation of the human rights treaty specific to children ― Cameroon does not make a single reference to child soldiers nor Boko Haram’s use of children in its aggression.
Furthermore, the government does not offer organized support to former child soldiers. As Cameroonian forces have recaptured territories held by Boko Haram, some abductees have been found and released. According to UNICEF, however, many are not even welcomed home and instead viewed with deep suspicion because of the fear that they were radicalized in captivity. In particular, girls who were forcibly married to their captors and became pregnant as a result of rape face marginalization and discrimination due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. Accused of being Boko Haram wives, they are rejected by relatives and community members.
In the face of egregious abuses committed against Cameroonian children by Boko Haram and the mistreatment persisted by society, the government has been silent for far too long and must take action to better protect its youth from the effects of armed conflict. Instead of penalizing children associated with Boko Haram as was the case in the mass arrest and detainment of Quranic school students in 2014, the government ought to treat them as victims in need of protection.
First, the government should harmonize its national legislation with international standards that prohibit the recruitment of children by non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram. Cameroon has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the accompanying Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Under these treaties, Cameroon has the duty to enact measures to prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups, including the adoption of necessary legal measures. At present, however, Cameroon does not have any law that addresses the use of children by armed groups. Domestic provisions criminalizing this practice must be in place in order to prosecute perpetrators and stop offenses from occurring in the first place.
Second, the Cameroonian government should develop a comprehensive system of demobilization, recovery, and reintegration for children previously under the influence of armed groups. For the fraction of child soldiers who are rescued or able to escape from Boko Haram, life after captivity is supposed to be better. Yet these children are abandoned by their own families and left wholly vulnerable from their torturous experiences under Boko Haram. It is the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are safely moved to rehabilitative centers and to assist them in their physical and psychological recovery as well as their reintegration into society.
Recruiting children to participate in hostilities is a blatant human rights violation under international law. Yet a State’s failure to protect its children from such recruitment is also a violation of its human rights obligation. The Cameroonian government must act now to safeguard the rights of its children.
By: Nayeon Kim, a rising senior at Yale University studying political science and psychology. She was a 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.
Last month, Cameroonian human rights defender Alice Nkom traveled to London with a plea: “I need everyone because right now, I am a little isolated. It’s on occasions like this that we must show we are one, united, universal in this fight.” Nkom, who is in her 70s and was the first woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, is one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who represents people who are charged with violating the country’s law criminalizing same-sex conduct.
The Advocates for Human Rights has been working with Nkom and other human rights defenders to advance the rights of LGBTI persons in Cameroon. And, in part because of this collaborative advocacy, Africa’s leading human rights body has joined the fight against LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon.
The Advocates and Cameroonian partners report on LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon
In 2013, after meeting with Nkom in Douala, The Advocates for Human Rights partnered with Nkom’s organizations, the Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) and the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), along with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), to submit a 45-page report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its periodic review of Cameroon’s human rights record. The report details violations of rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon, demonstrating how the Government of Cameroon is violating its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
African Commission responds, urging Cameroon to protect and promote tolerance of sexual minorities
“The judicial harassment, offences against life and other violations of rights of human rights defenders, in particular the rights of defenders working in the area of sexual orientation;” and
“The discrimination, stigma and violation of the right to life and physical and mental integrity of individuals based on their sexual orientation.”
The African Commission urges Cameroonian authorities to “Take appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”
LGBTI Cameroonians and their advocates continue to face pervasive violence and discrimination
As the African Commission’s concerns suggest, people in Cameroon face pervasive violence and discrimination based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination extends to human rights defenders like Nkom, who work on their behalf. Nkom describes conditions as “an anti-homosexual apartheid.”
As we highlighted in our report, in 2013 CAMFAIDS founder Eric Ohena Lembembe was discovered brutally murdered in his own apartment. Authorities have conducted a lackluster investigation into the circumstances of his death, and investigators have even attempted to intimidate his friends and family.
After Ohena Lembembe’s murder, threats against other human rights defenders escalated, with some anonymous messages simply saying, “You’re next.” “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” observed Nkom. “Because many died for us to be free today—free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”
In 2014, Roger Jean-Claude Mdede died in his home village under troubling circumstances. Mbede had notoriously been convicted in 2011 for sending a man a text message saying “I’ve fallen in love with you.” Nkom and Michel Togué, the other Cameroonian lawyer who takes on these cases, secured Mbede’s release.
But Mbede faced serious health problems. And the notoriety of Mbede’s case meant escalating persecution; he was physically assaulted by four unknown men near the university where he studied. Local and international efforts to get Mbede out of Cameroon failed. Mbede returned to his village in ill health, and some people close to him say that his family thought he was cursed and held him in the village against his will until he died.
Nkom takes case to Cameroon’s Supreme Court
Nkom is taking Mbede’s case to the Supreme Court of Cameroon, challenging the constitutionality of the country’s prohibition on same-sex relations. The Constitution of Cameroon includes and incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The constitution further states that “duly approved and ratified treaties and international agreements,” including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, shall “override national laws.”
When we first met with Nkom back in 2013, we discussed ways that The Advocates and its volunteers could collaborate on Mbede’s case and in placing pressure on Cameroonian authorities to respect the rights of LGBTI people. Our report to the African Commission was one such strategy. The African Commission’s call for Cameroonian authorities to take action to end persecution and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a positive sign of change. Now the the Supreme Court of Cameroon must pay careful attention to the African Commission’s words when it hears Mbede’s case. At The Advocates for Human Rights, we will be watching closely.
Because, in the words of Alice Nkom, “[W]e are one, united, universal in this fight.”
Read more about the global movement for LGBTI rights:
December has been a terrible month for human rights—from the U.S. Senate’s report confirming the use of torture, to the slaughter of Pakastani school children, to two grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Overall, 2014 has been an extremely troubling year. Some human rights abuses garnered a lot of attention; many did not, taking place under the radar of the media and public conversation. Let’s consider a few examples, and let them serve as a call to action.
Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria one night in mid-April. This travesty garnered wide media attention and support from around the world, with celebrities carrying “Bring Back Our Girls” placards and rallies demanding the girls’ return. Unfortunately, 219 girls are reported to remain in captivity. Boko Haram continued its reign of terror, and is responsible for other atrocities throughout Somalia and Nigeria during 2014, including kidnappings, mass recruitment of child soldiers, and bombings of churches and public squares. Just this month news reports surfaced that Boko Haram kidnapped at least 185 women and children and killed 32 people in northeast Nigeria.
Central American refugees―mostly children (and many by themselves)―are seeking asylum, after journeying across one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes to escape horrific violence in their home countries. The crisis was brought to light and much of the nation was shocked when, in June, images of children being held by US authorities surfaced, showing children crowded in makeshift prisons, and crammed into rooms and sleeping on concrete floors. Instead of treating them as refugees and in accordance with internationally-recognized human rights standards, the U.S. has treated these children as national security threats, warehousing them in razor-wired prisons, detaining them in horrendous conditions, and subjecting them to expedited proceedings to deport them at warp speed and back to the life-threatening dangers they fled.
The terrorist organization ISIL has committed gruesome acts of violence that have alarmed the world community, including murdering political opposition members in mass, enslaving and brutalizing women and girls, and forcing young boys into its ranks. An August attack by ISIL in the Sinjar region caused thousands of Shiites and Yazidis to flee; in October, ISIL abducted 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women and children and sold them into slavery, reported the UN.
Grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner highlighted racial profiling, police brutality, and failures of the justice system throughout the country, including a police officer shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Ethiopian government attacked a student protest in the nation’s Oromia region in April, killing as many as 47 students, as some reports indicate. The Ethiopian government has persecuted and targeted the Oromo people for years, subjecting Oromo to abduction, mass incarceration, and extreme levels of torture, including electric shock and repeated rapes.
Nearly 200,000 people have been killed and millions more took flight because of violence in Syria―the world’s largest refugee crisis resulting from a civil war that has raged in the region following popular uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. To date, UNHCR estimates that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled the disaster, surpassing the refugee crises in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Central America.
Countries took huge steps backward for rights of LGBTI communities, enacting draconian laws which punish homosexuality with prison terms, torture, and death. Members of LGBTI communities in some countries are hunted down by vigilantes and are beaten or killed. In 2014, Uganda enacted one of the most notorious laws—its “Kill the Gays” law—punishing homosexuality with life in prison. The Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down law. Unfortunately, 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 U.S.’s use of drone strikes are a significant setback to international law, setting new precedents for use of force by nations around the world. As of November 2014, attempts to kill 41 people resulted in snuffing out the lives of an estimated 1,147 individuals, reports The Guardian. The U.S. has, to date, used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people— including civilians and children—in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, all countries against whom the U.S. has not declared war, the organization Reprieve reports.
An Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death in a mass trial in March. The next month, a court sentenced another 680 to death in a proceeding that lasted only a few minutes. These mass executions, issued by a military government than came to power in a July 2013 coup, represent some of the largest ordered executions in the last century. Activists who supported efforts to oust former President Hosni Mubarak continue to be rounded up and targeted by the military, aiming to crush political opposition and to roll back achievements made during the Arab Spring. And in November, an Egyptian court dismissed conspiracy to kill charges against Mubarak, and he was cleared of corruption charges; he will likely be freed in a few months.
Women and girls have suffered immeasurablywhere they should be safest, in their homes. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria, according to the World Bank. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. One high profile domestic violence incident this year involved NFL player Ray Rice beating his then-fiance into unconsciousness and flattening her to the floor of an elevator. As a result of the attack, Rice was suspended for two games. When TMZ posted the video of the attack for the world to see, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely and the Baltimore Ravens pressured his victim to apologize. Ultimately, the NFL reversed its decision to suspend Rice indefinitely in late November.
Harmful cultural practices violate women. Many governments “address” human rights violations—even the most cringe-worthy, stomach-churning―against women and girls by punishing the victims. Or—as in the case of women from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking refuge in other countries—governments turn their heads to the violence, empowering the perpetrators and further victimizing and subjugating the women. These abuses include acid attacks, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, bride burning, and gang rapes. Consider the death of Farzana Iqbal, 25, in May in Pakistan; her family stoned her to death outside a courthouse in Pakistan because she sought to marry without consent from her family a man she loved. Consider Hanna Lalango, 16, who died a month after she entered a public mini-bus in Ethiopia and was gang-raped by strangers for five days―a case similar to one in India two years ago, but one that did not garner the same level of attention and outrage. As an added note, Lalango’s father said he would not have made the case public if his daughter had lived because the shame would have shadowed her for the rest of her life.
The U.S. Senate “torture report” released on December 9 graphically details the CIA’s use of abuse, including keeping a prisoner awake for 180 hours with his hands shackled over his head, threatening to sexually assault and cut the throat of a detainee’s mother, penetrating a detainee’s anus for “rectal feeding,” and tying a prisoner to a floor until he froze to death.
Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed more than 130 students in a terrorist attack on December 16 to retaliate against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who caught the world’s attention for being shot for going to school. Responding to the Peshwar slaughter, Malala stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”
Forty-three students traveling to a protest in Mexico were rounded up and “disappeared” in September. The mayor of Iguala, Mexico in concert with local gangs ordered the capture and murder of these students, reports indicate. Federal police may also have complicity in the crime. The act has garnered widespread attention in Mexico, with people questioning the legitimacy of federal and state Mexican authorities, who for years has been corrupted by the influence of narco-traffickers and gangs.
More than 2,000 Gazans were killed when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza strip in July to stop rocket attacks that followed an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The disproportionate level of force used by the Israeli military resulted in large number of civilian deaths. Of the 2,192 Gazans killed, about 1523 civilians (including 519 children), 66 Israeli soldiers, five Israeli civilians (including a child), and one Thai civilian were killed, reports indicate. At the end of the conflict, 110,000 people were internally displaced and 108,000 were made homeless, according to Amnesty International.
What can we do in the face of these human rights violations and the countless others that go unnoticed? Pay attention. Look behind the headlines. Make our voices heard by public officials, leaders, and the world community. Volunteer for projects that address the issues most important to us. Support organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights which take on the larger systemic issues that allow human rights abuses to continue. We are not helpless. In 2015, we can, by working together, move closer to our vision of a world in which all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace . . . because every person matters.
By: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Deepinder Mayell, Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt, and Susan Banovetz
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:
When I was in high school, U.S.-Soviet “space bridges” were popular: a studio audience of Americans would connect up live with a studio audience in the USSR, and they’d pose each other questions with assistance from celebrity hosts like Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner. In July 1986, during a “women to women” space bridge between Boston and Leningrad, a middle-aged Boston woman asked the Soviet audience whether their TV commercials were sexually suggestive, as American ads were. In Leningrad, a blonde woman took the microphone and responded solemnly: “Cекса y нас нет, и мы категорически против этого.” (“There is no sex here, and we are categorically opposed to it.”) You can watch the exchange here:
Her response prompted howls of laughter from others in the Leningrad audience, but the phrase stuck. Even today, you can hear Russians repeat the saying, “In the USSR there is no sex.”
So in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, when the mayor of Sochi proclaimed, “У нас в городе геев нет,” (“In our city there are no gays,”) I’m sure plenty of Russian speakers joined me in a nostalgic chuckle. Russians have long been a bit prudish on matters of sex. But Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda” reflects more than mere prudishness. It is part of a concerted effort to deny the very existence of Russians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI). And some Russians have taken it upon themselves to actively and openly persecute people who are LGBTI, or who support LGBTI rights.
Times have changed
When I lived in Moscow, from 1990-1992, LGBTI people were generally left alone. One of my good friends, a gay American studying at Moscow State University, wore a pink triangle pin all the time and never faced any negative repercussions. “No one ever bothered me for the triangle or for being gay,” he recalled. “In fact, it seems harder to be gay in Russia now than it was then. Sure it was all sort of underground, but people weren’t all whipped up like they are these days.”
Indeed, much has changed since then. In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. But in recent years, “anti-gay sentiment has exploded in Russia . . . , fed by economic woes, government corruption, and crumbling infrastructures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After the Russian Duma passed laws last summer prohibiting “gay propaganda” and banning some international adoptions to countries that recognize marriage equality, LGBTI advocates in Russia reported a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence.
Vigilante violence incited
The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has fueled private acts of violence directed at government critics, as well as at LGBTI people and their allies. In Sochi on Wednesday, for example, as members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot prepared to perform, a group of men surrounded and attacked them with traditional Cossack whips. (A Duma member from the Zabaikalsk region of Siberia recently called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.) Pussy Riot has long been critical of the Putin government and has spoken out against the gay propaganda law.
Although the popular Russian social media site В Kонтакте (VK.com)–especially the VK-based online LGBTI teen support group Дети-404 (Deti-404)–can be a lifeline for gay youth, homophobic harassment is commonplace on the site.
With the help of VK and other social media, and spurred by prominent Russians like Putin who repeatedly conflate gay people with child molesters, Russian neo-Nazi groups and other gangs have taken it upon themselves to go on “safaris” to “hunt” gays. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released this graphic, disturbing video explaining how some of the vigilante groups operate:
An ABC news broadcast last week focused on another group that calls itself “Morality Patrol,” which uses a roaming van to videotape people coming and going from a gay bar in Moscow. Then, there’s another group, called “God’s Will,” which calls for gays to be stoned to death.
At her first gay pride parade in 2011, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko was punched in the skull, causing her to partially lose her hearing. The police detective assigned to her case, who has seen a video of the attack and knows the name of her assailant, asked her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street?”
On the subway escalator after the attack, members of “God’s Will” caught Kostyuchenko’s girlfriend in a headlock and punched her five times in the face.
In May 2013, a young man in Volgograd was allegedly raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed after he came out to a group of friends.
In June 2013, a gay man was kicked and stabbed to death by a group of friends in Kamchatka; they then burned his body.
“The latest laws against so-called gay propaganda, first in the regions and then on the federal level, have essentially legalised violence against LGBT people, because these groups of hooligans justify their actions with these laws,” Igor Kotchekov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, recently told the Guardian. “[This vigilante violence] is an action to terrorise the entire LGBT community.”
Violent vigilantes enjoy impunity
These Russian anti-gay vigilante groups operate openly, and even post videos of their exploits on social media sites, but Russian authorities don’t seem to take the violence seriously. On the eve of the start of the Sochi Olympics, BBC Channel Four released “Hunted,” a 50-minute documentary about these vigilante groups. The Russian embassy in London lashed out, calling the film part of a “well-engineered campaign of slander” and “hate propaganda” designed to damage Russia’s reputation just before the games. In noting that the head of Occupy Pedophilia had been arrested and charged with extremism, the embassy appeared to defend the group, saying, “As its name suggests, [it] targets only paedophiles both straight and gay.”
(U.S. extremists are also coming to Russia’s defense. Scott Lively, who campaigned for propaganda laws in Russia and other countries, called the Human Rights Watch video a “hoax,” asserting that LGBTI “activists are masters of public deception.”)
In Russia, victims of vigilante violence fear reporting these attacks to the police, knowing they may face even more violence at the hands of law enforcement, and fearing that filing a report will “out” them to family, colleagues, neighbors, or employers. And when they do report the attacks, police dismiss them and say the victims brought the violence upon themselves. According to Kochetkov, of 20 homophobic attacks that were recently reported to the police in Russia, only “four were investigated and only one resulted in a court case.” One attorney representing a victim of a homophobic attack reported that she and her client were attacked by a group of skinheads as they tried to enter the courthouse: “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”
“Gay propaganda” law prompts more Russians to join the vigilante bandwagon
Citizen “complaints” fuel much of Russian authorities’ enforcement of the propaganda law:
Timur Isaev trolls social media and uses a videocamera to identify LGBTI people and then report them to authorities. He specializes in tracking down LGBTI teachers, outing them, and getting them fired. He also targets teachers who are LGBTI allies. He also stalked a support group for LGBTI families online, and then reported an upcoming meeting to the police, suspecting a minor would be present. He even tracked down a 14-year-old girl in the small town of Dyatkova after she held a solo demonstration against the propaganda law, and reported her to her school’s principal. The girl was disciplined by a government commission, which threatened to take her to court if she continued to express her views in public. Isaev boasts that he has contacted relatives and school principals of more than a dozen openly LGBTI teens.
Vitali Milonov, a local St. Petersburg lawmaker, filed several complaints with authorities about Deti-404 online support group founder Elena Klimova, who faced a potential fine of 100,000 rubles and a shut-down of her site. A district court acquitted her this morning, but Milonov has vowed to appeal the decision.
A teenager in Arkhangelsk complained to authorities after seeing online images of an activist’s protest in Kazan, over 1,000 kilometers away. The teenager said he was prompted by his father, who was bitter because his wife had left him for another woman. The activist was fined 4,000 rubles.
A group of parents in Smolensk is charging their children’s school with violating the propaganda law because a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds last Friday encouraged her students to make Valentine’s Day cards for each other, and said that it didn’t matter whether the recipients were boys or girls.
And in the Khabarovsk region, a parent group complained to their school about a new 6th grade student who was “unusual” and “acted gay.” The parents asked the school to intervene and cease the 12-year-old boy’s “sexual harassment”–even though he had never done anything to any other student. The day after the parent group raised the issue in a meeting with the student’s homeroom teacher, the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school. Similar incidents are reported in other rural schools in Russia, according to Khabarovsk Commissioner for Children’s Rights Svetlana Zhukova.
This post is the fourth in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins.Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.