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:
Video excerpting questions about the administration of the death penalty in the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, as well as the responses from the United States delegation.
We were particularly excited when the U.S. State Department announced the delegation, because it included Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. This is the first time a U.S. delegation for a treaty-body review has included representatives from state and local governments. They are an important piece of the accountability puzzle because many of our country’s human rights obligations need to be implemented at the state and local level.
Mississippi retains the death penalty, and Attorney General Hood had just asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to schedule two back-to-back executions for March 26 and 27–for Charles Ray Crawford and Michelle Byrom. We knew that two lives were on the line.
Committee highlights key death penalty issues
The Committee’s examination of the United States on March 13-14 and its Concluding Observations mirror some of the issues we raised in our shadow reports. They devote much attention to the death penalty, including the associated issues of exonoree compensation, racial disparities, and sourcing of drugs used for executions.
While welcoming the overall decline in the number of executions and the increasing number of states that have abolished the death penalty, the Committee shares The Advocates’ concerns about its continued use. The Committee is concerned by the high number of people wrongly sentenced to death, despite existing safeguards, and it is concerned about the racial disparities in the death penalty’s imposition—disparities that disproportionately affect African Americans and that are exacerbated by the rule that discrimination has to be proven case-by-case.
As I discuss below, just this week there have been some developments on the issue of wrongful convictions.
Committee urges federal and state governments to ensure fair compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death
The Committee also notes, as we observed in our shadow report, that 16 states retaining the death penalty do not provide compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted; other states provide insufficient compensation or impose barriers to obtaining it. Consider Glenn Ford. Wrongfully convicted in Louisiana, Ford spent almost 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. As Committee expert Professor Walter Kaelin noted during the review, he was exonerated and released just days before the Committee’s review. He would have been about 34 years old when he entered death row, and was 64 when he was released. Louisiana’s compensation law allows him to collect only a maximum $330,000 for the three decades he spent on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
The Committee also notes with concern reports that states administer untested, unregulated drugs to execute prisoners, and that state authorities withhold information about the drugs from those to be executed. There have been some late-breaking developments around the country on these drug-sourcing issues.
Committee hits hard on Mississippi’s sourcing of lethal drugs
We were really fortunate that Mississippi Attorney General Hood was part of the U.S. delegation in Geneva. I was there on the ground, so my colleagues at The Advocates and I were able to quickly collect facts about the upcoming executions of Crawford and Byrom that Hood had requested and fed hard-hitting questions about Mississippi’s lethal injection policies directly to the Committee experts.
Mississippi was just one week away from executing Crawford and Byrom with drugs from a compounding pharmacy. As our shadow report explains, compounding pharmacies are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Mississippi’s drugs had likely expired. These kinds of drugs carry a high risk of causing excruciating pain; one of the more recent executions to use compounded drugs resulted in the prisoner crying out during his execution, “I feel my whole body burning.”
Drug-sourcing has become a problem for states seeking to execute inmates, because many European drug manufacturers have stopped selling drugs like pentobarbital to the United States, fearing they will be used in executions. States are therefore scrambling to come up with alternative ways to concoct their execution drugs.
It was instructive that an official from a state government was part of the U.S. delegation—a first—because state governments conduct the overwhelming majority of executions. And the Committee experts repeatedly pressed Attorney General Hood on the sources of Mississippi’s lethal drugs.
You can see the questioning in the 17-minute video at the top of this post, which excerpts the relevant questions on the death penalty from the Committee and responses from the U.S. delegation.
Due Process revived: Michelle Byrom granted new trial; Charles Ray Crawford’s appeal to proceed
Seemingly oblivious to his own role in nearly executing someone the court determined was entitled to a new trial, and to the extraordinary nature of the court’s decision, Hood responded, “Our citizens can once again take comfort in the fact that we have a legal system that works for all parties involved.” And rather than accepting the court’s decision, a motion from Hood’s office complained that “[e]ach and every claim that Byrom presented to this Court had been addressed on the merits either by this Court or the federal courts on habeas corpus review,” and asked for the court to explain its decision.
But some clever detective work by Byrom and Crawford’s legal team uncovered the source–a compounding pharmacy called Brister Brothers in Grenada, Mississippi. Judging from Brister Brother’s facebook page, the outfit specializes in “herbal dietary supplements,” including a “specially formulated men’s tonic” called “Man Up.”
Brister Brothers co-owner Ward Brister says the company is a “third-party supplier” and did not compound the pentobarbital. According to an NBC report, “Byrom’s legal team presumes Brister purchased the raw ingredients for the drug and that the state intends to have it compounded for the executions.”
The lawsuit alleges that the State of Mississippi will secretly compound the drugs at an unknown time and place, by people with unknown training and credentials. The danger, a lawyer for Byrom and Crawford explains, is that “[i]f the state’s pentobarbital is contaminated or sub-potent, prisoners will be conscious when the second and third drugs are administered, and they will experience a torturous death by suffocation and cardiac arrest.”
Committee issues strong recommendations on lethal drug sourcing
In its Concluding Observations released last week, the UN Human Rights Committee urges the United States to
“ensure that lethal drugs for executions originate from legal, regulated sources, and are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that information on the origin and composition of such drugs is made available to individuals scheduled for execution.”
If the Supreme Court grants cert. in the Louisiana case, it will be the first body of the U.S. government to take action consistent with the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendations issued last week, upholding our country’s human rights treaty obligations. It would be a great start to the long process of working on implementation of the Committee’s recommendations.
Committee issues further recommendations on the death penalty
The Committee also recommends that the United States consider establishing a moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level, and, on the 25th anniversary of the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, consider acceding to the Protocol.
In summary, the Committee recommends that in addition to establishing a moratorium, acceding to the Protocol, and ensuring that legal drugs come from transparent, regulated sources, the United States:
1. take measures to effectively ensure that the death penalty is not imposed as a result of racial bias;
2. strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring inter alia effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage;
3. ensure that retentionist states provide adequate compensation for the wrongfully convicted; and
4. engage with retentionist states with a view to achieving a nationwide moratorium.