In January, Nigeria’s president signed a new law that punishes same-sex unions with up to 14 years in jail.
In March, thousands of Ugandans joined a “celebration” of the country’s new Antihomosexuality Act, which punishes gay and lesbian people with life in jail and cracks down on human rights organisations that defend them. These are among at least 77 countries that criminalise homosexuality. Five prescribe the death penalty for consensual adult homosexual relationships.
In several countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, MPs have recently called for laws to punish any attempt to present ”nontraditional” – and specifically homosexual – relationships in a positive light, restricting freedom of expression and assembly. In Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, MPs have called for severe antihomosexuality legislation.
Brunei’s new penal code, to take effect shortly, prescribes the death penalty for consensual same-sex conduct. In February, during a televised speech to commemorate the country’s independence, Gambia’s president called for the country to fight homosexuals “the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively”.
Such attitudes may be a deliberate tactic, fuelled by well-funded religious groups, to distract attention from real problems such as poverty.
Homophobia panders to prejudice and misconceptions. These include the notions that homosexuality is “unnatural”, that gay people are more likely to be paedophiles or target children, that decriminalising homosexuality will automatically lead to same-sex marriage, and that equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people will somehow infringe on religious freedom.
In reality, homosexuality is a fact of nature, observed in every human society throughout history; it has been tolerated for centuries in many societies and has only recently surfaced as a political issue.
There is no evidence that homosexuals “target” children more often than heterosexuals do; paedophilia is a crime and nobody wishes to change that.
Calling for an end to the persecution of LGBTIs is a call to end discrimination and violence, a basic premise of our universal human rights. It is unrelated to same-sex marriage, which societies may choose to debate.
To counter these prejudices, my office last year launched Free & Equal, an unprecedented United Nations campaign to raise awareness about the rights of LGBTIs. We did so because human rights are for all human beings. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is just as irrational, just as wrong, as discrimination on the basis of skin colour, and just as clearly violates human rights.
Moreover, the resulting violence endured by so many LGBTI people is appalling. For laws generate action: police action, such as the recent raid on a health project in Uganda because it was allegedly “training youths in homosexuality”; judicial action, such as trials and jail sentences for people who should not be seen as criminals; and action by members of the public.
One effect of such laws is that they sanction the physical abuse of LGBTI people, vandalism to their property, death threats and so-called “corrective rape”. Another effect is blackmail: a false claim that someone is gay can create such reputational damage and legal difficulty that he or she will pay for silence. Some may argue that time will eventually take care of this problem: in the past, LGBTI people faced prosecution by the legal systems of many countries where they can now live freely, but we cannot simply wait.
If any other group of millions of individuals was forced to live with such fear and stigma, the international community would surely unite in condemnation and demand action immediately.
The fact that some countries refuse to recognise the scale of the problem – and that some actively fuel the flames of prejudice – makes it more urgent to keep pressing for change.
The key will be enabling an informed debate that dispels innuendo, myth and slander – and reminds us that LGBTI people have an equal right to dignity and freedom.
Navi Pillay is the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. For more information visit unfe.org.