As Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo prepares to visit the United States, he has been called on by various groups to reaffirm his commitment to the human rights of all Nigerians and withdraw proposed legislation to introduce criminal penalties for same-sex relationships and marriage ceremonies, as well as for public advocacy or associations supporting the rights of lesbian and gay people.
In a letter to President Obasanjo, a coalition of 16 human rights organisations urged him to disavow the bill, which contravenes international law and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights that ensure rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The bill also undermines Nigeria’s struggle to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, said the 16 groups which work in Nigeria and abroad.
“This draconian measure will only intensify prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “The bill criminalises public expressions of love and any defence of lesbian and gay rights, denying fundamental freedoms that should be enjoyed by all Nigerians.”
The bill, proposed in January 2006 by Nigeria’s minister of justice, Bayo Ojo, is entitled “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act.” It was recently approved by the Federal Executive Council of Nigeria and is poised to be submitted to the national assembly. The bill calls for five years imprisonment for any person who “goes through the ceremony of marriage with a person of the same sex,” “performs, witnesses, aids or abets the ceremony of same sex marriage,” or “is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations.” It also prohibits any public display of a “same-sex amorous relationship,” as well as adoption by lesbian or gay people.
“This bill is yet another example of exploiting fear of same-sex marriage to trounce rights that lesbians and gay men have under international law to associate, engage in intimate relations, and speak openly,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “We urge President Obasanjo to protect the rights and well-being of all Nigerians and disavow this dangerous bill.”
The human rights groups detail how the proposed law also undermines international treaties designed to protect fundamental freedoms. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Nigeria acceded without reservations in 1993, which protects the rights to freedom of expression (article 19), freedom of assembly (article 21) and freedom of association (article 22). The ICCPR affirms the equality of all people before the law and the right to freedom from discrimination in articles 2 and 26. In the landmark 1994 case, Toonen v. Australia, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors states’ compliance with the ICCPR, held that sexual orientation should be understood to be a status protected from discrimination under these articles.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights similarly affirms the equality of all people. Its article 2 states: “Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognised and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status.” Article 3 guarantees every individual equality before the law. And its article 26 prescribes that: “Every individual shall have the duty to respect and consider his fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance.”
The letter to Obasanjo also cites the destructive consequences the bill would have for Nigeria’s struggle against HIV/AIDS. The groups state that the government will damage its own prevention efforts by driving populations already suffering stigma for their sexual conduct further underground – not only making it more difficult to reach them with outreach and education efforts, but potentially criminalising civil society groups engaged in HIV prevention.
“This proposed legislation flies in the face of Nigeria’s obligations to the rights and well-being of its people,” the letter concludes. “Under international human rights law, the Federal Republic of Nigeria has the obligation to promote and protect the human rights of its population, without distinction of any kind. We urge you, as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to act in accordance with Nigeria’s legal obligations under international human rights law and withdraw this bill.”
In a statement released in February, the U.S. State Department condemned the proposed legislation. It stated it was “concerned by reports of legislation in Nigeria that would restrict or prohibit citizens from assembling, organizing, holding events or rallies, and participating in ceremonies of religious union, based upon sexual orientation and gender identity… The freedoms of speech, association, expression, assembly, and religion are long-standing international commitments and are universally recognized. Nigeria, as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has assumed important obligations on these matters. We expect the Government of Nigeria to act in a manner consistent with those obligations.”
In addition to Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the organisations signing the letter to President Obasanjo are: Africa Action (United States); African Human Rights Organisation (Cameroon); Alliance Rights (Nigeria); Amnesty International, International Secretariat (United Kingdom); Center for Democracy & Development (Nigeria); Centre d’Etudes et de Recherche en Droits de l’Homme – DÃ©mocratie et Justice Transitionnelle (Democratic Republic of Congo); Civil Liberties Organisation (Nigeria); Global Rights (United States); International Commission of Jurists (Switzerland); International Service for Human Rights (Switzerland); Legal Defense & Assistance Project (Nigeria); National Black Justice Coalition (United States); Support Project in Nigeria (Nigeria); and the University of Pretoria Centre for Human Rights (South Africa).