U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on African countries to respect the equal rights of gays and lesbians.

Speaking at the opening of the 18th annual summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa on Sunday, Ban said that “one form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“This has prompted some governments to treat people as second-class citizens, or even criminals. Confronting this discrimination is a challenge. But we must live up to the ideals of the Universal Declaration,” he boldly told African leaders.

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) advocacy officer Pepe Julian Onziema, welcomed Ban’s statement.

“It holds a lot of weight that Ban Ki-moon has come to this meeting and addressed this issue. It makes a difference because it is an issue that the African Union has ignored. We have pushed them on it but they have shut us out,” he told the AFP.

Ban’s comments, however, are unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by many of the continent’s governments.

Recent threats by the U.K. and the U.S. to withhold aid from countries that have repressive anti-gay laws were met with angry responses that homosexuality is foreign to Africa and is being imposed on it by the West.

Same-sex sexual relations are illegal in 38 countries in Africa with penalties including execution in Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria, and life imprisonment In Uganda.

In some nations, such as Uganda, there have been moves to strengthen anti-gay laws and impose harsher sentences against offenders.

Ban has previously spoken out about LGBT equality. In a speech in 2010 in New York he said: “As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When individuals are attacked, abused or imprisoned because of their sexual orientation, we must speak out. We cannot stand by. We cannot be silent.”

That same year, Ban was credited with convincing Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika to pardon a same-sex couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were jailed for 14 years with hard labour for being gay.

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