Discrimination undermines economic growth and is un-African

2014-10-05 15:00

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South Africa must be applauded for voting in favour of the Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity adopted by the 27th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva last week.

But while the resolution has been hailed as a significant step forward in the fight against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the battle is far from over.

In many parts of the world, and especially Africa, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people face hostility, discrimination and danger.

At least 80 countries still criminalise consensual same-sex intimacy and 37 of these are in Africa. The death penalty can be imposed in five countries.

Even in South Africa, whose democracy was founded on the basis of human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights, and whose Constitution expressly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTI citizens are not safe.

While the discussions on the resolution were taking place in Geneva, South African authorities reported the brutal rape and murder of yet another lesbian, Thembelihle “Lihle” Sokela (28).

Ambassador Abdul Samad Minty, South Africa’s permanent representative at the UN, acknowledged that despite the enabling laws, South Africans are still subjected to discrimination and violence based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

He said the scale of the violence had led the justice department to establish a hate crimes unit to deal with this situation.

Minty said that, beginning in 2011, South Africa had taken the lead on various UN initiatives because of the belief that “no person should fear for their safety or be deprived of their dignity because of their sexual orientation or gender identity”.

Addressing the UN General Assembly recently, Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini encouraged African countries to adhere to the Addis Ababa Declaration of the African Union (AU), which states that sexual and reproductive rights can never be divorced from the pursuit of gender equality and equity.

Again, South Africa must be applauded for its leadership on this issue at the global level. Now it must work to bring the rest of the continent along.

This will not be easy but it must be accomplished if South Africa has to consolidate its legitimacy as a human rights defender and remain true to its history and the principles on which it was founded.

As Dlamini rightly pointed out, the declaration makes a critical connection between rights, development and services by establishing that it is not possible to choose between rights and development as one cannot be achieved without the other.

As the economic powerhouse on the continent, South Africa’s foreign policy challenge over the long term in Africa is to avoid separating LGBTI rights from human rights and economic advancement.

It must be noted that LGBTI rights are not separate or special. They are basic human rights guaranteed to every one of us.

In Africa, these rights must be linked to other priorities such as effective public health policies and efficient business practices.

South Africa must show leadership on the continent, starting with its own situation at home, by ensuring that all alleged attacks on LGBTI people are fully, independently and fairly investigated, and that perpetrators are brought to justice.

We should recognise that many African countries have a love-hate relationship with South Africa.

An African diplomat at the UN told me earlier this year: “As soon as South Africa brings up the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity rights, many in the Africa group see South Africa as being crazy and refuse to engage.”

But it’s not enough for South African diplomats to try to persuade their African counterparts at the UN alone.

Progressive African leaders must also engage through the Southern African Development Community and the AU to persuade fellow Africans that excluding and discriminating against LGBTI citizens undermines economic growth and is “un-African”, especially in light of the continent’s history of oppression on the basis of race.

At an event focused jointly on LGBTI rights and ending extreme poverty in Africa, which was co-sponsored by the US Agency

for International Development and held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:

“This is not just a righteous and moral vision. It is pragmatic too.

“If you manage to lift the most disenfranchised of members out of the clutches of extreme poverty, it makes sense to marshal all available human capital.

“It makes as little sense to exclude brilliant scientists or architects or teachers from contributing to human development on the basis that they have large noses, as it does to exclude them on the basis that they are gay or lesbian.”

Mohamed is Africa director for the

New York-headquartered International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She is based in Johannesburg

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