Ethiopia is joining an increasing number of African countries that are hardening anti-gay laws that affect their gay and lesbian citizens. Last week a bill was endorsed by Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers, making homosexual acts “unpardonable.” This bill is expected to be passed quickly when it is brought to a vote next week.
In Ethiopia, sexual same-gender acts are illegal and punishable with up to 15 years in prison. The jail term is 25 years if someone convicted of this felony also infects another person with HIV. A pardon is granted to thousands of prisoners every year on the Ethiopian New Year. However, if the new law is approved, the president will no longer have the power to carry out these pardons.
Ostensibly to derail negative comments, the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Mr. Tiruneh Zena, said that a pardon is a privilege, not a right. Therefore he says that passing the bill would not be harmful to gays and lesbians, and he stated that it should not affect the LGBT community in any significant way.
Thirty-eight countries in Africa criminalize homosexuality – approximately 70 percent of the continent. Imprisonment for same-sex acts is currently the law in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, as well as Ethiopia. The death penalty for gay acts is the law in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, parts of Nigeria, Mauritania, and parts of Somalia. Only Mali, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, and South Africa consider homosexual acts legal, and in South Africa, it is in fact legal to marry a same-sex spouse. The other African nations have contradictory laws, for example, in Angola there are laws against discrimination, but people are jailed for homosexual acts.
Anti-gay sentiment and legislation is becoming more prominent throughout Africa. In Ethiopia, homosexuality is not discussed openly – not even by human rights groups. Passing the new bill next week would make the topic more openly discussed and expectations would change in this country within the Horn of Africa. (The Horn of Africa is a peninsula in North East Africa that extends hundreds of miles into the Arabian Sea.)
Ethiopia’s minister for women, children and youth affairs, Zenebu Tadesse, received criticism on social media for a Twitter post attributed to her that denounced Uganda’s recent harsh anti-gay law. She responded that her Twitter account had been hacked and the views were not her own. However, immediately after the Tweet was posted, her Twitter account was removed.
On the other side of the coin, just two years ago, Mr. Gay World featured two black African men for the first time ever; they were from Namibia and Ethiopia. The purpose of the annual competition is both to champion gay rights and to empower homosexual men. The Ethiopian winner, 24-year-old Robel Hailu, has taken an enormous risk in participating in the South African event. In fact, his family found out about their son’s sexual orientation through media reports and has subsequently cut him off completely. While Hailu expected negative reactions, he didn’t expect that his family would disown him. He is a student in South Africa and now feels that he can never return home. He is fortified by the traumatic situation, however, saying that he now wants to speak out about how painful it is to be gay in Ethiopia.
Another gay Ethiopian man, Dr. Dagmawi Woubshet is Ethiopia’s first openly gay Ethiopian professor. He made the list of the ten best professors at Cornell University in New York, where he teaches. His students claim what a fair professor he is, and that, while he gives them difficult questions to ponder in class and through homework, he is dedicated and one of the best professors they have ever had.
The Foundation of International Human Rights Law is the human rights statement created through the aforementioned Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The law speaks of the commitment to human rights in the form of principles, agreements, and domestic law, and includes guaranteed protection for all manner of human rights expressions.
The human rights law expressly states the importance of universal values and the inherent importance of human rights to the entire international community. The law includes fairness, universality, and non-discrimination, applied to everyone, everywhere and always. It speaks of how the entire community belongs to Ethiopia, including African women, men, children, youth, elderly; those living with HIV/AIDS and those with disabilities, both rural and city-dwellers. It continues that, even more than ever before, in a world that faces the threat of divides along racial, economic, and religious lines, these universal principles must be defended: equality, fairness, and justice for all people across all boundaries. It is unclear how the human rights law would work in tandem with the anti-gay bill that imprisons people for same-sex acts without any hope expected of pardon. After next week the country will see the results.
By Fern Remedi-Brown