While the citizens of the United States decide their nation’s direction Tuesday, the 193 members of the United Nations also have an important vote: The U.N. is dealing with a serious human rights concern involving the human rights of LGBTQIA people versus the sovereignty rights of Africans to handle their own internal affairs on their own terms. Tuesday will tell whether Botswana's U.N. ambassador, Charles Ntwaagae, and the representatives of several African nations are successful in pushing the U.N. to stop its first expert LGBT human rights monitor.
The U.N.’s Human Rights Council on Sept. 30 appointed Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand to the new job, which lasts for three years. (The council’s vote to establish the post was 23-18, with six abstentions, far from harmonious agreement that the new gig was necessary or wanted.)
Ntwaagae is speaking for the 54-member African Group, which wrote the resolution (pdf) presented to the world body this past Friday. (It’s not clear what the vote was among the continent’s individual countries.) This African bloc to block—which would postpone the HRC resolution establishing the post and, in effect, suspend Muntarbhorn—could undermine the council.
From the Associated Press:
Ntwaagae said African nations "are alarmed" that the [United Nations] Human Rights Council is delving into national matters and attempting to focus on people "on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviors, while ignoring that intolerance and discrimination regrettably exist in various parts of the world, be it on the basis of color, race, sex or religion, to mention only a few."
African nations are also concerned that sexual orientation and gender identity are being given attention "to the detriment of issues of paramount importance such as the right to development and the racism agenda," he said.
Ntwaagae said African countries want to stress that sexual orientation and gender identity "are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments."
This dodge is not an uncommon one around the world. Back to AP:
The U.N. has worked to improve the rights of the LGBT community in recent years but has repeatedly run into opposition from some member states—especially from countries in the Middle East and Africa as well as China and Russia. According to a U.N. human rights report last year, at least 76 countries retain laws used to criminalize and harass people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, including laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships among adults.
This article is written in America, a land in which African people were only freed first by a civil war and, 100 years later, by a freedom struggle bathed in bloodshed. This nation is absolutely in no position to judge. Gays have been openly serving in the U.S. military for only five years. And almost half the country is going to the polls Tuesday to try to elect a lunatic because their economic condition did not improve while they watched a black president with a Kenyan-Muslim name place a Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court who voted for gay marriage a little over a year ago. This nation has only begun to deal with its human rights issues, which range from the shooting of unarmed black men by police to harassment of LGBTQIA youths attempting to serve in the armed forces without sexual assault or harassment of any type.
The African Group is right, of course, to talk about putting African development and the elimination of racism at the top of its agenda. However, its resolution, speaking politely, displays a sadly traditional aspect of Pan-African unity: the easy unison of keeping the status quo, of not shaking the foundations of land, history and culture.
Central to Pan-Africanism is the idea that Africa, as a continent, decides its own political, social, cultural and economic directions. But this hyperconnected, socially evolving world is becoming a planet of great personal diversity and personal self-determination, all driven with great social speed by the various ways that human beings (are choosing to) now openly define themselves. And in the 21st century, all nations must agree that their citizens should live—and, yes, love—without discrimination, violence or the threat of violence.
Pan-Africanism, then, as a movement for liberation and self-determination, cannot deny individual self-determination, period. Culture and tradition cannot trump human rights. But how to define human rights is still up for debate, whether it’s China’s unwillingness to allow its citizens to use an uncensored web, or Syria’s bloody civil war designed to hold on to old ways of governing, of thinking, at all costs.
So although this forthcoming U.N. vote is just a small example of struggles over gender identity and sexual orientation that the entire world will continue to deal with well after Tuesday, and well into this African century, things don’t have to fall apart in order for Africans to have a 21st-century debate about the various definitions of freedom. But it seems that dealing with the United Nations and its evolving concept of human rights, like it or not, should be a good place to start.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.