Uganda’s President Museveni signed the long-heralded Anti-Homosexuality Act into law this week, reinforcing the existing legal repression of homosexuality there. Uganda thus joins many other countries which seem to be re-emphasising or strengthening the legal and lawful harassment of people because of their sexuality. It is not just an African phenomenon. I was in Tbilisi last year when violent anti-gay demonstrations took place; and Russian political and civil society seems overwhelmingly anti-gay, from recent news coverage.
From a human rights perspective, this is plain wrong, even though I recognise that from a cultural perspective, the majority of Ugandans (96%, apparently) and others do still seem to believe that homosexuality is as wrong, just as I believe their intolerance, marginalisation, harassment and intimidation of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people is wrong.
I’m a supporter of democratic governance, in which laws should be passed by an elected parliament or similar assembly, reflecting the views, values and interests of the electors. But I feel no discomfort in arguing against the laws of this nature which reflect a majority view in Uganda or wherever else, because democracy does not mean majoritarianism. Governments represent every citizen, not just those who voted for them. A fundamental element of democracy is that MPs, the judiciary and the executive have a common and separate duty to pay attention to the needs and rights of minority groups; and where they don’t, civil society has to step in and remind them.
Many of the countries which outlaw LGBT behaviour are what’s known as 'fragile and conflict-affected countries' (FCAC), thus of interest to peacebuilders such as myself. Peacebuilders tend to be seekers of compromise. In the rich tapestry made up of different forms and types of civic activism, peacebuilders are often more able to turn a blind eye to imperfections in the search for a workable compromise than, say, human rights campaigners who might take a more absolute approach. So one might expect us to turn a blind eye to the intolerance and repression of LGBT people and communities in fragile contexts – as indeed we so often have done, sometimes saying that there are more pressing issues or interest groups to attend to with regard to peace processes. But this wave of new or newly-reinforced laws targeting LGBT behaviour and identity seems like an important reminder that this is an inadequate response, and here are four core practical reasons why.
Marginalisation creates conflicts. First, on a very basic level, marginalising and criminalising the identity and behaviours of particular groups of people creates unresolved (and unresolvable) conflicts in society. If a peaceful society is one in which conflicts are managed and where possible resolved, then a society which creates unresolvable conflicts is by definition not at peace: this makes the issue of intrinsic interest to peacebuilding.
Intolerance begets violence. Second, a society which mistreats its minorities – of whatever stripe – because of the features which define them as minorities (and provided they are not, by virtue of their minority identity markers, harming people), is an intolerant society. An intolerant society is one more likely to solve its differences and conflicts – whatever they may be about – through repression and violence; and repression and violence tend to beget more violence. Tolerance is intrinsic to peace, and so intolerance is of intrinsic interest to peacebuilders.
The majority shoots itself in the foot. Third, by marginalising a group of people, any community reduces its ability to contribute good ideas, along with economic, political, social and cultural value to the common good. So it is undermining its own ability to make progress, to the detriment of all members in the long run.
Hurting others hurts the hurters. Fourth, a society which mistreats minority groups does so through the actions of its institutions and individuals. However strongly the belief running through society that this or that identity or behaviour is wrong, surely the act of marginalising, repressing or otherwise harming individuals damages the perpetrators, making them less effective members of the community and contributors to the public good? It certainly undermines the ability of the institutions involved to treat others fairly, enable good, balanced decisions in the public interest – in a word, corrupting them.
Of course these four reasons are in addition to the much more basic issue which is that all human rights infringements are wrong, wherever they take place, and ought to be challenged.
While it is clearly important for peacebuilders to pay more attention to the marginalisation and repression of LGBT people, it’s not always so obvious how we should do so. It’s been said that one of the reasons that pushed Museveni to sign the new law this week was the reaction of people in his power base to foreign (aka Western) interference. So it’s not obvious that outside peacebuilding organisations can or should try to tackle the issue head-on. Indeed, my own experience is that in many countries international organisations’ partner organisations, and often their own local staff, may be more aligned with Museveni’s view than with mine. So we do have to tread carefully. But we cannot keep ignoring the issue as we have too often done before.