In an open letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, the organization called AIDS-Free World wants answers to questions about how the UN will deal with Nigeria after the adoption of a sweeping law broadening the criminalization of homosexuality. Nigeria has the second-largest number of people globally infected with HIV-AIDS, and while the disease has become a heterosexual phenomenon in numerous countries, reaching men who have sex with men is still a high priority in the UN system.
The Nigerian law, signed into force early in January by President Goodluck Jonathan, strengthens legislation already on the books against homosexuality. It not only prohibits same-sex marriage but also covers activities supporting lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) people, including “gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings in Nigeria.” Conviction under the law carries a 10-year prison term.
The Nigerian law — the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act — drew immediate criticism from United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in a statement on Jan. 13 that the US was “deeply concerned” by the move.
“Beyond even prohibiting same sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians,” Kerry said, reflecting Obama administration policy. “Moreover, it is inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the protections enshrined in its 1999 Constitution. People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality. No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love.”
Ban, who has been visiting Syrian refugee camps in the Middle east, warned against potential dangers the law could unleash. “The Secretary-General fears that the law may fuel prejudice and violence, and notes with alarm reports that police in northern Nigeria have arrested individuals believed by the authorities to be homosexuals, and may even have tortured them,” Ban’s press office said in a statement.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, called the Nigerian law “draconian” and said it would violate multiple rights of Nigerians.
UNAIDS joined in condemning the law on Jan. 14, saying: “The new law could prevent access to essential HIV services for LGBT people who may be at high risk of HIV infection, undermining the success of the Presidential Comprehensive Response Plan for HIV/AIDS, which was launched by President Goodluck Jonathan less than a year ago. The health, development and human rights implications of the new law are potentially far-reaching. . . . The provisions of the law could lead to increased homophobia, discrimination, denial of HIV services and violence based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. It could also be used against organizations working to provide HIV prevention and treatment services to LGBT people.”
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation at 169 million, becomes the latest in a series of countries to set back gay people’s rights. In December, India’s Supreme Court reimposed British colonial-era laws against homosexuality. In Uganda, where gay people have faced violence and in some cases death at the hands of anti-gay activists, legislation criminalizing homosexuality was turned down recently by the president. Homophobia is also an issue in several countries in the English-speaking Caribbean.
In 2012, an estimated 3.4 million people were living with HIV in Nigeria, UNAIDS says. In 2010, the organization found that HIV prevalence in Nigeria was estimated at 4 percent among the general population and 17 percent among men who have sex with men.
In their open letter to the UN, the founders and co-directors of AIDS-Free World — Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat who later became deputy executive director of Unicef and then the first UN envoy for AIDS in Africa, and Paula Donovan, a former Unicef worldwide programs director and regional adviser on HIV-AIDS in East and Southern Africa — posed urgent questions demanding answers, including what instructions have been given to UN staff about operating under the new Nigerian law and whether funds allocated to Nigeria under the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria should be suspended until the law is revoked.
AIDS-Free World also questioned whether Nigeria will be banned from holding any future global or regional meetings organized or supported by the UN, and whether the UN will host, support or attend HIV-related meetings in Nigeria “despite the fact that LGBT issues and representatives will be excluded by law from such meetings”; and if any meetings go ahead, how will the UN principle of Greater Involvement of People Living With HIV be accommodated.
“We are aware that UN staff are immune from arrest and prosecution under this new law and will, in theory, be able to meet internally to discuss policy and programs for marginalized and vulnerable LGBT,” AIDS-Free World said in its letter. “But such meetings would now be pointless, since they can neither involve nor benefit LGBT in the country. In fact, to invite representatives of LGBT organizations to such meetings would be to court their imprisonment.”
Finally, the letter to the UN asked: “Will the UN Secretariat be asking the government of Nigeria voluntarily to relinquish the Security Council seat it assumed on 2 January 2014, until such time as the Member State is no longer acting in violation of its international obligations?”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.