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The decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to reject an application for observer status from the Coalition of African Lesbians has serious political implications, writes Jane Bennett.

Last year, in Banjul, Alternatives-Cameroun was granted observer status at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (45th Session, May 2009).

Alternatives-Cameroun is an NGO which works to protect people from ‘social exclusion’, and is explicit that the need to address the political, economic, and social vulnerability of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people (especially young people) is high on their agenda.

Some 16 months later, the Coalition of African Lesbians’ (CAL) application for similar status is turned down.

The application is turned down in the same month as the Kampala-based tabloid Rolling Stone publishes (under one Giles Muhame, as editor) a list of 100 people he thinks should ‘be hanged’ for homosexuality; the same month as Bishop (yes, Bishop: the ones who get ordained and serve God in the name of love and faith and hope) Ejiba Yampiale in Kinshasa vows very publicly to ensure the recriminalisation of the ‘spiritual abomination’ of homosexuality; the same month as my friend (who lives in Harare) has a bottle thrown at her head and is taunted and shoved by men bystanders (she is wearing a T-shirt with a slogan about sexual and reproductive health on it); the same month as I sit in a multi-national African group of trans-activists where Michael (no, not his real name; he lives in the SADC region) shakes his head over and over in pain, trying to dislodge the inner craziness of living in a permanently and viciously hostile world; and the same month in which a very pink and almost silly wooden closet (a symbol) standing on the public steps of Jameson Plaza at the University of Cape Town (part of a week long Pride event) gets torched.

It’s fairly certain that in the 16 months between Alternative-Cameroun’s acceptance as observer and the Coalition of African Lesbians’ rejection, violence, discrimination and broad-based hate-mongering against LGBTI African people has not exactly abated. The evidence of concerted and organised attacks against LGBTI organisations and individuals has in fact mounted.

If the people being savaged by the media as ‘devils’ (who should be killed) were members of a faith-based group, would an NGO working to protect their rights be denied access to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights? If the people raped and assassinated as they walked out of club spaces in their own neighbourhoods were attacked because they identified as members of a particular ethnicity, would an NGO working to protect their rights be denied access to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights? If activist organisations were put under police surveillance because the organisation tried to support those outcast by their families because they were paralysed or albino-skinned, would an NGO working to protect their rights be denied access to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights?

If the levels of intimidation, hostility and frankly murderous assaults suffered by LGBTI people in Africa were suffered by any one other ‘constituency’, it’s hard to believe that African peoples of multiple locations, views, and contexts, would not scream out in disgust and outrage. And it’s inevitable that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights would have something to say about what was, and was not, ‘African’.

It’s probable, too, that NGOs defending this beleaguered constituency would be welcomed as observers and celebrated for their courage, insight, dignity, and dedication.

There are a number of reasons for NGOs’ applications for observer status to be turned down at the ACHPR; technical problems with the process or documentation of the application are the usual cause. The ACHPR makes much of its diverse bodies’ overarching commitment to human rights and to the active and vigorous defence of all African people’s dignity, safety, and well-being and has given over 500 NGOs and INGOs with interests in peace-building and human rights protection observer status since 2002.

I have a strong suspicion that it was not technical difficulties which caused the ACHPR to reject CAL’s application for observer status. I suspect that those most powerful in the ACHPR were pleased to have something of a small opportunity to ‘fight back’ against the Western powers who strongly advised the release of Tiwonge and Monjeza, advised against taking the Bahati bill very far, advised against moving to recriminalise homosexuality in Rwanda. I suspect great cowardice among the members responsible for granting - or not granting - observer status (I suspect that they felt their own dignity would be irrevocably compromised were they to recognise the Coalition of African Lesbians). I suspect that the rejection of CAL’s application worked as a helpful platform to reconsolidate alliances whose interests have very little to do with the protection of African people from violence. I suspect most of the people responsible for the rejection gave very little time or thought to the impact of their decision. I suspect some of those responsible for making the decision were a little regretful: it might have been interesting, after all, to have ‘an African lesbian’ or two to watch, in horror and fascination, in some of the more tedious afternoon sessions of debate and discussion…

From where I sit (a very small desk), the political power of the rejection is very serious. Observer status grants NGOs access to ACHPR members, to certain documents, and to the right to dialogue outside formal meeting spaces. Networking here has the potential to benefit everyone. Excluding CAL from this clearly jeopardises conversations already underway on strategic choices around LGBTI legal advocacy and movement building. Years of work may be threatened.

At a symbolic level, the rejection carries a different sort of weight. To be excluded as an ‘observer’ is to be rendered invisible; the message is clear - your body is irrelevant to us. In an environment where LGBTI African people struggle every day against maxims of hate and interpretations about their ‘un-African-ness’, to add a public, trans-national, continental message about LGBTI irrelevance to the pyre is nothing short of inhuman.

The ACHPR decision to reject the CAL application affects me in diverse ways. It forces me to recognise (again) that South Africa’s leadership in volatile human rights discussions is weak; it damages careful work initiated by long-respected colleagues, in different organisational settings; it reinforces the homophobia against which I fight (with and for my students) as a teacher, and writer, every day and it reinforces the idea that this homophobia is ‘African’.

This is the absolutely last thing I need: the vision of powerful, politically smart, well-resourced African men and women throwing the bodies and hearts of our LGBTI daughters, sons, friends, teenagers, grandfathers, and lovers into the dust. Face down.


* Jane Bennett is professor and head of department of the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town. She writes in her personal capacity.
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