Ministers from 52 African countries signed a declaration in late October, stating that their national laws take precedence over international human rights norms with regard to sexuality and public health. Some human rights activists have interpreted the phrasing to be a veiled rejection of the right to nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The declaration -- which was the outcome document from the African Conference on Population and Development held in Addis Ababa -- was meant to highlight commitments to fulfill health and development goals. The international community of states has long accepted that the achievement of these goals depends on the implementation of human rights. Moreover, international human rights law does not accept national legislation as a legitimate justification for the limitation of rights.
Human rights law is a set of rules that countries voluntarily sign up for, and African states have signed up for. There is no ambiguity in the law in terms of protection against discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity: human rights law requires all discrimination to end immediately, regardless of national laws.
The African declaration is an outlier and woefully out of step with international human rights standards and actions of governments round the globe. In August 2013, government representatives from Latin American and Caribbean countries declared the need to take diverse sexualities into account when crafting public policies on health and development, and highlighting their commitment to push for sexual rights, nondiscrimination, and the provision of comprehensive sexuality education. In September, government representatives in Asia and the Pacific committed to work to end discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Moreover, at the African Commission on Human Rights, the non-governmental forum adopted thematic resolutions to condemn violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people both in 2009 and in 2013.
When we talk about the right to nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, we are not talking about a fringe entitlement. These governments are not only out of step with international standards; they are also out of step with their colleagues from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas, and with many in their own countries as well. It's time to get up-to-date!
The author may be reached at Dugwu@IGLHRC.org