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RGOD2: Important conversations on LGBT rights in Africa come to an end

As the public part of the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights comes to a close today in the Gambia, we await the deliberations and formal adoption of some important resolutions that will positively or negatively impact millions of LGBT Africans and their allies.

The organization of this very impressive gathering come under the very capable hands of Madame Hanna Foster and a small and dedicated staff based here in Banjul in the Gambia. The commission is an instrument of the African Union and is the place where civil society and even states can challenge each other for human rights violations, interstate disputes and failure to comply with African Charter and other international treaties.

For LGBT Africans, it is one of the most important forums on the continent where their issues can be heard, alliances and reconciliation created, and hopefully, some of their grievances and fears addressed. It is a highly politicized environment where states are reviewed by their peers and Special Rapporteurs can be sent by the commission into countries to investigate complaints or take these complaints to higher levels where governments can be embarrassed enough that they agree to make changes to their laws and practices to conform to these agreed international standards.

We not only heard about the many examples of violations, treatment of political opposition members or lack of freedom of the press, but we also heard about simple problems like a failure to get a response from a state because the email address of the person responsible for these issues had changed or the commission only had five legal researchers when the African Union budget had promised 15. With all the strains and imperfections, the meetings of first, the Civil Society organizations followed by a formal gathering of the commission was a candid and open discussion of a dynamic continent seeking to build a multicultural, tolerant, just and economically vibrant Africa.

For several years, the African LGBT community (preferring the name SOGI, or Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) has been making progress with the 11 elected members of the commission and the 38 African states where homosexuality is still taboo, illegal and extremely misunderstood. This year under the strategic direction of AMSHeR (African Men for Sexual Health and Rights), almost 50 participants focused on the important passage of a SOGI resolution from the NGO Forum to the commission itself for adoption. Other International organizations including Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association (interested in human rights abuses in Darfur, for example), Robert F. Kennedy Center, IGLHRC and this year, the San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation, can participate in the NGO Forum, share in the interest group discussions, and make recommendations and resolutions that are to be considered in the commission itself.

The public meetings of the commission end today and they will be meeting in private session through Nov. 5, so the resolutions remain confidential and just because an interest group, i.e. SOGI, makes a resolution, does not mean to say it will be actually adopted by the commission in its final public report. The resolutions and recommendations are then fed to the heads of state to be discussed and voted upon, but the strength of this process lies in the fact that all of the difficult issues are on public record and each country has to live with its own profile including those with well documented human rights abuses.

These public documents of the African Union can also influence a country’s standing with the United Nations and the World Bank, so we saw government delegations from places like Cameroon where the Justice Minister and a cadre of diplomatic staff are assigned to publically respond to criticism and a possible international visit from the commission itself to further investigate human rights abuses.

The Cameroonian situation and broad human rights abuses, LGBT persecution and the treatment of prisoners, for example, were addressed eloquently by Patience Ngo Mbeh of REDHAC, a human-rights defender organization in Douale who moved to the podium to represent several LGBT organizations from Cameroon. These were also hoping to address the conference themselves but because of time constraints, a possible 20-minute SOGI presentation was reduced to three minutes from a straight ally.

The other powerful image of this straight ally addressing the well-documented persecution and imprisonment of LGBT people and human-rights activists was that she was very pregnant. Her son will be born in the next 10 days, so we were all impressed by her commitment to fly here and to represent all human-rights defenders including LGBT. Patience was one of two people sponsored by St. Paul’s, the Advocates for Human Rights, ADEFO, CAMFAIDS and international supporters. A Shadow Report was prepared and shared with commissioners and delegates as well as a very powerful official statement from REDHAC itself (Le Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale). Copies of the statement are also available online.

It was an honor to live and work closely with these wonderful human rights defenders and the six representatives from Cameroon worked extremely hard to tell their stories, speak with government and Commission representatives and network among other NGOs . One of the weaknesses in the current African network on SOGI and ally organizations was a robust Francophone program. One SOGI representative from Burkina Faso looked at ways the Francophone community could catch up with the progress made in English speaking countries, so last night and this morning several important discussions took place at out hotel led by the Cameroonian delegation. They hope to establish a common Internet platform to share information, translate a lot of great resources into French for each other and have a robust French speaking presence at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Australia.

So today, as we prepare to depart, we are hopeful that the hard work of the past 10 days will pay off and the commission will not only make recommendations on the SOGI resolution for the whole of Africa, but will help to repair the human rights abuses in Cameroon and begin a process of engagement and dialogue with their government on the needs for protection, security, access to health and legal services for all their citizens. We will not know for several weeks if our work will bear fruit in the way we would hope.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.