The way we tackle human rights in Africa is simply not working

Africa, as I am sure you are aware, is a continent with a very dubious human rights record.  While many countries have improved such as South Africa, there are a number of countries that appear in the news for the very wrong reasons. For instance, we see political corruption in many of these countries, most notably Zimbabwe and we also see the passing of laws that are hostile towards certain groups within society. Uganda, is the most recent of these countries to have passed a controversial piece of legislation.

On Monday, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill introducing tougher penalties for people who engage in homosexual activity. If found guilty, the punishment is life in prison. On a more positive note, the death penalty clause was removed but this has not removed the fear that now faces many in the country. One person said they were ‘very scared’ and said ‘I don’t know what going to happen’. Prior to this bill, homosexuality was already banned in Uganda. US President Barack Obama has called it a backward step and William Hague stated that he was ‘deeply saddened and disappointed’.

What happened yesterday however, was more disturbing. The national newspaper Red Pepper listed 61 known homosexuals under the headline ‘Exposed!’ and promised to name around 200 known homosexuals.  These included openly gay activists such as Pepe Julian Onziema and a Ugandan Hip-Hop star. The paper is not one of the most respected, but is read by a large portion of the population. It is unclear what the public response to this will be.

Britain has made it known that African nations that pass such types of legislation will be treated as human rights violators. Earlier last week, Britain and other Western nations urged the Ugandan president to veto the bill. He faced pressure from his own parliament to pass the bill.

Simply, condemning these pieces of controversial legislation seems to have a very small (if any) impact on the leaders behind it. The US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly criticised Nigeria for passing a similar law to that of Uganda. You could easily ask yourself what difference has it made? For years, there have been problems about Africa. When asked, politicians show their concerns, but we have not really seen any successful action in dealing with the problems.

In African countries such as Uganda, there are growing communities of a more liberal, Western – leaning middle class which is open to more alternative lifestyles. Therefore it can be said that African governments need to adapt to this growing class of people it is there to represent.

Is there any action that Western powers could take? In both the US and Britain there is growing support to cut of international aid with Uganda. The US gives Uganda $400 million a year while Britain gives £107 million. It seems unlikely though that this will happen as it is unclear what  may happen to these developing countries without international aid. One thing is clear. The current way of dealing with human rights in Africa is not working. To create results, a new method might be needed.

Ben Callaghan



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