Monrovia – The United States has expressed concerns over recent statements attributed to Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf suggesting that Sirleaf is backing a law that criminalizes homosexual acts, saying: “We like ourselves just the way we are.”
Sirleaf reportedly made the statement in a joint interview with former British prime minister Tony Blair, by British newspaper, The Guardian, who was left looking visibly uncomfortable by her remarks, Ms Sirleaf told the Guardian newspaper: “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”
Blair was a champion for the legal equality of gay people, pushing through laws on civil partnerships, lifting a ban on gay people in the armed forces and lowering the age of consent for gay people to 16
A Catholic convert, he called on the pope to rethink his “entrenched” views and offer equal rights to gay people. But gay rights, he said, were not something he was prepared to get involved in as an adviser to African leaders.
Felony penalty underlined in bills
According to The Guardian, Blair refused to give any advice on gay rights reforms. “He let out a stifled chuckle after Ms Sirleaf interrupted him to make it clear that Mr. Blair and his staff were only allowed to do what she said they could.
“AGI Liberia has specific terms of reference … that’s all we require of them,” she said, crossing her arms and leaning back,” The Guardian reported.
Homosexuality is already illegal in 37 African countries. In Uganda, a bill proposing custodial sentences for homosexuality is still being considered, although it no longer contains the provision for the death penalty. Ten women were recently arrested in Cameroon accused of being lesbians, while in Nigeria, homosexual activities are punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Anti-gay activists in Liberia have promoted two new bills. One would amend the penal code to make a person guilty of a second-degree felony if he or she “seduces, encourages or promotes another person of the same gender to engage in sexual activities” or “purposefully engages in acts that arouse or tend to arouse another person of the same gender to have sexual intercourse”, carrying a prison sentence of up to five years.
The second bill – drafted by the ex-wife of the former president Charles Taylor – would make gay marriage a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Jewel Howard Taylor told the Guardian: “\[Homosexuality] is a criminal offence. It is un-African.”
She went on to say: “It is a problem in our society. We consider deviant sexual behavior criminal behavior. “We are just trying to strengthen our local laws. This is not an attempt to bash homosexuals.”
Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman, acknowledged this week that the U.S. is aware of Sirleaf’s comments. “Frankly, we’ve only seen them in reported sources, so – but I think there should be no doubt where the Administration is, where the Secretary of State is personally on LGBT issues, particularly after her extremely strong speech in Geneva.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva recently that : “Gay rights are human rights”. A memo from the Obama administration directs US government agencies to consider gay rights when making aid and asylum decisions. Similar policies already exist for gender equality and ethnic violence.
“It should never be a crime to be gay,” Mrs Clinton said at the UN in Geneva, adding that a country’s cultural or religious traditions was no excuse for discrimination. Her audience included representatives from countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence.
In October, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion that aid could be cut to countries that did not recognize gay rights was condemned by several African countries where homosexual acts are banned, including Ghana, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Nigeria became the latest African country attempting to tighten homosexuality laws, with the Senate passing a bill banning same-sex marriages. Before it becomes law, it must be passed by the lower chamber and then signed by the president.
The announcement, described by the White House as the “first US government strategy to combat human rights abuses against gays and lesbians abroad”, is also being seen as part of the Obama administration’s outreach to gays and lesbians ahead of the 2012 election.
U.S. ‘Will be following up’
The official memorandum does not outline consequences for countries with poor records on gay rights. But it allows US agencies working abroad to consult with international organizations on discrimination.
“Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world,” Mrs Clinton said in Geneva. “Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality.”
The issue has once again resurfaced in the wake Sirleaf’s statement to The Guardian with the State Department pledging to take the matter up with the Liberian government.
“I would expect that we probably will be following up to find out whether the reporting is accurate and express some surprise and concern. I think if there were major pieces of legislation that discriminated against any group, we would have to take that into account in our relationship and it would be a cause for concern,” Nuland said.