The human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual Africans risk being compromised by a stand-off between the African Union (AU) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

Following a revived debate on homosexuality at the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July the AU gave the ACHPR a deadline of December 31 to withdraw the observer status it had granted to the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) – reflecting the majority position of the AU. 

“The AU argued that CAL does not promote and protect any of the rights enshrined in the African Charter," said Ndubuisi Christian Ani, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa. 

However, this stance has been strongly criticised by African and international human rights bodies and further increased tensions between the AU and the ACHPR.

"Joint retreats between the AU Permanent Representative Committee and the ACHPR have also been tense as a result of this issue,” said the ISS researcher.

The ACHPR is in a quandary, not wanting a backlash from the majority of African states but simultaneously not wanting to be criticised for its failure to protect the rights of gay people and being seen as selective about human rights.

The myth that homosexuality is “un-African” persists and appears to be part of the reasoning behind this homophobia despite research and historical accounts detailing homosexual behaviour in certain pre-colonial and traditional African societies, according to Ani. 

On the continent homosexuality is frequently perceived as both a taboo and an import from the West.

An International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association report shows that in May 2017, 32 out of 54 countries in Africa criminalised homosexual practices. That is nearly half of the 71 countries that criminalise homosexuality worldwide.

South Africa is the only country on the continent where homosexuality is legal. There have been regular, vicious attacks carried out against gay people in Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe in addition to arrests of homosexuals in Tanzania and elsewhere.

African politicians have also exploited the homophobia displayed by some African communities for political gain, making it harder for the commission to protect the human rights of gays in Africa.

The AU’s demand for the withdrawal of CAL’s observer status is not especially surprising. CAL struggled to get observer status from 2008 when it first applied. The application was delayed until 2010 and then rejected.

Finally in 2015, following intense lobbying, its application was accepted. However, the executive council of the AU then requested CAL’s withdrawal.

As the December deadline looms, it is still unclear at this stage whether human rights commission will succumb to the pressure or not by the end of the year

-  African News Agency (ANA)