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LGBT and Peacebuilding

February 26, 2014

Uganda’s President Museveni signed the long-heralded Anti-Homosexuality Act into law this week, reinforcing the existing legal repression of homosexuality there. Uganda thus joins many other countries which seem to be re-emphasising or strengthening the legal and lawful harassment of people because of their sexuality. It is not just an African phenomenon. I was in Tbilisi last year when violent anti-gay demonstrations took place; and Russian political and civil society seems overwhelmingly anti-gay, from recent news coverage.

From a human rights perspective, this is plain wrong, even though I recognise that from a cultural perspective, the majority of Ugandans (96%, apparently) and others do still seem to believe that homosexuality is as wrong, just as I believe their intolerance, marginalisation, harassment and intimidation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) people is wrong.

I’m a supporter of democratic governance, in which laws should be passed by an elected parliament or similar assembly, reflecting the views, values and interests of the electors. But I feel no discomfort in arguing against the laws of this nature which reflect a majority view in Uganda or wherever else, because democracy does not mean majoritarianism. Governments represent every citizen, not just those who voted for them.  A fundamental element of democracy is that MPs, the judiciary and the executive have a common and separate duty to pay attention to the needs and rights of minority groups; and where they don’t, civil society has to step in and remind them.

Many of the countries which outlaw LGBT behaviour are what’s known as Fragile and Conflict-Affected  Countries(FCAC), thus of interest to peacebuilders such as myself. Peacebuilders tend to be seekers of compromise. In the rich tapestry made up of different forms and types of civic activism, peacebuilders are often more able to turn a blind eye to imperfections in the search for a workable compromise than, say, human rights campaigners who might take a more absolute approach. So one might expect us to turn a blind eye to the intolerance and repression of LGBT people and communities in fragile contexts – as indeed we so often have done, sometimes saying that there are more pressing issues or interest groups to attend to with regard to peace processes. But this wave of new or newly-reinforced laws targeting LGBT behaviour and identity seems like an important reminder that this is an inadequate response, and here are four core practical reasons why.

Marginalisation creates conflicts. First, on a very basic level, marginalising and criminalising the identity and behaviours of particular groups of people creates unresolved (and unresolvable) conflicts in society. If a peaceful society is one in which conflicts are managed and where possible resolved, then a society which creates unresolvable conflicts is by definition not at peace: this makes the issue of intrinsic interest to peacebuilding.

Intolerance begets violence. Second, a society which mistreats its minorities – of whatever stripe – because of the features which define them as minorities (and provided they are not, by virtue of their minority identity markers, harming people), is an intolerant society. An intolerant society is one more likely to solve its differences and conflicts – whatever they may be about – through repression and violence; and repression and violence tend to beget more violence. Tolerance is intrinsic to peace, and so intolerance is of intrinsic interest to peacebuilders.

The majority shoots itself in the foot. Third, by marginalising a group of people, any community reduces its ability to contribute good ideas, along with economic, political, social and cultural value to the common good. So it is undermining its own ability to make progress, to the detriment of all members in the long run.

Hurting others hurts the hurters. Fourth, a society which mistreats minority groups does so through the actions of its institutions and individuals. However strongly the belief running through society that this or that identity or behaviour is wrong, surely the act of marginalising, repressing or otherwise harming individuals damages the perpetrators, making them less effective members of the community and contributors to the public good? It certainly undermines the ability of the institutions involved to treat others fairly, enable good, balanced decisions in the public interest – in a word, corrupting them.

Of course these four reasons are in addition to the much more basic issue which is that all human rights infringements are wrong, wherever they take place, and ought to be challenged.

While it is clearly important for peacebuilders to pay more attention to the marginalisation and repression of LGBT people, it’s not always so obvious how we should do so. It’s been said that one of the reasons that pushed Museveni to sign the new law this week was the reaction of people in his power base to foreign (aka western) interference. So it’s not obvious that outside peacebuilding organisations can or should try to tackle the issue head-on. Indeed, my own experience is that in many countries international organisations’ partner organisations, and often their own local staff, may be more aligned with Museveni’s view than with mine. So we do have to tread carefully. But we cannot keep ignoring the issue as we have too often done before.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. George permalink
    February 27, 2014 10:17 am

    I don’t understand why it is so difficult for people to accept the will of a society. If 96% of Ugandans don’t accept LGBT what is wrong with that? It does not matter whether you agree or not, that’s what they want. It is their country if you don’t like it go elsewhere. I am sure if Americans were asked to vote for such a law and majority of them voted for (90 %hypothetically), it would become law.
    Most of the laws in many countries are passed by majority vote regardless of what they are about, in this case LGBT lost. But you want to tell us that, that society of over 30m people is wrong. This issue has been dragging on for almost 2 weeks as it’s the most important thing in the world…Common on people move on.

    • February 27, 2014 11:39 am

      Thanks George, point well-taken. I was not really commenting on Uganda as such, merely giving it as an example. However I do continue to believe that as a matter of principle – in my own country as much as anywhere else – the majority should be careful to avoid marginalising any minority. Uganda’s ex-Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi has written very eloquently about this risk associated with majoritarianism in the past. With best regards, Phil

  2. February 27, 2014 2:30 pm

    George, I do hope you’re playing devil’s advocate rather than really being so casually dismissive of a debate “dragging on”. In response to your closing sentence, for people who are living in fear for their livelihoods and/or lives then yes indeed this is going to be the most important thing in the world: their government is propelling them into a life of misery. The ‘96%’ survey, as hyperlinked in the blog above, questioned what must’ve been an average of around 900 people in each of 39 countries. Now I haven’t looked at how they picked that sample group but as there are 36m+ people in Uganda, it can hardly be taken as a veritable reflection. Added to that, it’s widely acknowledged that the Ugandan law came about due to aggressive advocacy from American evangelical groups over a series of years. *That* is not Ugandan people exercising their democratic will.

    As Phil Vernon notes in his well weighted opinion piece, intolerance breeds conflict – and it’s extreme, legislated intolerance in this case. He acknowledges that many people will not be in agreement with his view. Clearly you’re not, but I for one am. Intolerance of diversity is a fundamental barrier to peaceful co-existence. This is something that should concern every one of us regardless of political, religious or sexual persuasion, and regardless of where we live. It’s a fundamental issue of human rights, and rests on having the individual and political maturity to live and let live.

    To quote Chimanda Adichie on a similar situation in Nigeria: “The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems.”

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