(New York) - Recent homophobic statements by religious leaders and government authorities risk undermining Zambia's fight against HIV/AIDS, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Zambian leaders on May 17, 2010.
Human Rights Watch called on government authorities to condemn statements that could discourage men who have sex with men from seeking health care and erode their fundamental human rights, and to reaffirm the importance of HIV testing and treatment for these men. The letter also called on the Zambian Parliament to amend the Penal Code to decriminalize consensual sexual conduct among adults.
"Zambia has a strong track record on addressing HIV/AIDS," said Joseph Amon, Health and Human Rights director at Human Rights Watch. "However, promoting intolerance and creating a climate of fear will only sabotage efforts to ensure access to HIV prevention and treatment by driving men underground."
Zambian religious leaders and government authorities have in recent weeks made a series of statements in the media condemning homosexuality. For example, while the National AIDS Council acknowledged in 2009 the "urgent need" to include men who have sex with men in national AIDS strategies, its chairman, Bishop J.H.K. Banda, recently criticized donor countries for speaking out on behalf of the Zambian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population. Banda characterized the donor countries' efforts as being "against the traditional values of the country."
The statements from Zambian authorities and religious leaders come on the heels of homophobic statements and violence in neighboring countries. In March, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe condemned efforts to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in the new Constitution, saying that people engaging in homosexual behavior are "destroying nationhood." He has previously referred to homosexuals as "worse than dogs and pigs."
In February, vigilante violence broke out against suspected homosexuals in Kenya as a mob targeted a government health center providing HIV/AIDS services. In Malawi, in January, two individuals who conducted an engagement ceremony were put on trial under a law criminalizing homosexual conduct. Uganda introduced a draft "anti-homosexuality" bill in October 2009, which includes the death penalty for certain offenses.
However, there are strong and growing domestic and regional movements on the continent advocating for the rights of LGBT people and other marginalized groups, and there is increasing momentum for tolerance and human rights. For example, in 2009, Rwanda decided not to criminalize consensual same-sex conduct among adults, and South Africa's Constitution of 1996 was the first in the world to enshrine protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In contrast to the recent statements in Zambia, HIV strategies and programs worldwide have long recognized the importance of reaching out to all vulnerable and marginalized groups, including men who have sex with men. In addition to the Zambian AIDS Council's own acknowledgement that reaching this group is essential, international actors such as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) have repeatedly described reaching these men as part of HIV prevention and treatment activities as a public health necessity.
Efforts to include men who have sex with men in Zambian HIV testing and treatment programs are also seriously hampered by laws criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct among adults. These laws were imposed on Zambia as a measure of social control under British colonial rule, and they violate domestic as well as international human rights standards. Sections 155, 156, and 158 of Zambia's Penal Code, which criminalize homosexual conduct, stand in direct opposition to the Zambian Constitution, which guarantees every individual the right to privacy and also prohibits discrimination.
"Criminalizing consensual sex between adults is contrary to Zambia's own constitutional protections," Amon said. "Zambia needs to immediately extend legal protection to its LGBT community so it can live up to its human rights commitments."
Zambia's laws criminalizing homosexual conduct also directly violate regional and international human rights standards. International protections of the right to privacy and against discrimination guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Zambia is party, have been authoritatively interpreted to prohibit laws criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct among adults. Regional obligations such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights prohibit discrimination, require the promotion of and respect for "mutual respect and tolerance" among all individuals, and specifically guarantee the right to physical and mental health. All of these rights are threatened by laws criminalizing consensual sexual conduct and by homophobic statements by religious and government leaders.
"There is nothing Zambian about these laws - they are an unjust vestige of an outdated colonial system," Amon said. "Fear and criminalization are ineffective from a public health perspective, and contrary to the rights of Zambians. The government should immediately repeal these laws, and encourage HIV testing and treatment for all."