Burundi: Government Moves to Criminalize Homosexuality – Activist Groups Express Outrage

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IGLHRC – For Immediate Release, November 24, 2008

(New York, November 24, 2008) – In an unexpected move, the National Assembly of Burundi passed a law on Friday November 21, 2008, making same-sex acts punishable by between 3 months and two years in prison, along with a substantial fine. The following day, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the Association pour le Respect et les Droits des Homosexuels (ARDHO) issued strongly worded letters to the entire membership of Burundi’s Senate, asking them to vote against the legislation, which would criminalize homosexuality for the first time in the history of the country. The Senate may vote on the bill as early as tomorrow and if it passes Burundian President Nkurunziza will likely sign it into law.

IGLHRC and ARDHO also wrote to President Nkurunziza, asking him to veto the legislation should it be presented to him for his signature. Both groups encourage others to contact Burundian authorities to protest the measure.

“Imprisoning people simply because of who they love offends every principle of human rights practice, which is to ensure dignity and respect for all people,” said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s executive director. “This is less about sexuality and more about the visibility of a growing community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Africa refusing to be treated as dirt. These laws are meant to silence and terrorize our community and must be stopped.”

Burundi—a small country in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the south and east, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west—has been locked in an ethnically-based conflict for much of its post-independence history. A negotiated peace settlement, brokered with the assistance of a number of African states, has led to the installation of a multi-party government. The last few years have seen a certain level of reconstruction in the country, increased stability and the emergence of a nascent civil society.

The government of Burundi’s latest move comes in the context of considerable hostility to homosexuality in the region; two-thirds of African nations maintain criminal penalties for consensual same-sex behavior. In recent years several countries, including Nigeria and Uganda, have threatened to strengthen laws against homosexuality. New criminal codes in Zimbabwe broaden the definition of sodomy to include “any act that involves physical contact… that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act.” Several nations, including Burundi, have enacted legislation criminalizing same-sex marriage, though little or no advocacy to promote such marriages has taken place. These laws appear to be emerging in response to an increasingly visible, outspoken, and organized sexual rights movement.

The United Nations has condemned laws that criminalize homosexuality as being violations of the rights to privacy and equality and has called upon member states that maintain such laws to review them. Members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have condemned physical attacks on and the imprisonment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

International and local human rights defenders have expressed grave concern not only about the nature of the current legislation in Burundi, but also about the way in which it has been promulgated. “The government has moved this bill quickly and unjustly through the legislative process,” said a representative of ARDHO. “The whole process has happened over the course of a weekend, with no input from civil society or general discussion about the issue of homosexuality and freedom of expression within Burundi.”

If the current legislation passes, it is likely that the country’s HIV prevention efforts will suffer. Burundi has made commendable efforts to fight HIV and AIDS during the last decade. But IGLHRC’s 2007 report on HIV and AIDS in Africa, Off the Map, demonstrates how laws that criminalize homosexuality drive communities underground, making men who have sex with men less able to access HIV-related prevention information. UNAIDS, the Global Fund and other key international institutions concur.

An action alert related to this issue will be posted on IGLHRC’s website on November 25, 2008. For an update on the status of the legislation in Burundi, or to take action, visit: www.iglhrc.org.




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