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Promoting universal human rights is not cultural imperialism

In the past few months have heralded a titanic shift in international gay rights. In October, advancing international gay rights was a topic of conversation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron stating that gay rights in Africa is a major concern, and that respect for gay rights should influence foreign aid decisions. Then in December the US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement indicating a similar shift in US foreign policy, that the US would use all of the tools of American foreign diplomacy to promote international gay rights and fight criminalisation of sexuality. 

These statements were aimed squarely at Africa, where gay rights have lagged behind the rest of the world, and in particular countries like Uganda, where gay rights are actively being destroyed. In Uganda there has been a major backlash in response to these comments, such as from John Nagenda, a senior Presidental advisor, who said in response "Homosexuality here is taboo, it’s something anathema to Africans, and I can say that this idea of Clinton’s, of Obama’s, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of.” One Ugandan commentator summed up the response: "It is unfortunate that Uganda is now being judged on the actions of opportunists whose ideas are based on violence and blackmail and even worse, on the actions of aid attached strings. It is regrettable that government is pretentiously expected to observe their 'human rights', yet, by their own actions, they have surrendered their right to human rights."

Persecutors of homosexuality, both in Africa and in developed nations, commonly shout "cultural imperalism" or "ex-colonial mentality" to defend their "right" to kill gays. Cultural imperalism is a major problem, and leaders like David Cameron do show signs of a deep-seated racism in their policy decisions. However defending gay rights in Africa does not met any of the criteria for cultural imperalism, for three reasons.

Firstly, universal human rights is not a "Western construct". It is too easy for non-Western governments to claim that the human rights agenda is simply an import of Western values. This is a cop-out, and disgracefully ignores the non-Western contribution to the concept of human rights. To understand the basis of universal human rights we need to accept the contribution of multiple historical strands, which independently derived universal rights and built on each other. Ancient Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism and Confusionism all sewed the seeds for individual rights. Early Islamic scholarship, the European enlightenment, the American Revolution and the labour movement all built on these foundations. The leading figures in the modern human rights movement were global - from Gandhi in India, Mandela in Africa, and Martin Luther King in America. Today if you are looking for beacons of gay rights you can include countries from South Africa to Argentina to Nepal. In fact, only half of the people who live in countries allowing gay marriage are in Europe or North America; universal rights has been a global collaborative venture. 

Secondly, African homophobia is actually the cultural import. Ironically, those people who scream "cultural imperalism" when they are asked not to kill gays in Africa are actually defending a cultural import. The virulent anti-gay culture is based on the British import of Christianity and the recent evangelical campaign from America. In fact, African leaders such as Nelson Mandela have been among the bravest politicians in the world in standing up for gay rights. In short, there is nothing authentically "African" about wanting to kill gays. 

Thirdly, Gay rights is (sadly) not "Western culture". Western countries do not have a long history of accepting homosexuality. As previously mentioned, they actively exported homophobia; sexuality equality is a recent development that has grown from the concept of universal human rights. In the case of Uganda, the two main imperial players have been the UK and America. Both have a long history of persecuting people based on their sexuality. Removal of persecuation of homosexuality started in 1967 in the UK, with equal sexual rights only achieved in 2003. The US was even worse, with laws against homosexuality standing until 2003 and discrimination laws still in place in parts of the country today. Neither country today provides for full equity. 

When conservative thugs try to excuse their thuggery by citing "culture" it is tempting to simply echo the sentiment of Charles Napier, the British General who stopped the practice of suttee in India: "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs." With both telling and pithy, we can come up with a better attack than this. Mrs Clinton is exactly right when she argues that gay rights are like other universal human rights, transending cultural, religious and national boundaries. Afterall, "universal" does not mean "everyone but the gays".

Most people would argue that the right to maintain your culture is also a universal right. This I would agree with, and for example I have actively defended the right of Islamic women to wear the headscarf or burqa, even though I disagree with the practice. So how is wearing a burqa different from imprisoning gays? Quite simply, the right to maintain your culture is a personal right. If you want to wear a burqa or a kippah based on your culture, go ahead. If you want to hate gays or women based on your religion, that is your right. But, and this is a big but, everyone else also has the right to maintain their own personal culture and rights. Cultural rights do not only go to straight male bigots. Women have the right to wear a burqa if they chose; no-one has the right to force them to wear a burqa against their will. A gay evangelical can chose to punish himself for violating his own religion, or even seek out punishment from his church, or he can chose to accept his sexuality - it is a personal decision.

Conservative thugs always invoke their culture or tradition when defending their right to persecute others. Whether it is slave owners invoking culture for keeping slaves, men invoking culture for dominating women or heterosexuals invoking culture for persecuting homosexuals, we can't let them get away with it. Their personal right to culture and tradition does not over-ride everyone else's rights to their own free choice in culture and tradition. If an Islamic woman wants to say that she is making a cultural choice to wear a mini-skirt, or a Ugandan woman decides to live openly as a lesbian, then that is her choice, and her choice alone. We are ethically bound to support those choices.

Reader Comments (5)

What's this? A blogpost by Adrian I completely agree with!

Wow, looks like anything is possible in 2012

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCedricvd

You tempt me to lock comments and edit the post into an anti-N-VA post ;)

January 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

Better delete that last comment of yours then while you do that ;-)
Btw your Captcha comment protection is really difficult!

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCedricvd

...something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of...

I guess he couldn't think of South Africa.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLydia

We have equal rights as human being. And whatever path we chose, just be responsible on the possibilities whether it be good or bad. -Sarah-

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShort Run Printing

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