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Entries in Uganda (3)

Wednesday
Jan042012

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.

Monday
Oct172011

Obama declares war on Christians, and rightfully so

The Lord's Resistance Army is one of the most horrific terrorist organisations on the planet. In Uganda, Sudan, the Congo and the Central African Republic they have massacared thousands and tortured, raped, disfigured or attacked hundreds of thousands more. And they have done it all in the name of Jesus and the Ten Commandments. For years nothing has been done about the LRA, because 1) we are not meant to speak about terrorist Christians, and 2) the media barely blinks when it is Africans that are being slaughtered. Now Obama is sending in military advisors to help the local governments deal with one of the worst evils rampant today.

Guess the response of the Republicans? From the words of Rush Limbaugh:

Lord's Resistance Army are Christians.  It means God.  I was only kidding.  Lord's Resistance Army are Christians.  They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan.  And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them.  That's what the lingo means, "to help regional forces remove from the battlefield," meaning capture or kill. 

So that's a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and -- (interruption) no, I'm not kidding.  Jacob Tapper just reported it.  Now, are we gonna help the Egyptians wipe out the Christians?  Wouldn't you say that we are?  I mean the Coptic Christians are being wiped out, but it wasn't just Obama that supported that.  The conservative intelligentsia thought it was an outbreak of democracy.  Now they've done a 180 on that, but they forgot that they supported it in the first place.  Now they're criticizing it. 

Lord's Resistance Army objectives.  I have them here.  "To remove dictatorship and stop the oppression of our people." Now, again Lord's Resistance Army is who Obama sent troops to help nations wipe out.  The objectives of the Lord's Resistance Army, what they're trying to accomplish with their military action in these countries is the following:  "To remove dictatorship and stop the oppression of our people; to fight for the immediate restoration of the competitive multiparty democracy in Uganda; to see an end to gross violation of human rights and dignity of Ugandans; to ensure the restoration of peace and security in Uganda, to ensure unity, sovereignty, and economic prosperity beneficial to all Ugandans, and to bring to an end the repressive policy of deliberate marginalization of groups of people who may not agree with the LRA ideology."  Those are the objectives of the group that we are fighting, or who are being fought and we are joining in the effort to remove them from the battlefield. 

Yes, you heard it. Obama puts a small effort into stopping a hideous army who has laid waste to half a country, enslaved children into their army and used the most vile forms of torture imaginable, and Rush Limbaugh attacks Obama simply because the LRA is Christian. Yes, the LRA is Christian, but Obama is right to attack them. Rarely do I support military action, but the LRA is an evil that can be stopped in no other way. I only wish military intervention had started a decade earlier and far more forcefully.

Thursday
Oct132011

Hypocrite of the week, international edition

I was sure that the American government would win "hypocrite of the week" for its faux outrage over the accusations against Manssor Arbabsiar. According to the White House, Mr Arbabsiar was hired by someone within the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. The plans of the Texan Terrorist (Mr Arbabsiar is an American-Iranian dual citizen, living in Texas) for extrajudicial assassination consistute Terrorism, according the US government. Exactly why the extrajudicial assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki by US drones in Yeman is not Terrorism, or why the criminal actions of an American citizen within America require international punishment of Iran, are yet to be explained.  

Sadly, the American government is going to have to settle for second place this week, with the gold medal for hypocricy going to the Ugandan government. In Uganda at the moment there is a huge surge in child sacrifice, with witch-doctors ritually disfiguring and slaughtering children for good luck. Almost no cases are being investigated as the Ugandan government say they do not have enough police resources to commit to the cases. Of course they don't, the Ugandan police are far too busy investigating such crimes as homosexuality, punishable by death. The pios bleating of helplessness in the face of murder would be a lot more believable if there wasn't a simultaneous plague of state-sanctioned violence and murder.