(New York, February 28, 2007) – A sweepingly homophobic bill being fast-tracked through Nigeria’s National Assembly threatens human rights and Nigeria’s democratic progress, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to lawmakers. Human Rights Watch called on legislators to reject the bill, which would imprison anyone who speaks out or forms a group supporting lesbian and gay people’s rights, and would silence virtually any public discussion or visibility around lesbian and gay lives.
The bill is entitled the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act.” In its last published version, it would impose a five-year prison sentence on anyone who “goes through the ceremony of marriage with a person of the same sex.” Anyone, including a priest or cleric, who “performs, witnesses, aids or abets the ceremony of same sex marriage,” would face the same sentence. It goes beyond that, however, to punish any positive representation of or advocacy for the rights of lesbian and gay people. Anyone “involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private,” would be subject to the same sentence.
The legislation was first introduced in January 2006 by Nigeria’s minister of justice, Bayo Ojo. It lay dormant for months in the National Assembly, as nationwide elections – scheduled for April 2007 – drew near. On February 12, 2007, however, a public hearing was called in the House of Representatives Women’s Affairs Committee with only two days’ notice. A coalition of Nigerian human rights organizations opposed to the bill was initially told it could not address the hearing, as it was by invitation only. Although the groups were later allowed to speak, the bill has apparently moved forward rapidly in both Nigeria’s House and Senate without further public debate. It is reportedly poised for a third reading in the Senate on March 1, after which it could become law.
“If the national assembly can strip one group of its freedoms, then the liberties of all Nigerians are at risk,” said Long. “The secrecy and speed with which this law is being forced forward suggests lawmakers want to hide its threats to Nigeria’s democratic progress.”
The proposed law violates Nigeria’s commitments under international human rights law. These commitments include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Nigeria acceded without reservations in 1993, and which protects the rights to freedom of expression (article 19), freedom of assembly (article 21) and freedom of association (article 22). The ICCPR affirms the equality of all people before the law and the right to freedom from discrimination in articles 2 and 26. In the landmark 1994 case, Toonen v. Australia, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors states’ compliance with the ICCPR, held that sexual orientation should be understood to be a status protected from discrimination under these articles.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights similarly affirms the equality of all people. Its article 2 states: “Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status.” Article 3 guarantees every individual equality before the law. And its article 26 prescribes that: “Every individual shall have the duty to respect and consider his fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance.”
The US State Department released a statement in February 2006 condemning the proposed legislation. It stated it was “concerned by reports of legislation in Nigeria that would restrict or prohibit citizens from assembling, organizing, holding events or rallies, and participating in ceremonies of religious union, based upon sexual orientation and gender identity... The freedoms of speech, association, expression, assembly, and religion are long-standing international commitments and are universally recognized. Nigeria, as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has assumed important obligations on these matters. We expect the Government of Nigeria to act in a manner consistent with those obligations.”
In a March 2006 letter to President Olusegun Obasanjo, a coalition of 16 human rights organizations – in Nigeria, elsewhere in Africa, and internationally – urged him to disavow the bill.
On February 23, 2007 four United Nations independent experts on human rights also condemned the bill. They stated, “In addition to clear elements of discrimination and persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, the Bill contains provisions that infringe freedoms of assembly and association and imply serious consequences for the exercise of the freedom of expression and opinion.” They added that it would “have a chilling effect for local human rights defenders who undertake peaceful advocacy on the adverse human rights implications of the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.”