The Shame of Ethiopia

One of the topics that the Ethiopian government has long been obscure about is the gay rights issue.

The regime adopted the existing anti-gay laws from the Penal Codes of its predecessors when it assumed power back in 1991.  Later on, it absorbed these laws into the existing Criminal Code that was revised and enacted in 2005.

The Articles 629 and 630 of this Criminal Code under the section “Crimes Against Moral and the Family” (subsection “Sexual Deviations”) stipulate that, anyone caught with same-sex acts will be punished “with simple imprisonment of not less than a year”, or “in grave cases, rigorous imprisonment of up to 15 years”.

Here, it’s worthy to note that by “grave cases” it is actually meant sexual harassments and outrages, not necessarily a same-sex relationship between two consenting adults. The subsequent Article 631 is also largely about pedophilia although it is referred as “Homosexual and other Indecent Acts Performed on Minors” – again an obvious mistaken association.

In spite of such defective and open-ended codes, none of the executives that came under this administration were seen to have strictly pursued the gay community by the law, at least officially.

The contradictory stands of the regime, however, did not go unnoticed. Both pro-LGBT and antigay activists are following these discrete developments very closely.

When in 2011 the country was chosen to host the high-profile forum, the International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA), members of LGBT groups were also allowed to hold their own pre-conference meeting to the dismay of religious leaders & anti-gay activists.

In fact, it’s to be recalled that officials from the Ministry of Health–at the time headed by Tedros Adhanom (Phd), current Minister of Foreign Affairs–met with the religious leaders in a closed meeting, moments before they were due to hold a press conference, in which the clerics were ultimately convinced to postpone their dissent.

Such developments were certainly welcomed by gay Ethiopians, not to mention the credit it would fetch the regime from the international community.

And for those observing these turn of events, it usually comes easy to conclude that in a nation where nearly everybody is antigay, the lack of gay rights isn’t because of the administration’s shortcomings but due to the strong followings of the ultra-conservatives.

Actually, the regime implicitly conveys such vindication whenever it’s confronted with this issue on international reviews.

On the same year before the ICASA conference, the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee probed the Ethiopian government about the protection of homosexuals, when it considered the country’s performance report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Concerning homosexuality, the fact that homosexuals were not pursued by the law did not mean they were not discriminated against,” probed an expert from the Committee, ”There was a feeling that homosexuals preferred to hide. Could Ethiopia do something to protect these individuals?”

Fisseha Yimer

Fisseha Yimer

The Ethiopian delegation, led by Ambassador Fisseha Yimer, Special Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia replied that concerning sexual orientation, it was not in a position to respond further to the questions raised by the Committee. There was no possibility of changing the law on this subject at present. However, Ethiopia did not question in any way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protected all persons.

By way of such equivocal stands, the government has managed to tiptoe around the gay rights issue for far too long now – and thus far, both the local and international pro-LGBT community had been sympathetic to the difficult situation the regime operates in.

Well that’s about to change now.

As the rest of the world progresses toward protecting gay rights and marriage equality, what has been happening in Ethiopia over the last few years is quite to the contrary.

There hasn’t been any positive change on the social attitude toward homosexuality.  If anything, what has become more visible is the misinformation of homophobic activists circulating on the local media, which has intensified the gay bashing in a scale never seen before.

Moreover, human rights issues aside, gay Ethiopians are still not recognized in the national health programs and remain vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and other STDs.

These realities made one thing clear – the government needs to be hard-pressed before it starts working on programs that better serve the LGBT community.

Patricia Haslach

Patricia Haslach

Perhaps, this might very well be the reason why the current United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, Patricia Haslach vowed to make gay rights one of her priorities during her tenure. “I will be committed to promoting our efforts and policy approach on gender-based violence and discrimination against the LGBT community”, said the Ambassador on a speech she gave before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations back on July of last year.

And the current year couldn’t have started any wackier, from the fiasco of Minister Zenebu Tadesse’s tweets and a regime-affiliated bodies calling for antigay protest, to the rather upsetting news of the late about lawmakers trying to make same-sex acts a non-pardonable offence.

It’s becoming apparent that when push comes to shove, the government is capable to sacrifice the gay community in favor of soothing the mainstream. But such moves will certainly go down as one of the greatest shames of Ethiopia!

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