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After initially trying 'quiet diplomacy', Ghanaian LGBT have formed an alliance with civil society supporters to oppose an increasingly vociferous anti-gay campaign in that country.
International attention has focused on the call by the Chief Minister of the Western Region for the arrest of gays but Ghanaian media has been full of attacks against gays and calls for government action against them has included highly personal attacks on President John Atta Mills. One health NGO reports being asked by the Western Region government to provide names of MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) using its services.
A Coalition Against Homophobia in Ghana (CAHG) was announced yesterday. It says:
"The Coalition has among its objectives to create a friendly rapport between the media and the LGBT community and also educate people to respect the rights of LGBT people’s privacy and human dignity, which is a vital part of fundamental human rights."
"With the help of our local and African Regional allies of Human Rights Defenders, the Coalition will continue to organize against any efforts by hateful groups, institutions, and individuals to demean, blackmail, arrest, or violently assault LGBT individuals."
CAHG says that the increasing homophobic attacks "disgraces Ghana’s image internationally" and warns that if they continue unchecked Ghana faces becoming "a pariah state like Uganda and Zimbabwe".
The Coalition's formation follows criticism that many local human rights activists and bodies were failing to speak out. According to a 22 July Toronto Star article:
"On most issues, Ghana has a fairly vocal human rights activist community. Not so in this instance."
This included the local branch of Amnesty International, whose Director Laurence Amesu would "not take a position on the 'unnatural carnal knowledge' law" and whose website has not carried a statement on the arrest call put out by Amnesty's International Office.
"It seems anyone who attempts to speak out against the apparent human rights violation and the seeming unconstitutional rallying cry is labelled a homosexual. And in a very homophobic society, that is enough to silent critics and continue the rage."
Amongst those failing to offer support was Richard Quason, Deputy Commissioner of the government appointed independent organisation for the safeguarding of human rights in Ghana, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ). However on Monday, the newly appointed Commissioner, Lauretta Lamptey, called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, this following her predecessor who had also publicly supported LGBT human rights.
Ghanaian media has carried a number of opinion pieces strongly speaking out against the attacks - with comment threads showing significant if minority support for LGBT human rights - and the mass circulation, state-owned Daily Graphic this week carried a interview with visiting British Secretary of State for International Development, Stephen O'Brien, who spoke out for LGBT human rights.
According to Washington Blade journalist Chris Johnson, there is confusion over whether the American Embassy in Accra has made any comment. A USAID official told him not, the State Department said yes, but there has been no public statement.
Ghanian media, including television, have carried some interviews with gay people, however the tone of such interviews can be seen in this interview where a common myth also seen in Uganda and other African countries is raised:
"Have you heard about adults having to use pampers because they have lost control of their anal sphincters?"
"Reports are flying virtually every day on front pages of newspapers, promoting fear and hatred against homosexuality."
The calls on the government to further criminalise homosexuality, which have come from various religious leaders and also tribal chiefs, have been mixed with threats against politicians who refuse to denounce homosexuals and opposition attacks on President Mills, with claims that he supports homosexuality. On Ghanaian radio and discussion boards these attacks include rumour mongering about Mill's sexuality and have led to one opposition activist being arrested. Numerous reports say that the rumours mongering is particularly taking place amongst the diaspora in the UK.
In response, reports Warren Throckmorton, the government has adopted silence as a policy:
"The issue appears to be a sensitive one for the government. The Ministry of Information and the Office of the President declined to speak to me and one staffer simply hung up when asked if the government supported recent calls to arrest gays. While President John Atta Mills has stated that he believes homosexuality is foreign to Ghanaian culture, his administration has refused comment on recent calls for government intervention."
Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr offers an explanation for government silence:
"With Election 2012 fast approaching and a deeply divided [Presidential party] NDC in the jitters, making convenient scapegoats out of gays and lesbians as a diversionary tactic seems very attractive to ... the National Democratic Congress."
Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights programme, told IRIN that it was not uncommon for “gay issues [to be] used as a distraction against economic and political concerns, uniting people against a common enemy”.
“It has brought about a lot of fear and stigma for the people. It is difficult to organize programmes. It is very difficult for people to walk freely on the street… The call for arrest has really pushed people down.”
Cobbinah said numbers had dropped at a regular HIV peer education programme that once had more than 20 people attending; two weeks ago only half the people came, and last week no one came, he told IRIN on 27 July.
“They said, ‘If we come, we might be arrested'."
An NGO based in the Western Region’s capital Sekondi-Takoradi, which distributes condoms and safe sex information to MSM, told IRIN that since the Regional Premier Aidoo called for arrests they have felt threatened.
A spokesperson who did not want his name or see the organization’s name published for security reasons said the NGO was now coming under pressure from the government to stop their work on HIV prevention if they did not reveal the names of MSM who have registered to use their services.
Says the statement from the Coalition Against Homophobia in Ghana (CAHG):
"CAHG vehemently denounces these types of sensationalist, unfounded, and bigoted attacks against LGBT Ghanaians, who are brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons of Ghanaian families just like any other Ghanaians. LGBT people are in every conceivable walk of life and have existed throughout history. Contrary to unsubstantiated and speculative remarks that homosexuals are “evil”, “filthy”, and “ungodly”, LGBT people are our family members, co-workers, worshippers, taxpayers, voters, media people, pastors and lovers who deserve the same rights and protection under the Ghanaian Constitution as anyone else."
"Unfortunately, a few people with religious, political, and institutional power continue to use their privilege to perpetuate hate and violence against homosexuals with the support of the criminal code 1960, Act 29, which criminalizes “unnatural carnal knowledge”--ironically a “western” concept imported to Ghana during British colonization of the country. If these anti-homosexual forces care about the future of Ghana, then the coalition calls on them to do something about issues that actually pose a threat to Ghana’s future such as poverty, women’s rights, class inequalities, environmental destruction, educational rights, and job opportunities. Addressing such issues would be more productive for the country than utilizing fear- mongering tactics to divide Ghanaian people from their LGBT family members and colleagues."
"Although the international community has not said much on the issue to date, HIV prevention experts and human rights activist from different parts of the world have come out to allay the attacks against LGBT people. The Coalition urges Ghanaians harbouring hostility against LGBT people to “judge not lest ye be judged” and set aside their animosities for the good of the country and its diverse citizenry."