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RGOD2: What I learned in The Gambia at human-rights conference

The Gambia is affectionately known as the “the smiling coast of Africa” as it sits on the western side of this huge continent - smiling out from sun-drenched beaches of the Atlantic. Fifty-thousand British holidaymakers flock here to escape their harsh winters in this former English colony, followed by thousands of Dutch and Germans.

Gambians are warm and welcoming people, so it is difficult to believe this little country was ground zero for the slave trade and inspired the groundbreaking series “Roots” that cracked open the issue of Caribbean and American identity for millions of descendants of Africans who left here in slave ships. This was not a smiling Africa back then, and listening to some of the initial testimony on human-rights violations in the Gambia today, there is not much to smile about around here for the next week or so.

Last weekend, I attended the 54th meeting of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and a packed agenda for 200 representatives of Non Government Organizations (NGOs). This all took place under a huge portrait of the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who recently used his precious time at the opening of the UN General Assembly to condemn the LGBT community.

“‘Those who promote homosexuality want to put an end to human existence," Jammeh told the gathering of world leaders in New York. "It is becoming an epidemic and we Muslims and Africans will fight to end this behavior."

"Homosexuality in all its forms and manifestations which, though very evil, antihuman as well as anti-Allah, is being promoted as a human right by some powers," said Jammeh, who is accused by activists of human rights abuses during his rule. Full article HERE.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, his Attorney General, the Minister of Justice, officially opened the conference, and it was bizarre for the host country where the African Union’s human-rights body has their secretariat and annual conference, to be one of the first countries on the agenda to be critiqued for its own human-rights abuses. Yet, there was also something very healthy about the level of openness and discourse at this meeting.

Discussion and debate is not censored at this level, though it was noted by several speakers that more and more African leaders do not allow criticism at home and the real threat to democracy in many African countries is emerging anarchy. So this is one of the most important for officials to talk about issues that cannot be talked about at home.

The meetings dealt with gender inequality and violence, refugees, prisons, the International Criminal Courts, economic and social rights, the LGBT community and one of the most recent African communities to seek greater attention and protection, people with Albinism.

An emerging new minority in Africa

We met two extremely organized and articulate advocates who are both people who live with Albinism. There is a variety of attitudes to this minority African population that is surrounded with shame, fear and often subject to violence. There has been increasing violence directed towards them, almost as a kind of culturally acceptable sport.

These children are often born into poor and uneducated families and if they survive birth are treated as social freaks and outcasts. Abdallah Possi, an attorney from Tanzania, reported that 130 deaths were reported of people who live with Albinism in Tanzania alone, with three times this number of recorded acts of violence or persecution. Part of the mythology is that people who live with Albinism (PWA) never die and they go off into the mountains to live forever.

In Cameroon, where the attitude toward LGBT people is extremely hostile, the local community living with Albinism is protected under disability laws and there is more understanding and compassion. In many ways, the presence of the LGBT community at this conference is a sign of progress and encouragement to an even more invisible and stigmatized community like people who live with Albinism.

I was impressed by the level of engagement and acceptance of such a range of people and the level of discussion, a clear expression of the ideals and realities of human rights work in Africa and the respect for due process that the instruments and agreements established by the African Union itself will have a positive impact upon a continent still ravaged by poverty, disease and exploitation.

The Commission is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the significant African protocols around the rights of women and young girls. The African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHER) presented a panel to launch a new publication “Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Africa.” The AMSHER panel made its presentation under the framed portrait of President Yahya Jammeh, our host.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.