A Delicate Issue of Universal Human Rights

It’s not every week that I open my copy of The Economist to be greeted by the words of somebody I have met. Bishop Joshua Banda is a high profile Zambian: the leader of a large evangelical congregation in Lusaka, a successful business man and as it happens, chairman of the National AIDS Council (NAC). It was in this final capacity that I worked briefly with him during last year’s Prevention Convention. In fact the last time I saw the gentleman, he was at the podium presenting the Vice President with a long list of resolutions aimed at reducing the incidence of HIV in the country in which the protection of the rights of sexual minorities featured prominently.

It was therefore with a degree of surprise that I read that Bishop Banda’s recent propulsion into the full glare of the global media was due to some remarks he made in asking Western agencies to refrain from criticizing policies towards same sex couples which did not reflect “Zambian values.” Surprised, and yet when I gave a few more moments thought, perhaps not quite so taken aback.

Before I go any further, I feel the need to clarify that I do not condone the discrimination of any individual on the basis of their sexuality or any trait for that matter. As far as I am concerned, we are all created equal under God’s eye and the good Bishop, through his diligent study of the scriptures, should be more aware of that than most. However, the point that he was making was specifically regarding the rights of Western agencies to comment upon Zambian laws and widespread attitudes and that I think that is far more interesting and worthy of debate.

For if we are honest, our own conversion to the rights of homosexuals has been a rather recent phenomena. Although the Zambian law on homosexuality is unquestionably draconian (up to 14 years imprisonment, recently updated to make sure that both men and women could be afforded the same punishment), there are many places around the world (the Middle and Far East spring to mind) where an equal lack of tolerance is on display and we would not have to travel too far back in our own history to find such laws on our statute books. We may now consider our societies to be reasonably equal on this measure but it has only been of late that such equality arrived and it certainly far from complete or universal.

Equally interesting to consider are the multiple special interests that lie behind the visible clashing of cultural gears that make such headlines. For example, the Ugandan MP who called for the death penalty for certain homosexual acts was widely reported around the world, as was the call made by Obama to President Museveni to ask him to reconsider the motion. What was much less widely noted was that the vast majority of funds that fuel such religious fervor come directly from evangelical churches back in the US who having considered their own country lost to ungodly beliefs, feel that their donations can atleast encourage another parts of the world to remain spiritually pure.

Thirdly, one cannot deny the special link that exists between HIV advocates in the West and the gay community. It is totally understandable that a disease originally referred to as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and which caused such loss of life and suffering within the western gay community should retain a strikingly high number of physicians and activists from that community. In truth, in generalized epidemics such as Zambia’s the impact of same sex relationships on the overall rate of HIV is marginal at best (1% of new infections by the official statistics though this is undoubtedly an underrepresentation due the challenges of working with a community forced underground).

I was honored to briefly meet one of the only lesbian and gay organizations brave enough to operate in Zambia. I don’t doubt for a minute the bravery of their members or the importance of their work  in the struggle to create a fairer and more liberal nation. I just have to wonder if this is not a journey that they and the country need to travel by themselves, unpleasant as it can be to watch from the sidelines. In the meantime, my prayers will be with Bishop Banda and the unquestionable clarity of human equality in the hope he can become such a powerful advocate from within that there simply isn’t a need for an outside voice.

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Comments
One Response to “A Delicate Issue of Universal Human Rights”
  1. Fumiko HIGAE says:

    Hello, How are you?
    This is very very serious issues in Zambia and I wrote the recommendation to change the law for my workplace after MTR 2006-2010.
    Actually, my contract will finish within these days but come back here as a researcher.
    See you next year if you were in Zambia.

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