Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ disavowal of incendiary anti-gay comments by a Dar es Salaam official is a positive development, but will mean little unless the government reforms its laws and policies that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 4, 2018, following major international news coverage of the inflammatory remarks, Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that a proposed anti-gay campaign by Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda, whose district includes Dar es Salaam, represented “his opinion and not the position of the government.” The ministry pledged to “continue to respect and protect” internationally recognized human rights. However, the same day, activists told Human Rights Watch that police had arrested people in Zanzibar on homosexuality-related charges.
“It’s encouraging that the government of Tanzania has pledged to uphold its human rights obligations, including with regard to sexual orientation,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the statement will provide cold comfort to LGBT people in Tanzania if the authorities continue to subject them to arbitrary arrests and discrimination.”
Makonda triggered panic among LGBT people on October 31 when he held a news conference announcing plans to round up suspected gays and subject them to forced anal examinations and conversion therapy. He said he would arrest or chase out all the gay men in the city, proclaiming, “In Dar es Salaam, homosexuality is not a human right.” Makonda urged citizens to report gay men to the police, claiming he had already collected hundreds of names.
Tanzania’s anti-homosexuality law is among the world’s harshest, prescribing 30 years to life in prison for “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” Human Rights Watch and a Tanzanian coalition of groups working with sexual minorities documented dozens of cases of police abuse, public violence, and discrimination in accessing health services in a 2013 report. In the next two years, some improvements took place. Tanzania’s HIV/AIDS agencies reached out to key populations in the HIV epidemic, ensuring that they had a seat at the table in decision-making, and international health organizations scaled up LGBT-friendly HIV services. Some politicians and police officials appeared open to dialogue. New organizations formed, including several representing transgender people.
However, since the election of President John Magufuli in December 2015, Tanzania has had a marked decline in respect for free expression, association, and assembly, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities’ rhetorical attacks on rights have been accompanied by repressive laws and harassment and arrest of journalists, opposition members, and critics, while progress on LGBT health and rights has been reversed. Police raided health and human rights workshops aimed at sexual and gender minorities, arbitrarily arresting participants. They rounded up suspected gay men in the streets, reportedly subjecting some to forced anal exams, a discredited method of “proving” homosexual conduct that the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have denounced as torture.
The authorities shut down gay-friendly health clinics and restricted access to water-based lubricant, an HIV prevention tool. They suspended one Tanzanian organization, interrogated leaders of others, and detained and deported a team of South African lawyers, all because of their work on LGBT health and rights. Magufuli himself stated that “even cows” disapprove of homosexuality.
Makonda, the regional commissioner, has been a prominent advocate of this repression. At a July 2016 rally, he threatened to arrest gays and their social media “followers” and to ban organizations that “promote homosexuality.” In his news conference on October 31, 2018, Makonda said he had established a task force to track down gay men, sex workers, pornographers, and people conducting fraudulent fundraisers on social media.
His campaign appeared to have been prompted by a viral video of explicit heterosexual sex, but the bulk of his 30-minute news conference centered on stirring up homophobic sentiment. He threatened to “test” gay men for homosexuality, provide counselors for those who want to “get out of homosexuality,” and jail others for life, saying his task force would start its work on November 5.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement is vague on what steps Tanzania will take to uphold its international commitments, which Tanzania’s anti-homosexuality law and acts of anti-LGBT repression clearly violate. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tanzania is a party, has stated unambiguously that arrests based on sexual orientation violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination. Tanzania is also party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and prohibits discrimination in access to this right based on sexual orientation.
“If the government is sincere in rejecting Makonda’s anti-rights messages, it needs to ensure that all people in Tanzania enjoy the same human rights regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ghoshal said. “That means ending police repression and forced anal examinations, allowing LGBT organizations and LGBT-friendly health clinics to operate, and reforming laws that criminalize people for who they are or whom they love.”