International confidence in Namibia damaged by anti-gay attacks

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Namibian President Sam Nujoma

«Police are ordered to arrest you, and deport you and imprison you»

Sam Nujoma

afrol News, 11 May - The threats against minorities, most notably homosexuals, by the Namibian government are starting to have its price. International credibility and confidence is lost as Nujoma's Namibia is mentioned in the same breath as Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Warnings have been given.

Earlier this month, Namibia's main ally outside Southern Africa, the European Union (EU), made an official statement condemning the government's "threats and verbal attacks against minorities". The EU presidency stated its concern and said; "Official statements against minorities, inter alia against homosexuals, as well as declarations of xenophobic nature, are unacceptable and indicate worrying signs of increasing intolerance."

Also another foreign ally is outraged. The US Black Radical Congress, normally promoting US-African relations, recently joined "those who have strongly condemned the Namibian president's assault on same gender loving people in his Southern African nation." The organisation is a strong pressure group on US policy towards Africa.

The Afro-American organisation also parallels Nujoma's Namibia with Mugabe's Zimbabwe. "Given that he is a former freedom fighter and a head of state, Nujoma's homophobic, discriminatory actions are particularly repugnant. His actions and rhetoric come on the heels of similar rhetoric and repression in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has campaigned to imprison and expel same gender loving people," according to their statement.

Special outrage has been attached to President Nujoma's threats regarding gay purges; "The Republic of Namibia does not allow homosexuality or lesbianism here. Police are ordered to arrest you, deport you and imprison you." Earlier statements by Minister of Homo Affairs, Jerry Ekandjo, were even more shocking. The minister ordered police officer to "eliminate" gays and lesbians "from the face of Namibia."

International reactions were further spurred on by President Nujoma's undiplomatic attacks on foreigners and foreign countries, for example when he blamed the US of having created the AIDS virus in an experiment of biological warfare. 

Even more notable were the President's comments on the new laws in the Netherlands, permitting same-sex couples to marry. Nujoma expressed his disgust at the first weddings of gay and lesbian couples, executed by the Amsterdam mayor in person, saying; "It is the devil at work." The statements of course created headlines in Netherlands, a key EU country and a strong defender of gay rights.

It was only natural, therefore, that the Netherlands took the initiative to an EU protest. The question of human rights, especially gay rights, in Namibia was discussed in the Dutch Parliament in April. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, van Aartsen, told the Parliament that he indeed had noted the attacks on homosexuals in Namibia. The minister said he found the government's threats to deport homosexuals "stigmatising," "unacceptable" and "violating human rights". 

Asked whether the Dutch government would take any steps to address the situation, van Aartsen confirmed that the Dutch Embassy in Windhoek already had had talks with Namibian authorities, raising its concerns. "Regarding the bilateral contacts with Namibia within the Cooperation Program, the topic of tolerance is regularly discussed," the minister said. Further reactions would however be channelled through the EU, where the Minister was to take the initiative.


European Union

«These statements and actions contrast with the politics of reconciliation, tolerance, harmony and unity in diversity adopted by the Government of Namibia after independence and which won the country rightful acclaim.»

EU Statement

The European Union and its Swedish Presidency acted quickly on the Dutch initiative. The statement addressing human/gay rights in Namibia also won the support of Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Norway and Iceland. Although the EU seldom has addressed gay rights outside Europe, the issue is becoming of increasing importance in EU foreign policy. Based on the strong gay rights situation in Western Europe, decriminalisation of homosexuality is a prerequisite to join the European Council. Both Romania and Armenia were banned from the Council on this reason. With its warning to Namibia, gay rights also becomes an issue in EU overseas relations, as are other human rights issues.

The attacks on homosexuals are widely seen as part of a generally deteriorating human rights situation in Namibia, which has policy implications for several countries, as the Zimbabwean example has shown. Human rights organisations have enhanced their monitoring of Namibia, and their reports and alerts are noted by policy-makers.

In its 2001 World Report, for example, the respected US group Human Rights Watch took special note of the lesbian and gay rights situation in Namibia. "Leaders in Namibia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe continued to denounce lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals during the year [2000]," the report states, giving further details on Nujoma's and Ekandjo's statements. The report further says; "The offices of Sister Namibia, a magazine known for its strong support of gay and lesbian rights, was set on fire on July 10 [2000] in what appeared to be a deliberate attack;" government responsibility being indicated between the lines. Human Rights Watch is the most respected source on human rights issues in the United States.

The other leading human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has been even more active in condemning the negative trends in Namibia. "The Namibian government, which has a good constitution with regards to human rights protection, has over the past few months acted in ways that warrant new concern," the group noted already in December 2000. On 9 March 2001, an Amnesty press release especially targeted "the persecution of individuals identified as lesbian or gay" by the Namibian government. 

In addition to the attack on homosexuals, especially the deteriorating press freedom situation has been noted internationally. As the country's leading newspaper, The Namibian" was banned from government advertisement because it was too critical against government policy, worldwide protest was noted. 

This week, eight international media rights groups stated they were "dismayed" that the Namibian government was "violating elementary principles of freedom of the press in clear violation of Namibia's commitments to press freedom." Also the EU expressed "its concern about the Government's ban on advertising in the independent media."

The EU has already indicated that the deteriorating human rights situation in Namibia might have economic consequences. Namibia should "pursue its policies to create the right conditions for the realisation of the country's full potential," the EU says in a statement. The EU "considers that offensive statements against minorities in the country damage confidence in Namibia's future and undermine the Government's laudable efforts to attract foreign investment, develop the tourist industry and improve the living standards of the Namibian people."

Asked to comment on how the gay rights situation affected the EU/Dutch relationship with Namibia, Willem Beelaerts, Head of Southern Africa Section of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told afrol News the EU statement was "quite clear and speaks for itself." He further said, "Our position is fully reflected in the recent EU statement," and did not want to comment on Nujoma's comments attacking homosexual marriages in the Netherlands.

The official EU statement however only demonstrates the top of the iceberg of EU resentments. An anonymous EU diplomat in Windhoek interviewed by The Namibian said; "We fear that Namibia may fall into the same trap as Zimbabwe where lawlessness is condoned by the State." 

The Mugabe-Nujoma parallel is heard more and more internationally. Human rights organisations refer to Zimbabwe when making alerts about Namibia. Gay rights organisations focus of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The US Black Radical Congress notes a "similar rhetoric and repression" in Namibia as in Zimbabwe. EU diplomats see parallels. 

Zimbabwe currently serves as the example of how politics under a former freedom fighter turning autocratic can go wrong. Most bilateral cooperation with Zimbabwe is frozen, awaiting democratic reforms, and fears are high in Europe, the US and Southern Africa that the "Mugabe-virus" might spread to neighbouring countries. Pressure on the Zambian president not to go for an unconstitutional third term was based on the Zimbabwe experience. International pressure against Namibia is now forming within the conceptual framework of the same experience.

Sources: Based on EU, Amnesty, The Namibia, Black Radical Congress and afrol archives

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