Cameroon: Killing of Activist a Blow to Gay Rights
The torture and murder of Cameroonian gay rights activist Eric Lembembe on July 11 has shattered the hopes of those who were quick to herald a “global momentum” in the international gay rights movement.
The death of Lembembe, Africa’s most prominent gay rights activist to be killed since 2011, occurred shortly after a wave of marriage equality legalization swept across a series of countries in other parts of the world.
Just two weeks before his death, Lembembe, the executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for Aids (CAMFAIDS), had warned that “a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes” in response to a series of un-investigated attacks against offices of gay rights organizations. Regarded as a consequence of Cameroon’s increasing “climate of homophobia” that clashes with the country’s increasingly vocal LGBT movement, his murder has left the country’s gay rights groups fearful.
In Cameroon and many other African countries, social and legal developments that increasingly threaten the safety of same-sex minorities sharply contrast the recent success stories of the global gay rights movement. While Cameroon remains one of the most repressive nations in terms of gay rights, Lembembe’s murder has stirred international pressure on its government to stop turning a blind eye to hate crimes and to end its on-going criminalization of homosexuality.
MediaGlobal News spoke with Cameroonian human rights lawyer and founder of the non-profit Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (ADEFHO), Alice Nkom, shortly before Lembembe’s death. Despite the mounting danger, Nkom vowed to continue with the struggle for equality: “It has become more difficult. I must die, and I will. Because many died for us to be free today–free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue,” Alice Nkom tells MediaGlobal News.
Nkom, Cameroon’s first female lawyer and one of the country’s few outspoken and fierce defenders of sexual minorities, has been the target of threats of death and arrest by members of the government and other Cameroonian lawyers. These threats, though frequently published in local media, remain uninvestigated.
Alice Nkom tells MediaGlobal News that in recent history, the hostilities against Cameroonian gay rights defenders like her and Michel Togue have intensified. After a series of death threats against their families in October 2012, Togue fled Cameroon and was granted asylum in the U.S. while Nkom has remained under constant protection of bodyguards.
While homosexuality is criminalized in many African countries such as Uganda, Liberia, and Nigeria, prosecutions in these countries–in contrast to Cameroon–are rare or non-existent According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Cameroon tops the list of countries that prosecute individuals for same-sex conduct. In December 2012, an appeals court upheld a three-year sentence against Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, for confessing his love to another man by text. The conviction of Jonas Singa Kumie and Franky Djome this year was based on their perceived effeminate appearance after they were seen drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream.
On July 19, the UN requested an investigation into the murder of Lembembe. In response to this request and the condemnations of Lembembe’s murder by governments and international organizations, Cameroon’s government spokesman Issa Tchiroma accused western media of having “launched attacks on our nation, dragging its image into the mud” and threatened domestic journalists that “provocative commentary” would be met with the “full force of the law.”
The lack of arrests in relation to threats against gay rights defenders and well as Lembembe’s murder have led to a strike among alarmed Cameroonian Aids prevention and LGBT rights groups. Now seeking help from foreign donor organizations like the Global Fund, they demand a “minimum level of security, institutional support and financial support.” Yves Yomb, Alternatives-Cameroon’s executive director, told The Guardian, “We have no protection from the police and we feel that our lives are at risk.”
LA-based American filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Debb Tulman experienced the LGBT’s community daily struggle while shooting the documentary “Born this Way.” The film provides an intimate portrait of two young gay Cameroonians who move between a supportive underground LGBT community and the intensely homophobic culture of the country’s capital of Douala.
Speaking about the protagonists’ courage to come out “in an environment where it is dangerous to do so,” Tulman tells MediaGlobal News that they wanted show the rest of the world their unwillingness “to change for the culture” that has been denying their existence.
Despite the emergence of a “growing activist movement” that, according to Kadlec, is “based on a kind of passion that I have not felt in a LGBT movement anywhere else,” homosexual relations remain criminalized with prison terms of up to five years under subsection of article 347 of Cameroon’s current penal code. Since 2010, at least 28 people have been prosecuted for same-sex conduct, according to a report released by HRW, Alternatives Cameroon, ADEFHO and CAMFAIDS.
Human rights defenders like Nkom and Colville, spokesperson of the UHCHR, argue that article 347 breaches Cameroon’s obligations under both international and domestic law, violating the rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination. These rights are enshrined in the country’s constitution, and in all of the international and regional rights treaties that Cameroon has ratified, including the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cameroon’s penal code also stands in conflict with its own constitution, which places international above domestic law.
“While the penal code relates specifically to sexual conduct,” Colville said, “we are seriously concerned that it is being applied in a broad-brush way to prosecute many individuals on the basis of their appearance, their mannerisms, style of speech or general conduct.”
Cameroon is currently undergoing a review of its penal code. The OHCHR has called on Cameroon’s government to amend article 347 to meet its international treaty obligations. A total of 16 members of the U.N. Human Rights Council urged the West African nation to improve the rights of LGBT individuals and to protect the ones that defend them during the country’s regularly scheduled Universal Periodic Review session in Geneva in May.
Meanwhile, Alice Nkom has submitted one of her cases to Cameroon’s Supreme Court. Considering this to be a “key point in my struggle” due to the court’s authority to strike down unconstitutional laws, she tells MediaGlobal News, “I know I could never decriminalize trough a political way, but through the judiciary we stand a good chance because the law is with us. I know that I will win. LGBT rights are human rights.”