Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Lawyer Who Defends Convicted Homosexuals in Cameroon

Michel Togué is one of the few lawyers in Cameroon with the courage and conviction to defend Cameroonians charged with violating the country's anti-homosexuality law.

It is illegal in Cameroon to engage in same-sex conduct, with jail sentences lasting up to five years. In addition, Cameroonian society is hostile toward the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and to the few who defend their rights. Mr. Togué's office has been broken into and ransacked. He has received numerous death threats. He has even had to relocate his family to the United States to ensure their safety.

So why has Mr. Togué, himself a heterosexual man with a wife and children, chosen to put at risk his life and the lives of his family to defend LGBT Cameroonians? To Mr. Togué, the answer is simple: LGBT rights are human rights.

“It is for human rights," he said last week in an interview with Global Rights. "Until the law that punishes homosexuality will be changed in Cameroon, I will fight; I will struggle.”

Last Thursday, Mr. Togué spoke at Global Rights’ office in Washington about the challenges he faces when defending Cameroonians who have been convicted under the country’s anti-homosexuality law. About 35 people attended the talk, including representatives from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and human rights organizations.

Mr. Togué (center left with the suit) requested the more than 30 attendees at last Thursday's event to get in a picture with him. The attendees obliged.

More people in Cameroon are prosecuted for homosexual conduct than in any other country in the world. In addition to time in prison, gay Cameroonians face a life of “perpetual danger,” forced to hide their sexual identities for fear of reprisals, Mr. Togué said. The jail sentence under the anti-homosexuality law is anywhere from six months to five years with a fine of $40 to $400.

The law explicitly defines the crime as having “sexual relations with a person of the same sex,” but because it is nearly impossible to provide credible evidence of same-sex conduct, Cameroonians are often convicted for merely dressing or acting in a way that is perceived as homosexual. For example, Mr. Togué said that a judge in 2011 convicted two transgender women of being gay because they were spotted wearing women’s clothing and drinking a liqueur that the judge deemed feminine. Roger Mbede, who made headlines in early January when he died after being in jail for three years, was originally sentenced for sending an amorous text message to another man.

A Cameroonian newspaper that depicts the fight for LGBT equality as a Western plot. Another newspapers pits LGBT "lobbies" against Cameroon, featuring an editorial that calls homosexuality a "crime against humanity."

The arbitrary application of the law makes it extremely difficult for Mr. Togué to win cases for his clients. He has only won a handful of the more than 20 cases he has defended that involved the alleged violation of Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality law.

“Judges in Cameroon, I’m not sure that they’re judging according to the law,” Mr. Togué said in the interview. “Even if they are judges, they share the same homophobia as the society.”

Mr. Togué, however, remains optimistic about the future for Cameroon’s LGBT community. He said that society is at least willing to publicly discuss homosexuality and the discrimination against the LGBT community, something that was considered taboo only a few years ago.

To assist Mr. Togué in his quest for justice, Global Rights is currently partnering with him and the Cameroonian organization for which he works, the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEFHO), to provide legal assistance to persons detained and convicted under the anti-homosexuality law. We are also helping to promote a grassroots campaign to create a more favorable climate in Cameroonian society for the recognition of and respect for LGBT persons. In addition, Global Rights will conduct security training for LGBT activists and their supporters, many of whom suffer physical attacks—and in one case, alleged murder—for their LGBT advocacy. The two-year program will also empower more than 10 LGBT and mainstream organizations to monitor and document human rights abuses and how to more effectively advocate for the rights of LGBT people in Cameroon. To learn more about this program, please visit our Web site.

Friday, February 7, 2014

New Alumni Network Created for Graduates of Global Rights Human Rights Courses in Afghanistan

Since Global Rights began offering human rights courses to Afghan law students in 2005, about 2,800 Afghan men and women have graduated our programs. Many of these graduates have gone on to become leaders of influential Afghan human rights and women’s organizations.

But not until the recent founding of an alumni network was there an opportunity for all 2,800 graduates to share their knowledge, skills and experiences with one another. On December 1, 2013, about 300 participants from across Afghanistan gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul to celebrate the founding of the new alumni network, including graduates of Global Rights courses, university law school deans, and senior Afghan judges and lawyers. Opening remarks were given by the Afghan Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Obaidullah Obaid, and the deans of the law faculties at Kabul and Herat Universities.

All those in attendance pledged their support for the alumni network, and a six-person management committee was assigned to develop a constitution and strategic plan for the network. Many graduates gave impassioned speeches, emphasizing the network’s critical role in sustaining the model of practical legal education championed by Global Rights in Afghanistan while highlighting the significant achievements Global Rights has already made to higher education in their country.

While at the conference, Mandana Hendessi, Global Rights country director in Afghanistan, had a chance to speak with some Global Rights’ graduates (see below). To learn more about the human rights courses that Global Rights offers in Afghanistan, visit our Web site.

Monday, February 10: Global Day of Action Against Uganda's Anti-Gay Bill


On Monday, February 10, Global Rights and dozens of other human rights organizations will participate in an international “Day of Action” against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill

This global advocacy campaign was initiated by the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitution Law, a coalition of 51 Ugandan human rights groups that was formed in 2009 to prevent the passage of the anti-homosexuality bill.

The notorious “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda was first introduced in 2009 but was quickly shelved due to international pressure. England and other European nations threatened to withdraw international aid if the bill became law. U.S. President Barack Obama called it “odious.”

Regrettably, however, the anti-gay bill did not disappear. Reintroduced without the death penalty clause, the bill passed with a majority vote in the Ugandan Parliament on Dec. 20, 2013. The bill includes life sentences for persons convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.”

The good news is that the bill has yet to become law, and we concerned human rights advocates can play a role to ensure that it never does.

As part of the planned events for February 10, Global Rights and other rights groups will hold a demonstration from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. in front of Ugandan Embassy, located in Washington at 5911 16th St, NW. We and the other participating organizations have also launched a social media campaign to galvanize support to strike down the draconian bill. We encourage you to join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #stopAHB.

As was evident in 2009, the international community holds immense power to shape Ugandan legislation and safeguard the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons in Uganda. We at Global Rights strongly believe that in our role as human rights advocates, we must defend the rights of all marginalized groups, whether they are LGBT persons, women, or ethnic and religious minorities.

We are currently working with LGBT-rights advocates in Cameroon—where more people are prosecuted for being gay than anywhere in the world—to strengthen legal assistance for people charged or convicted for homosexuality.  In Sierra Leone, we are working with LGBT- and mainstream rights organizations on an advocacy campaign to advance the rights of LGBT individuals.  Our work in Sierra Leone is largely informed by the first-ever report about the discrimination faced by the Sierra Leonean LGBT population, which we drafted in collaboration with our local partner organizations.

Thirty-eight of Africa’s 54 countries have laws against homosexuality. Brave people there are fighting for equality, but they can’t do it alone. We encourage you to spread the word about the Ugandan bill and to help ensure that all Africans—irrespective of gender identity and sexual orientation—receive equal treatment under the law.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ugandans Air Concerns About New Oil Industry


HOIMA, Uganda—Multinational oil companies are not likely to start tapping Uganda’s 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves until 2018, but community leaders already have begun to address concerns they have with Big Oil’s plans to set up operations in their communities.
This week, Lien De Brouckere, Global Rights director of natural resources and human rights, and I traveled to the Albertine Graben districts of Hoima and Bullisa in southwest Uganda to meet with leaders in the communities where oil companies Tullow and Total plan to set up their operations.
Despite the excitement about the potential economic benefits from a profitable oil industry, local leaders identified several concerns they have with oil companies drilling near their communities. Many community members feel that they are largely unaware how the oil industry operates and how the new Ugandan oil industry will affect them. There are also concerns about whether people will be properly compensated for their land and crops that they will have to abandon to make room for the the refinery and related infrastructure. Even if people are compensated monetarily, they lack the knowledge how to use the money to start a new life once they leave their homes. Other issues include the exclusion of groups such as women, the elderly, persons with disabilities and youth; the lack of skilled laborers who could actually work in the refinery; and challenges immigrants from other African countries encounter when claiming rights to the land around the planned oil refinery. 

Lien De Brouckere discusses concerns about the nascent Ugandan oil industry with local community leaders
About 65 percent of Ugandans live on less than $2 per day and only 8.5 percent of Ugandans have access to electricity, according to the latest World Bank statistics. Ugandans see their oil reserves as a way to alleviate these societal problems, but the country lacks the resources to build the infrastructure needed to extract and refine the oil. Consequently, the country has struck deals with multinational oil companies Tullow, Total and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which have begun laying the groundwork for operations but won’t start drilling until 2018.
In addition to meeting with local leaders, Lien and I also met with government officials, civil society leaders at the national and local levels, representatives of oil companies, and religious and cultural leaders—all of whom have a vested interest in creating a profitable oil industry in Uganda.
From these discussions, it is clear that there is still a lot to do to create awareness within the communities on the pros and cons of the oil industry. This needs to be done in a collaborative, inclusive and non-confrontational manner, preferably at the village and parish levels. Another viable option is community-based dialogue that brings together all relevant parties—civil society, the Ugandan government, and oil companies—including marginalized groups such as women, people with disabilities, the elderly and youth. It is also vital that the media, in particular the local radio hosts, disseminate appropriate messaging to the wider community. In addition to radio broadcasts, we need to design informational material about the oil business and land laws to then distribute to the people whose lives the oil refinery will impact.
Next week, we travel back to Kampala, Uganda’s capital, to meet with central government officials, oil company officials, civil society organizations and national conflict-resolution consultants. Following these engagements, we will write a report to assess the situation and that will include our next steps and future program to address these issues.

Our meetings in Uganda are part of a five-year project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) aimed at building peace and mitigating conflict among ethnic groups over competing claims to land and oil. Global Rights is working in partnership with the National Center for State Courts and Search for Common Ground.