Rights Stalemate

Liberia’s Nobel Prize-Winning President in Testy Exchange: I Won’t Decriminalize Homosexuality

You’ve got to give it to Tamasin Ford, reporter for the UK’s The Guardian. Granted an interview with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in connection with Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, Ford pressed them both hard on the issue of gay rights in Liberia.

Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has said she will not sign legislation to make homosexuality a felony, as was proposed last month by Liberian senator and former first lady Jewel Taylor. But “voluntary sodomy” is still a misdemeanor in Liberia, punishable by up to one year in prison. So will Sirleaf decriminalize it?

Apparently not, according to this rather uncomfortable interview:

Tamasin Ford for The Guardian Madam President, what’s your position on decriminalizing homosexual acts in Liberia?

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:  I’ve already taken a position on that, that we’re not going to sign any such law.

TF:  You won’t sign any law to decriminalize —

EJS:  I won’t sign any law that has to do with that area. None whatsoever. We like ourselves just the way we are.

TF:  And what about decriminalizing the current law?

EJS:  Quite frankly, I’m not quite sure even if we can see a law go through our legislature on that, so I doubt it seriously.

TF:  But at the moment, I mean, voluntary sodomy is illegal at the moment. So in essence, homosexuality for two gay men, under the books, is illegal in Liberia.

EJS:  We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we’d like to preserve.

(awkward pause)

TF:  So you’re saying you wouldn’t decriminalize that current law.

EJS:  I’ve just said to you: We’re going to maintain our traditional values.

TF:  Mr. Blair, [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon has urged African leaders to stop treating gay people as second-class citizens and criminals, given that good governance and human rights go hand in hand. What is your advice to Madam President and Liberia on this gay rights issue?

Tony Blair:  You know, one of the advantages of what I do now is that I can choose the issues that I get into, and the issues that I don’t. So, you know, for us [with the Africa Governance Initiative], the priorities are on power, roads, jobs, delivery. I’m not saying these issues aren’t important, but the president’s given her position, and this is not one for me.

TF:  So good governance and human rights don’t go hand in hand?

TB:  Tamasin, you know how long I’ve been doing these types of interviews?

TF:  I do know —

TB:  Right, okay. So I’m not giving you an answer on it.

Photo by Antonio Cruz/ABr