After Years of Activism CAL Attains Observer Status at ACHPR

by Friday File | https://twitter.com/AWID | Association for Women's Rights in Development
Friday, 29 May 2015 10:19 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On Saturday, 25th April 2015, the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) was granted Observer Status at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACPHR). Independent Commissioners from five countries voted in support of CAL’s application – Benin, Mali, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Commissioners from Rwanda, Tunisia and Algeria voted no. The Commissioner from Uganda abstained.

By Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights is the Pan-African body responsible for the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights. Its formation was born out of the progressive African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. The Commission is also responsible for interpreting the Charter.  In spite of its remit, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression continues to be regarded by many as contentious at the Commission. However, as a critical space within the formal African regional human rights system, it was strategically important for CAL to obtain observer status at the ACHPR.

AWID interviewed Fikile Vilakazi, founding Executive Director of CAL, and Fadzai Muparusta, Regional Advocacy Officer for CAL to hear more about the decision to seek observer status at the ACHPR and the movement building that led to the final success.

Process marked by open hostility and hate

Fadzai Muparutsa was in the room when the announcement was made. “At the moment that the hands of the commissioners who were voting for went up, I remember screaming really loud, in the hopes I would bring the roof down on everyone who was in opposition.” She had reason to scream. There had been an abysmal lack of due process, open hostility and hate speech by some of the commissioners against CAL’s application. Mohamed Bechir Khalfallah, Vice Chair of the Commission gave a speech rejecting CAL’s application, and stated, “…these people are an imported virus that will spread across Africa and have no place in this human rights body”. Commissioner Med Kaggwa said Africa was not ready and needs time “…to understand and respond to LGBT people and rights”, he went on to call for a deferring of the CAL application until such a time. Commissioner Maya Sahli Fadel said she “noted with concern that she had been led to believe that CAL's objective was protection but now understands that they aim to expand and deploy more people across the continent”, an objective which she said was not in-line with the work of the Commission. The Chair of the Commission, Sylvie Kaytesi stated, “…we cannot accept activities of LGBT people. States have different opinions. The Commission has to respect the sovereignty of states”. As these Commissioners made these remarks some people in the room were cheering, and banging on tables in support. This is how Muparutsa felt at the time:

I felt the same fear I felt while I was in South Africa before travelling to the African Commission talking to friends and colleagues in Durban who were in hiding from the xenophobic attacks. While not experiencing any physical blows, the violence was apparent in plenary. Looking across to my right, sat a group of ‘human rights activists’ I had walked past in the week that we had been at the Commission and greeted, but now, I was watching them cheer on a commissioner who was calling LGBT people a virus. The same ‘human rights activists’ had cheered on speaker after speaker who spoke against xenophobia – I could feel the bile of anger rising. But you have to be respectable in the space – you cannot cuss out people, or be loud in your objections of a process, particularly when you are queer and have already been too loud in your presence and expression.”

Other Commissioners stood up against the homophobia and unprofessionalism that was on display. Commissioner Pansy Tlakula went on to “call to order the vice-chair and remind him of how hate speech led to the genocide in Rwanda” and asked the Commission to remember that there were clear procedures and guidelines regarding Observer Status applications that dictate that applications be put to a vote. Commissioner Reine Alapini-Gansou threatened to walk out of the proceedings as they were inconsistent and an affront to the values and principles of the Commission. Commissioner Lawrence Mute stated, “100 years ago, women didn’t have rights. We have a responsibility based on our mandate to protect the vulnerable”.

A long time coming

The process that led to CAL obtaining Observer Status at the ACHPR in 2015 had been a long time coming. The need for this was envisioned in the 2003-2007 strategic plan of the Coalition for African Lesbians. In 2004, members of CAL met in Namibia and officially ratified the vision to “create voice and visibility of lesbian women in Africa”. It was strategically important to do this. Fikile Vilakazi, CAL’s first Executive Director shared: 

The early 2000’s was marked by high levels of invisibility of lesbian women voices and organising within the LGBTI ‘movement’ in Africa. The reality was that an authentic ‘LGBTI’ voice of that time was largely gay, white and South African in the name of Africa. So, this picture was reflected in public representations and symbolisms of LGBTI organising all over Africa. As a result those symbolisms and representations of our sexualities were read and perceived as European colonial imports, mainly due to the ‘white face’ of the movement at that time which was read to carry an agenda of imposing a European sexual culture and values into Africa. This then created a rhetoric that ‘homosexuality is Un-African’ and the so called need for building of ‘African values’ which occupied the African Union and United Nations politics for almost a decade and remains subtle even today in various sites.” 

Changing the ‘face’ and voice of  Africans who are non-conforming in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity and expressionmeant that members of CAL needed to be more visible. The decision was taken that the African Commission would be a strategic site to advocate at since meetings were held twice a year in Gambia, and these had representations from African states as well as a large number of human rights organisations. The initial CAL application for Observer Status in 2007 was largely to make a political statement. In Vilakazi’s words, “…we exist, we are here, we are Africans, we are lesbians and we have sex and we are not European colonial imports”. 

The rejection of the CAL application for Observer Status in 2010 provided an opportunity for the organisation to restrategise and build a movement in support of its application. This was done with the support of primarily African allies, and in line with its own feminist principles. CAL chose to strategically work on feminist initiatives such as the ‘Raising Feminist Voices at the African Commission’ campaign led by People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) and joined a collaboration of organisations working at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights who shared similar objectives around the importance of African LGBTI organising at the commission. This collaboration included Heartland Alliance, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), INTERIGHTS, and more recently, the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AmSHER), the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) and People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA). This network was the space where CAL with like-minded organisations strategised and planned around the work that needed to be done at the African Commission. 

Some of the early work that CAL did in building relationships with other feminist organisations included collaborating on issues around women’s rights with the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA). This partnership helped to bring visibility around sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to the NGO forum space at ACPHR, and led to CAL working with organisations such as the Open Society Institute of Southern Africa (OSISA) (as an advocacy body not just as a funder), Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), and the Center for Human Rights, University of Pretoria who all supported CAL’s efforts in gaining Observer Status at the Commission. 

Observer status at the ACHPR will help CAL deepen its advocacy, and possibly influence decisions taken at the Commission by providing information, case studies and details of violations faced by LGBTI persons. CAL will be able to present reports in plenary, and intends to speak to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE), using intersectionality and feminism as the analytical framework. Vilakazi sees this as only the first step: “I think that it may be useful to imagine how this status can be used to work with other structures of the African Union to ensure that all violences based on sexual orientation and gender identity are eliminated in Africa and that lesbian women are respected as full citizens of Africa.”  

 

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When Fikile Vilakazi, founding Executive Director of CAL heard about the long awaited victory at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, she expressed her feelings of joy in poetry

 

Today

You have spoken Africa

Yesterday…rolling stone… red pepper… 

Declared…

Kill them … Hunt them down…

Today …

You have publicly refused….

Africa

You have commissioned…

Never again …

Shall I be Hunted….Killed…

Not in your name …

Africa…

Shall I be Raped …Tortured…Arrested… Again…

Today

You have made right…My humanity…

Your voice…means Justice…

For Me…and my African kind…

Today…

We are HumAfrican…Observers…

To make Right… and Just and Humane…

Our Being…Africa…and else….

Today

You have spoken

Today

You have made right…

Today

You have Just/ified...My humanity….

Today

You said...I am an African...

Today

You said…I am an observer…

Fikile Vilakazi, 28 April 2015