Skip to main content

Africa and U.S.: Invest in human rights

By Nicholas Opiyo
updated 4:58 PM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
A woman laughs at a meeting of young African leaders talking with President Obama before the U.S.-Africa Summit convened.
A woman laughs at a meeting of young African leaders talking with President Obama before the U.S.-Africa Summit convened.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama holds first-ever U.S.-Africa summit in Washington this week
  • Nicholas Opiyo: African leaders often give lip service to human rights, but abuse them
  • Opiyo: Uganda, other countries still torment gay people, jail protesters and opponents
  • Opiyo: U.S. and African leaders must work together toward human rights in Africa

Editor's note: Nicholas Opiyo is the executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Kampala, Uganda. He was a lead attorney on the legal team challenging the constitutionality of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act.

(CNN) -- Last Friday, I was in Uganda's Constitutional Court as a member of the legal team that persuaded its judges to overturn our country's inhumane anti-homosexuality law. Today, I am in Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit "Investing in the Next Generation" with a message: Invest in human rights in Africa.

It's hard to believe that African leaders and some development experts still debate whether human rights is a "Western concept" and whether countries can grow without human rights. African leaders have been too eager to advance their own economic and security agendas without consideration of the rights of their citizens.

Nicholas Opiyo
Nicholas Opiyo

Let's take the record of my country, Uganda, and its Anti-Homosexuality Act. This law codified rampant discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, who were targeted by police and arrested, detained for prolonged periods, extorted and blackmailed by those who should have been guaranteeing their rights under our constitution. The law stipulated punishments of up to life in prison for gay people engaging in sex and long sentences for "attempted homosexuality" or even promotion of it.

Although the Constitutional Court invalidated the anti-homosexuality law, it did so on a procedural point, not on the grounds of human rights. And a law that criminalizes sex acts "against the order of nature" dating back to colonial times is still on the books.

We do not know if the Ugandan parliament will vote on this law again in a way that would pass scrutiny by the Constitutional Court. The fight might not be over. But if supporters of this law reintroduce it, or if it is appealed, we will fight it every step of the way again.

Opportunities ahead for Africa
U.S. hosts first Africa Leaders Summit

The Ugandan government's intolerance of homosexuality created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for nonprofit Ugandan organizations as well. It recently ordered the well-respected Refugee Law Project at Makerere University to suspend its work over the ridiculous allegation that it was promoting homosexuality and lesbianism.

Even health and development projects funded by the United States have not been spared. In April, the Ugandan police raided and closed the Walter Reed Research Clinic in Kampala because it works in partnership with the LGBT community to combat HIV-AIDS and was "training youths in homosexuality."

Sadly, human rights violations in Uganda are not limited to the government's prejudicial and irrational treatment of LGBT people.

For instance, our constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, guarantees freedom of assembly—but in practice, the Ugandan government restricts this right. In recent years, my country's police have used violence more and more frequently against opposition protesters, going as far as breaking up public meetings and arresting and intimidating pro-democracy activists.

This trend is only likely to increase with the enactment of the new Public Order Management Act. This law grants even more power to the Ugandan police to regulate—and in practice, to stifle—public assemblies and demonstrations, with no legal recourse for the protesters.

I love my country, Uganda, and don't mean to focus on it unfairly. One need only look to recent excesses in Nigeria and Zimbabwe to gain a broader view. Our leaders in Africa selectively demonstrate their support for human rights, often when the continent is reminded of its obligations under international and regional human rights treaties. This limited conception of human rights so often means that unpopular people and ideas find themselves attacked and abused.

In Uganda and across the continent, civil society organizations are looking to African leaders and the United States to join us in making history. The summit's website accurately describes Africa as "one of the world's most dynamic and fastest growing regions." We are all proud of that, and understand that the summit must address crucial issues of economic development.

But to make this summit truly historic, the United States and African nations must work together to promote democracies rooted in national constitutions and human rights, committed to protecting the dignity of all their citizens.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT