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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT