January 13, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
State Dept. pledges to raise concerns over Nigeria anti-gay law
Department of State, gay news, Washington Blade

The State Department says the United States does ‘regret’ passage of the anti-gay law in Nigeria. (Photo public domain)

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said on Monday the United States “will keep raising” concerns about Nigeria’s new anti-gay law, but maintained the relationship between the two countries will continue.

Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Harf said the State Department does “regret” the signing of the legislation by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan as she emphasized the country has a right to pass legislation through the democratic process.

“We just don’t support any legislation that institutionalizes discrimination against one select group of people, and I think one of the key reasons we are opposed to this is that the law goes far beyond prohibiting same-sex marriage,” Harf said. “It restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians.”

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted in a statement earlier in the day, Harf said the law is “inconsistent” with the country’s international legal obligations and rights under its constitution.

“Obviously, we’ll keep raising these issues when they come up,” Harf said. “We’ve made our position on this very clear. It may make some work in the country harder to do, but we clearly have a relationship there that’s an important one, and we’ll continue working together.”

The law bans not only same-sex marriage and same-sex “amorous relationships,” but also membership in LGBT rights groups.

The Associated Press reports it’s now a crime in the country “to have a meeting of gays, or to operate or go to a gay club, society or organization.” Further, entering into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

During the briefing, Harf conceded that she didn’t immediately have a lot of information about the law, such as which international obligations it violates and whether the State Department had any prior knowledge Jonathan would sign the measure. Although she said she hasn’t heard any talk about possible sanctions against the country or a potential loss of aid as a result of the law, Harf said she’d have to double check.

But Harf was able to confirm that State Department officials were in contact with a variety of principals in Nigeria prior to the signing of the legislation.

“Since the law was in draft form, we’ve been in continual contact with the Jonathan administration, the National Assembly and a wide variety of Nigerian stakeholders,” Harf said. “Our conversations have been focused on our concerns that portions of the law, again, appear to restrict Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association — provisions that we’ve been very clear we do not support.”

Harf wasn’t able to immediately identify who was representing the United States in those talks, including whether it was a senior diplomat or someone in a lower position.

According to the Associated Press, Nigeria is one of the top crude oil suppliers to the United States. A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicates the U.S. oil imports from Nigeria are decreasing, but the United States imported 161,558 barrels of oil from the country in 2012.

News that the anti-gay legislation was signed in Nigeria is breaking after earlier reports a man in Cameroon died after being previously jailed for texting a same-sex partner and the Uganda parliament approved its own anti-gay legislation.

Harf said she wasn’t immediately able to say whether the State Department is concerned about an anti-gay trend in Africa, but maintained the Obama administration supports LGBT rights everywhere.

“We’ve talked about it elsewhere — whether it’s Russia, here or elsewhere — that we believe that LGBT rights are human rights, there’s no place for discrimination anywhere, such as this,” Harf said.

A partial transcript of the exchange between the Blade and State Department follows:

Washington Blade: Secretary Kerry issued a statement earlier today saying he’s “deeply concerned” about the passage of the anti-gay law in Nigeria, which contains punishments of up to 14 years in prison. Will passage of that law impact U.S.-Nigeria relations?

Marie Harf: Well, we did release a statement, and I would just note that we do regret that this bill, passed by Nigeria’s national assembly. was signed into law on Jan. 7.

Obviously, we respect the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the prerogatives of its national assembly to pass legislation. We just don’t support any legislation that institutionalizes discrimination against one select group of people, and I think one of the key reasons we are opposed to this is that the law goes far beyond prohibiting same-sex marriage.

It restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians. It’s inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the democratic reforms and human rights protections enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution.

Obviously, we’ll keep raising these issues when they come up. We’ve made our position on this very clear. It may make some work in the country harder to do, but we clearly have a relationship there that’s an important one, and we’ll continue working together.

Blade: You just said it’s inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations. To which obligations are you referring?

Harf: I can check specifically with our attorneys and see what they intended with this part of the statement. Obviously, freedom of assembly, association and expression are topics we talk about a lot in terms of legal obligations, and also, anti-discrimination obligations as well. I can check if there’s more legal specifics to share.

Blade: Were there any conversations between State Department officials and Nigeria prior to the signing of this legislation?

Harf: There were. Let me what I have here. Since the law was in draft form, we’ve been in continual contact with the Jonathan administration, the National Assembly and a wide variety of Nigerian stakeholders. Our conversations have been focused on our concerns that portions of the law, again, appear to restrict Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association — provisions that we’ve been very clear we do not support.

Blade: And who was representing the United States in those talks?

Harf: I can double-check and see who the specifics there are. I don’t have that in front of me.

Blade: The statement that the secretary put out was embargoed until an announcement from the Nigerian government. Did the State Department know this law was going to be signed beforehand?

Harf: I can check on that. Obviously, we’ve been discussions since it was in draft form and it passed. We were in discussions with the administration. I’m happy to check on that. Obviously, we allow governments to speak for themselves before we speak publicly about things as well.

Blade: Could sanctions or a loss of aid be on the table as a result of this law?

Harf: I haven’t heard talk of any of that. I’m happy to check with our folks. Again, we’ve made very clear what our position is on this, and I just don’t have a ton more on it. So, I know you probably have ten follow ups, but I’m happy to take them and see if I can answer them, but then we’ll move on.

Blade: Let me ask you one last question then. The news is breaking just after a man in Cameroon died after being sentenced for being gay and after Uganda passed its own anti-gay legislation — the parliament there. Is the State Department concerned about a larger trend in Africa about passage of anti-gay legislation?

Harf: I’m happy to check with our folks and see if there’s a trend that they’re concerned about. We speak very clearly for LGBT rights across the globe. We’ve talked about it elsewhere — whether it’s Russia, here or elsewhere — that we believe that LGBT rights are human rights, there’s no place for discrimination anywhere, such as this. So, we’re very clear whether it’s Africa or somewhere else that this is something we feel very, very strongly about. President Obama and the secretary have all made very clear statements to that regard. And I’m happy to check if there’s more details on this if you have more follow-ups.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

1 Comment
  • What is all the fuss about? Nigeria has passed antigay law. so what? A country is free to pass whatever law they feel is ok to protect their cultural integrity. Western nations have laws that do not allow polygamy afterall, no one is complaining that this is a rights violation to some people whom might want to practice polygamy. In Africa, polygamy is accepted and we do not try to sell it to westerners so why try and sell the Gay rights violation to Africans.

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