The State Department is looking into media reports that authorities in Nigeria are arresting dozens of LGBT activists in the aftermath of passage of an anti-gay law in the country.
Under questioning from the Washington Blade, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said reports of arrests in Nigeria are “very troubling” if true.
“We’re trying to confirm those reports,” Harf said. “I’ve seen them. We don’t know if they’re true or not. If they are true, that would obviously be very troubling. Again, our team is continuing to check on the ground to get new facts to see what’s actually going on.”
According to a report on Tuesday from the Associated Press, human rights activists in Nigeria claim police are working off a list of 168 suspects — purportedly obtained through torture — to arrest dozens of gay men in the country. A police official reportedly denied any use of torture, and accounts of the number of arrests vary from as low as 11 to as high as 38.
Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel to Human Rights First, said the reports of arrests demonstrate the impact of the new anti-gay law in Nigeria, which was signed last week by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
“This is truly the worst case scenario,” Gaylord said. “When discriminatory bills like this are passed, we are always concerned that they set the stage for violence and ill treatment in society even when they are not enforced. But the fact that this law is being enforced so quickly and forcefully demonstrates the full extent of Nigeria’s human rights crisis.”
Under the new anti-gay law in Nigeria, same-sex marriage and same-sex “amorous relationships” are banned as well as membership in LGBT groups. The statute contains a provision allowing punishment of up to 14 years in prison for attempting to enter into a same-sex marriage.
After being unable to answer some questions from the podium on Monday for the Blade regarding the anti-gay law, Harf on Tuesday offered some answers.
For starters, after saying that passage of the law is inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations, Harf was able to identify which obligation the law violates: the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. Nigeria joined the 167-party agreement that aims to protect the civil and political rights of individuals in 1993.
“The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act not only prohibits same-sex marriage in Nigeria; it also includes broadly worded provisions implicating the rights to the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association that are set forth in the ICCPR,” Harf said. “So, when we were talking about international law, that’s what we were referring to.”
Harf also clarified which U.S. officials spoke with officials in Nigeria prior to passage of the anti-gay law, saying they consisted of individuals at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, the U.S. consulate general in Lagos and Washington officials. These officials, Harf said, helped Nigerians who support LGBT rights chart a course to “support the LGBT community there and to help Nigerians who are opposed to discrimination against the LGBT community.”
Still, Harf said she didn’t have an answer to a previous inquiry about whether U.S. officials had any knowledge that Jonathan would sign the legislation before he took that action.
Will Stevens, a State Department spokesperson, later said the U.S. government has been monitoring the legislation for some time.
“We have been closely monitoring the progress of this law as it moved through the legislative process and have engaged regularly with the [government of Nigeria] and civil society on our concerns about the proposed legislation,” Stevens said.
Additionally, Harf said she didn’t have any announcements about conversations the U.S. would have in the future about the Nigerian government on the anti-gay law, but said the administration would continue to voice concerns given the opportunity.
“One thing I learned to do is not make predictions from the podium about anything,” Harf said. “Like I said, I don’t have anything to announce about any conversations. We regularly raise it. I’ve been very clear from here about our position. If we have any updates, then I’m happy to let you know.”
Also on Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke out against the anti-gay law, marking the first statement against the statute by the intergovernmental organization.
“International human rights law and jurisprudence clearly indicate that states have a legal duty to protect all individuals from violations of their human rights, including on the basis of their sexual orientation,” Pillay said. “Disapproval of homosexuality by the majority on moral or religious grounds does not justify criminalizing or discriminating against LGBT persons.”
Pillay urged the high court in Nigeria to examine the constitutionality of the new law at the next opportunity.
For its part, Harf acknowledged the State Department is concerned that passage of the anti-gay law in Nigeria represents a growing trend of anti-gay activity in Africa.
“We are deeply concerned by some of the recent developments we have seen in Africa with respect to human rights of LGBT individuals, including passage of the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ by Uganda’s parliament and also increasing arrest of LGBT individuals in countries, such as Cameroon and Zambia,” Harf said. “Human rights are a cornerstone of our foreign policy; we say this all the time, and we will continue to support the efforts of our human defenders in Africa and across the globe who are working to end discrimination against LGBT persons.”