At the end of January, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a meeting of the African Union that African states must respect gay rights and end discrimination against homosexuals. Similar comments in recent months, most notably by representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom, have threatened to cut aid to African states that fail to fail to heed this warning. The response from African leaders has been to claim that homosexuality is un-African, and that they are under no obligation to change their human rights standards.
With the West threatening to revoke aid if African states do not end discrimination, we are confronted by the question of whether or not donors have the right to attach conditions upon aid. Reaching an answer involves navigating a complex web of legal and moral obligations, and brings into the question the very rationale behind foreign aid.
Many authors have questioned the effectiveness of foreign aid in recent years, but putting this argument aside, there is clearly a strong commitment by Western states to provide development assistance to poorer countries. Many advocates for increased aid point to the 0.7% of GDP target, which was first noted in a 1970 General Assembly resolution. This has since been reaffirmed in the Monterrey Consensus of 2002, the Summit on Sustainable Development and most recently the Millennium Development Goals.
Beyond the legal obligations, many proponents of foreign aid point to the moral obligation to help countries which lack our level of affluence. Anyone who has walked by a homeless person on the street and felt concern for them can likely attest to the existence of a belief in a cosmopolitan human community.
This belief is echoed in the numerous criticisms of the IMF and World Bank’s practice of granting loans requiring recipients to adopt fiscal and government reform measures. The infamous “structural adjustment policies” and conditionalities of the multilateral lending agencies have been condemned by countless development economists. The notion of “tied aid,” whereby recipients must use the donated funds to acquire goods and services from the donor state, has also been subject to intense criticism.
Having established the obligation (legal or otherwise) to give aid, and noting the condemnation of any notion of conditionalities upon foreign aid, the proposition of imposing human rights requirements upon aid recipients becomes difficult to defend. Surely restricting aid in the interests of promoting human rights is a violation of this sacrosanct obligation to help impoverished countries?
Of course, the obligations of states in the international community do not end with foreign aid. The provisions in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contain protections against discrimination. Subsequent decisions have upheld that this includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Just as states have a right to not discriminate against their citizens, other states must not be complicit in these actions.
As with much of international law, the provisions in the twin Covenants are not well enforced, especially in regards to economic and social rights which are meant to implemented progressively. Failure to protect these rights has been defended on grounds that immediate enforcement is neither possible nor required.
States are condemned when they engage in trade with governments that restrict freedom of speech or expression; consider the outrage at Russia and China’s persistent support for the murderous regime in Syria. It is unlikely that anyone would be outraged if bilateral aid to Syria was pulled to prevent human rights abuses.
So why then is protecting the rights of homosexuals any less important? These people face threats of imprisonment by the state and death at the hands of their communities. Even in South Africa, where discrimination is illegal, courts have been reluctant to help victims and many notable activists have been killed or subjected to the horrors of “corrective rape.”
African states have also claimed repeatedly that homosexuality is un-African. An entire book could be devoted to refuting this statement, but we can suffice to note that the Christian and Islamic beliefs being cited as reasons for discrimination are also not native to Africa. Nor is the notion of discrimination and persecution: no religion or creed can honestly claim to support the actions taken against homosexuals in Africa.
Developing world poverty is a terrible ill, which Western states have a moral and legal duty to combat. But they are also responsible for upholding the principles of fundamental rights owed to all people, and ensuring that they are not complicit in the violation of these rights by African governments. If the West wants to restrict aid on human rights grounds, they are entirely justified in doing so.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
Want to respond to this article? Send a letter to the Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).