By Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International USA
Ghana is facing a challenge: whether it will remain trapped in the past or write a new history.
By virtue of being the first sub–Saharan African country to achieve independence in 1957 from Britain, being led by a charismatic head of state who articulated and championed Pan Africanism and the continent’s liberation, the country has often been considered a leader of democratic governance by its African neighbors and the African diaspora.
Yet, underneath this reputation lie a more complicated truth and an uneven record on human rights. Nowhere is this challenge more obvious than in a recent, shocking example where the Ghanaian parliament has introduced a violently anti-LGBTI rights bill that violates human rights at every turn.
In March 2021, the “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill” was introduced in the Ghanaian parliament. In addition to criminalizing and imposing jail sentences of up to five years for being a member of the LGBTIQ+ community, supporting a member of the community, or discussing issues related to the community, the proposed bill also supports “conversion therapy,” a practice that has been condemned globally, including by the UN Committee Against Torture. If passed, the proposed legislation would violate regional and international human rights obligations that Ghana has signed.
Human rights experts with the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed concerns that the bill would promote discrimination and mandate practices that would be considered ill-treatment and torture. The bill, if passed, will prevent human rights defenders from defending members of the LGBTQI+ community, and, because of its provision prohibiting any public debate on sexual orientation and gender identity, it would directly undermine rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and association, rights guaranteed under the African Union Charter for Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Another disturbing aspect of the bill that the UN experts noted is how the proposed bill could legitimize violence against LBTQI+ women and reinforce existing gender stereotypes and discrimination against women, both of which are “both cause and consequence of violence against women and girls.”
The supporters of the bill argue that this response is in keeping in Ghanaian values and culture, and that homosexuality is an illness brought to the continent by the West that has no place in Ghana.
They are wrong.
First, in most African countries, laws criminalizing same-sex conduct are a legacy of colonial rule, including Ghana’s section 104(1)(b) of the Criminal Offences Act 1960 which prohibits and punishes “unnatural carnal knowledge. This is in stark contrast to the generally more tolerant attitude of African kingdoms or empires that were subjugated by those same powers. A cave painting in Zimbabwe depicting male-male sex from over 2000 years ago shows just how non-foreign this concept is. The documentation of marriages between women in more than 40 ethnic groups in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Sudan only further proves this point.
What’s more, the parliamentarians behind the bill do not appear to appreciate the concept of human rights for all human beings. Countries committed to human rights should not discriminate against groups of people — or curtail the non-violent expression of ideas, the debate, and the need to live with diversity — as Ghana is seeking to do wholesale here.
But if this bill passes, reading and discussing an opinion piece just like this one could put a person in jail. This is a human rights nightmare that all Ghanaians must work to stop. These policies target LGBTQI+ people, but they threaten the rights of all.
Ghana must be better than that.
This is a test of whether the country can live up to its reputation as an African leader and continue to build a Ghana where there is respect for the human rights of all Ghanaians in practice as well as on paper. The proposed bill is also disturbingly similar to equally extremist legislation introduced in Uganda that was later linked to fundamentalist hate groups based in the United States who are rigidly intolerant.
The country that fought for its independence did so that all of its people would enjoy the security and dignity they were fundamentally entitled to as opposed to being subservient to their overseas colonial rulers. The Ghanaians that linked their freedom to the liberation of Africa — and of all Africans — did not sacrifice themselves to have their legacy of inclusion, advancement, and empowerment dismantled and repudiated by their descendants.
We make history or we allow our friends, family members, brothers, sisters to be stripped of their rights and erased out of their futures and ours.