The LRC challenges the shame of South Africa’s schools

There is much to admire about South Africa’s relative progress and stability in the almost nineteen years since its first multiracial election, but its school system is truly an embarrassment. Despite the country’s upper-middle-income classification, many areas that were formerly designated as so-called “homelands” (i.e., the Transkei and Ciskei), resemble the poorest areas of many of Africa’s poorest countries.

I paste below a link to a wonderful but depressing story about the dismal state of Eastern Cape schools — sometimes referred to as the “mud schools” because several are made of mud. It highlights how the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) has been working to protect children’s rights to education, suing the government to provide appropriate resources. It should not be necessary to litigate for decent schools for the poorest kids, but at least that avenue is available and seems to have had some impact.

LRC and Eastern Cape Schools

New Malawian President wants to overturn anti-gay laws

Acccording to the BBC, Malawi’s new President, Joyce Banda — who took power after her predecessor died of a heart attack — has announced her desire to overturn a ban on homosexual acts. I had been wondering whether Obama’s statement might have an impact on African governments, and obviously it’s hard to infer whether or not there’s a connection (there is no mention in the article). She may also be acting out of concern for aid conditionality.

But the timing does make me wonder.

She will undoubtedly face pushback from conservative members of society, but Malawi stands to be the first African country since the onset of the post-apartheid era in South Africa (1994) to act with greater tolerance and concern for human rights for gays.

Human rights for gays at home and abroad

Yesterday morning, I had started to write about the hypocrisy of North Carolina adopting an anti-gay marriage law, while the U.S. was developing a policy to deny foreign aid to countries that discriminate against gays.  I had been primed by watching Jon Stewart the night before, as he appropriately mocked the President’s press secretary for trying to finesse the implications of VP Joe Biden’s public expression of support for gay marriage. When reporters asked the press secretary to clarify Obama’s views on the issue, he tried and failed to convincingly articulate the contradictory claims that the President’s view “hadn’t changed,” and yet was “evolving.”

But then yesterday afternoon, Obama came out (excuse the pun) and made clear his support for the idea of gay marriage.

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

This is a big moment for the United States. The president’s words are not law, but they do imply policy and at least policy goals. Those words could come to haunt him in the election, but I am guessing not. Mitt Romney responded not so much by forcefully condemning the idea of gay marriage — he pointed out that this was his view, but it was a difficult issue — but by emphasizing his consistency over Obama’s lack thereof. It’s hard not to sense that the country has reached a watershed on sexual orientation.

Nonetheless, those foreign governments, especially in Africa, which find themselves under pressure to adopt a more tolerant and inclusive approach to citizens irrespective of sexual orientation may still balk at the varied realization of such ideals within the U.S. As shown below, American states vary widely, with distinctly regional approaches, reminiscent of other civil rights issues from years’ past. Of course, one implication might be that the federal government could withhold funding to the Southeast, especially to states such as Mississippi, which afford no protections for anti-gay discrimination… but that’s not too likely! At the very least, the Obama administration can take the moral high ground now that POTUS has finally spoken without equivocation.

(Graphic from the Guardian UK.)

Gay rights in the U.S. by region

Commemorating a famous South African protest with new protests

South African president Jacob Zuma spoke yesterday in Kliptown, Soweto in commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacres — an infamous event, during which peaceful protests against the South African pass law turned into a police killing of 69 people. In an attempt to put an affirming spin on this horrible but political watershed event, the anniversary has been renamed, “Human Rights Day.”

According to Business Day, protests erupted in Sharpeville on Tuesday when the news circulated that the speech would take place in Kliptown and not in Sharpeville. And in turn, a series of “service delivery” protests followed in other areas — a term I put in quotes only because some analysts, such as Steven Friedman, have argued that these protests have tended to be motivated by broader political agendas rather than specific gripes about service under-provision. The modern Sharpeville protest suggests the centrality of the politics of dignity.

And with respect to the subject of human rights, various South African news outlets have been highlighting the contradiction between Zuma’s discussion of the importance of the constitution and the bill of rights on the one hand; alongside recent his administration’s recent moves to curtail free information, to review the constitution, and to question the integrity of the judiciary.

In short, the question of which services and protections ought to be aspirations, and which ought to be rights remain the subject of active political conflict in the South African polity.

And as part of that political struggle, protest remains a powerful and important citizen tool for voicing discontent, especially when the electoral system seems to offer little recourse. But I’m torn: Will today’s protests bring about stronger and more responsive democratic governance? Perhaps. But it also might backfire if such protests are organized at too low of a threshold, and if active engagement falls by the wayside as a strategy for realizing human rights and promoting better service delivery. My point is not to blame the protesters, but to wonder why the ANC continues to alienate its base, rather than drafting the citizenry as partners?

Anti-gay legislation from Charles Taylor’s ex-wife

More anti-gay bills in West Africa… Jewel Howard Taylor, former wife of former Liberian president Charles Taylor is using her time as Senator in this war-torn country to advance a bill that would make same-gender sexual relations a felony. If convicted, such a crime would warrant punishment ranging from 10 years in jail to death.

And Nobel prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has remained silent on the issue.

The issue continues to heat up owing to the pressure of the U.S. and the U.K. to consider gay rights as human rights over the past year. According to the AFP,

A few weeks after the United States in December announced it would consider gay rights when handing out aid, the Movement in Defence of Gay and Lesbian Rights in Liberia began to push for the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

This was roundly condemned and the leaders of the movement — none of them gay — were mobbed and had to be rescued by police when they tried to campaign at a university campus.

The U.S. gives quite a bit of aid to Liberia. The question is whether we will put our money where are mouths are and actually cut back assistance because of this issue, even as American influence on the continent wanes in the face of massive Chinese investment. Would such a stance fly well with the American electorate? There may be mixed support for gay marriage, but I’m pretty sure that a healthy majority of Americans would recognize death-for-sodomy as a massive human rights violation… and since enthusiasm for foreign aid is not so high to begin with, there would not be much backlash were the U.S. government to tighten the screws. The bigger question would be whether the Liberians would simply tell us to take a walk and highlight their rights to “cultural sovereignty.”

Ugandans react to new aid pressures

Recently, I posted about the UK’s moves to apply pressure on African countries to be respectful and to protect the human rights of all people, irrespective of sexual orientation. And in recent weeks, Secretary Clinton has signaled that the Obama administration is going to do much the same.

It’s a bold foreign policy move, and it’s generating a lot of heat, especially in Uganda, which receives a ton of foreign aid. On the one hand, today’s NY Times op-ed from a Ugandan activist (Gay and Vilified in Uganda – provided a powerful portrait of what homosexuals face in their country. But President Museveni has tried to shift the agenda away from gay rights to the “universal” need for economic development. Meanwhile, this clip

from Ugandan news (after about minute 1:00), reports on a meeting of Ugandan ambassadors from around the world discussing how to promote a better image abroad. At the meeting, Acting minister of Foreign Affairs, Okello Oryem, says Uganda will “not tolerate acts of sexual abuse perpetrated on minors and other vulnerable people by homosexuals in the name of practicing their gay rights.” Typically, the Ugandan government has done everything possible to be the darling of the aid community, but on this social issue, they are angling for a real standoff.

Health and Human Rights blog

I recently wrote a piece for the Health and Human Rights blog on the governance of infectious disease.

So who should be responsible for governing the threat of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria? As the “old” paradigm of strong centralized state public health programs was found to be outmoded, a new set of governance models emerged in its wake, all involving greater devolution of authority and more horizontally organized reporting structures. In particular, a few appealing terms have buzzed about during the past three decades of the global AIDS crisis, including “multisectoral,” “synergistic,” “partnership,” “mutual accountability,” and “coordination.” Who could argue with any of these?

You can read the full post here: Health and Human Rights

Gay tolerance as possible UK aid conditionality

This week, the BBC reported on UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that aid recipients should protect human rights, including the humane treatment of homosexuals. It launched a discussion of what could become a new form of aid conditionality long practiced by donor countries, but more typically in favor of the adoption of certain types of economic policies and governance structures.

Of course, there is a touch of bitter irony in the demand — while a full 41 of 54 commonwealth countries have laws banning homosexuality, in most cases these are legacies of British Imperial law.

In various African countries, leaders rebuffed the proposal.

From the Ghanaian Minister of Trade and Industry, Hannah Tetteh:

Our society does not accept the practice of gays and lesbianism

A Zambian government spokesman said they will not enact pro-homosexuality laws to get British aid. And in Uganda, the proposal caused a “fury.”

This may emerge into one of the great North-South values clashes in the years to come. While democratic practices have often been attached to loan conditions, virtually no leaders  have taken the public stance that they actually oppose democracy, even if they undermine the institution in practice. In the case of homosexual tolerance, however, given low public support, leaders are taking stark and uncompromising positions, and some countries are looking to toughen their approach rather than the reverse.

(See my recent post about the extent of harsh treatment towards gays around the world, especially in Africa.)

Gay rights in Africa, Zimbabwe

The heat generated by the issue of gay rights in America is just barely lukewarm compared with what one finds on the African continent. In an article on same-sex marriage in Portugal a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times provided this graphic:

which shows 10 sub-Saharan countries with penalties of 10 or more years of prison time for gay male relationships (and many other countries have less severe penalties, let alone widespread informal discrimination). Only in South Africa — where actual treatment of gays varies widely throughout the country — is gay marriage legal.

The interesting news this week is Morgan Tsvangirai’s bold statement that he would support gay rights in Zimbabwe were he to become president. In the BBC story and interview, not only did Tsvangirai reverse his 2010 statement on the issue — agreeing with Mugabe’s view on the matter — but he proclaimed that this was a “human right.”

For some time, I have been trying to find the time to do some systematic research explaining cross-country variation on attitudes and policies towards gays… and I am still trying. In the meantime, I would love to know what led Tsvangirai to make this statement — one that is clearly not going to score him any important political points at election time next year.

Human Rights Watch looks to So. Africa, India, Brazil to be regime police in Syria

Human Rights Watch made an interesting plea this week to South Africa, Brazil, and India – don’t go easy on Syria. Leaders from the three countries recently met for trilateral talks on a range of issues, and while they condemned the violence in Syria, HRW points out that the death-toll has been huge, and these countries have done little to push for greater oversight of the situation or to make meaningful criticisms of the current regime.

I think this is an interesting story because HRW typically barks at governments who are directly doing wrong (the Zimbabwes and Myanmars of the world) and the rich and powerful countries – especially the U.S. — who may be doing wrong themselves or not doing enough to right the wrongs of other countries.

But in this case, they are going after what I think are the developing world’s democratic anchors, who themselves engage in a fair bit of dialogue owing to their shared geo-political position, and increasing trade and investment links. And in this regard, HRW is absolutely right – these are the countries most likely to be influential in their respective regions and in the developing world more generally in the years to come. So far, South Africa has been unimpressive in its relations with Swaziland and with Zimbabwe, let alone more distant Syria. Of course, it may be pretty naïve for HRW to think that any of these states are more interested in human rights in foreign lands than they are in the economic relations, which more directly affect their own citizens. (I think this would be a good topic for an International Relations thesis…)