The Criminalization of Sexual Minorities and Human Rights Violations in Ethiopia

Human Rights Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a rising star among anti-gay countries in Africa as it continues to push for new legislation to further crackdown on LGBTQ community. The country is a place where homophobia thrives and discrimination against sexual minorities are state-sponsored.

The bill proposed by the Council of Ministers on March 2014 and rejected a week later by the parliament due to condemnation of the international community is a very good example of the hostility towards LGBTQ people in this most populous African nation.

The short-lived bill was intended to significantly changes the country’s Pardon and Amnesty Law and tight the already harsh anti-LGBTQ law to make it impossible for sexual minorities to exercise their fundamental human rights. The bill put the homosexual act on the list of offences considered “non-pardonable,” along with terrorism and other serious crimes.

In Ethiopia, homosexuality is illegal, carrying a maximum sentence of imprisonment up to 25 years. lesbians, bisexuals, gays, and transgendered citizens are often stigmatized, discriminated against, and subjected to numerous human rights violations and attacks.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project (2007), attitudes toward the homosexual members are overwhelmingly negative in this country. According to the report of this organization, 97% of Ethiopians believe that homosexuality is a very harmful way of life that society should not accept and that people who are engaged in such relationships should be punished.

Ethiopian government officials have been well-known for denouncing homosexual acts and LGBTQ communities for many years. The government has made clear that the nation has no place for these members of society, stating that their options are either to change who they are or suffer in prison.

Ethiopian society, known for its conservative values, is a deeply religious, very traditional and deeply collectivistic. Its two primary religions, orthodox Christianity and Islam, have a strong control over the population and have established moral standards for millions. The teachings of these two religions are incongruent with such modern ways of life as personal freedom and adaptability to societal change.

The Ethiopian Orthodox church, a conservative form of Christianity, teaches that the homosexual act is a sin, immoral, an illness, repulsive, strictly forbidden and must be legally punished. It goes without saying that this belief has been inflicting fear for years.

The 2012 pro-gay conference scheduled to be held in the capital Addis Ababa by a human right group was the first attempt to stir open conversation in a society that is at odds with its LGBTQ community members. However, the effort finally failed due to the outcry of different religious groups. As the date of the conference approached, these religious organizations set their differences aside and protested together against the conference, calling the organizers “missionaries of evil.” Their protest resulted in the cancellation of the conference which could have brought so much good.

It was during this time that Abune Paulose, who once termed homosexuality “the pinnacle of immorality,” said that, “People who act in this manner have to be dumb, stupid like animals. We strongly condemn this behavior. They have to be disciplined and their acts discriminated against. They have to be given a lesson.”

Denial, Silence and Frustration.

Ethiopians deny the fact that there are gays, lesbians, and transgendered human beings in their society, believing that it is a western way of life. Millions still think homosexuality is a result of sickness and demonic possession. Although researches have demonstrated that there are a growing number of LGBTQ community members, many still dismiss these revelations, consider LGBTQ rights as a non-issue, and their narrative as a western conspiracy.

The hostility towards LGBTQ community is extreme and very concerning. Because of this, many are forced to live by hiding their sexual orientation or fleeing the country. Even talking about having a same sex relationship is very dangerous.

The silence in this society is overwhelming. People do not talk about homosexuality. The media has no appetite to cover such issues or discuss the subject, let alone ordinary citizens. The issue is pushed aside even by Ethiopian human right defenders, political activists, and human right groups. Very few agree that the rights of these community members should be respected, yet they are afraid to talk about it in public.

The consequences of the hostility, silence, criminalization and discrimination are far -reaching, and go far beyond frustration in the LGBTQ community. The mainstream narratives of religious groups and the government have caused many members to believe they are sick and mentally disturbed.

Rush, 26, is one of the very few Ethiopian gays who bravely came out and shared his story with the world. He left his country and started a new life in South Africa during the final months of 1998. In his recent interview with Global Gayz, he stated that many are brainwashed in Ethiopia. He said, “Yes, when I came to in South Africa, I thought homosexuality was a disease or abnormality, but now I understand that it is natural, so we all must come to understand this.”

The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to equality and recognizes the importance of protecting people’s human rights. It clearly states that all persons shall be equal before the law and shall be entitled to equal protection under the law without distinction of any kind related to race, nation, nationality, color, sex, language, religion, political or social origin, property, birth or any other status.

However, other articles of the constitution, including Article 34, open the door to other laws which redefine and violate this fundamental right. As a result, laws such as the criminal code undermine this right and allow discrimination against LGBT members of the community on the basis of sexual orientation.

Ethiopia’s criminal code defines marriage as a legal contract entered or as an engagement between a man and woman and sees other forms of relations as illegal.  According to this law, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 15 years in prison, or 25 years if an offender “uses violence, intimidation or coercion, trickery or fraud, or takes unfair advantage of the victim’s inability to offer resistance.

Ethiopia is also a member of several treaties and conventions, including the ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, and CAT. These treaties enshrine the rights of all people to non-discrimination and equality before the law. As a member of the United Nation and human rights treaties, Ethiopia has the obligation to respect and protect these rights. However, the country has proven that it does not have the wish to uphold these standards.

Betre Yacob Getahun
Betre Yacob Getahun is an exiled Ethiopian journalist. He received his BA degree in journalism and communication from Bahir Dar University in 2008. He currently contributes to different media institutions on sensitive issues ranging from politics to human rights. He co-Authored Nipo Nipo Tu.