A top EU official has said that the EU must stop lecturing African nations on “cultural” issues like LGBT rights, implying that it is harming the EU’s influence in the region.
Nick Westcott, the managing director for Africa in the EU’s diplomatic service and the EU’s most senior official on EU/Africa relations, is quoted by the EUobserver as saying at a debate on October 2 that the EU must stop lecturing on “cultural issues” like LGBT rights:
It should be “less apologetic about our financial clout and, secondly … more humble on the cultural issues.”
Elaborating on what he meant by “cultural issues,” Westcott added: “We can lecture about lesbian, gays and bisexuals until the cows come home. And it will have a wholly counterproductive effect on our usefulness in Africa. We need to focus on fundamental values.”
Westcott reportedly went on to say during this debate on Europe’s waning foreign influence that the EU still has “tremendous influence in Africa,” given its strong trading relationship and aid programs, and that this must be preserved.
Westcott’s words may raise particular concern for international LGBT rights groups, and for a number of reasons.
The EU’s influence has been instrumental in curtailing several attacks on the LGBT community in Africa and most notably its strong reaction against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. With the threat of ending international aid and the endangering of trade relationships, Uganda’s lawmakers saw fit to go slow on the bill. Even now the bill remains a threat but one of the key things stopping it from passing appears to be international pressure, in no small part from the EU and partners like the United States.
Similarly, when in 2012 Liberia considered further criminalizing its LGBT population, international pressure made it clear in no uncertain terms that to hound the LGBT community would mean the breaking down of international relations. This led to lawmakers appearing to reconsider the most severe penalties.
While EU influence has not been enough to prevent every nation from further criminalizing its LGBT population, with Nigeria forging ahead earlier this year on tougher penalties for gay marriage, its overall LGBT inclusive foreign policy has been of considerable help in stopping harassment and violence.
For instance, the EU has made protecting LGBTs and ending discrimination against the community a component of membership, something that Turkey and several other nations are still struggling with — but it is a vital struggle that can bring about meaningful change.
In addition, as recently as June of this year, EU ministers agreed to actively pursue the rights of so-called sexual minorities (which, for this purpose, includes gender identity and expression). In fact, a 20-page dossier published by EU ministers says the EU “reaffirms that cultural, traditional or religious values cannot be invoked to justify any form of discrimination, including discrimination against LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex] persons.”
The EU’s pro-LGBT rights stance, and that of other international communities, doesn’t sit well with everyone, to be sure.
Westcott’s speech came just days after Yahya Jammeh, President of Gambia, told the United Nations that the LGBT community is among one of the biggest threats to human existence, and apparently “more deadly than all natural disasters put together.” Jammeh then declared on Thursday, October 3 that Gambia will now leave the Commonwealth. For Gambia’s LGBT population, this must be terrifying.
Given that same-sex relationships are still illegal in almost 40 out of 54 African nations, we might consider this to be an issue of “fundamental” importance, to use Westcott’s own terminology, and while Westcott is right in stating that preserving the EU’s foreign power is a legitimate concern, his apparent casting of LGBT rights as a mere “cultural” issue — as though the right to live one’s life free of violence and persecution is akin to a minor disagreement over heritage or history — is quite frankly deplorable.
To be sure, the EU’s continued involvement is vital. Were the EU to abandon LGBTs in Africa now, as Westcott seems to be suggesting, it could, for some, really be a death sentence.