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Nigeria risks sanctions as Biden issues foreign policy memorandum on gay rights


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Nigeria is among countries that could be sanctioned by the United States in line with a foreign policy memorandum signed by President Joe Biden to promote the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers and intersexes (LGBTQI+) across the world. 

The ‘Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Persons Around the World’, which Biden issued on February 4, 2021, directed heads of US executive departments and agencies to invoke a range of punitive diplomatic actions, including financial sanctions and visa restrictions, on countries that ‘abuse’ the rights of LGBTQI+ persons.

  • Anti-gay law places Nigeria at risk

Gay rights are not recognised in Nigeria.

The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which criminalises gay relationships, was signed by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014 despite misgivings by the US and the United Kingdom.

The law provides 14-year jail terms for persons convicted for engaging in same-sex relationships in Nigeria.

In December 2019, 47 Nigerian men were charged with public displays of affection with members of the same sex, an act which violated the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.

Nigeria and other countries with similar disposition towards LGBTQI+ persons are likely to experience difficult times in their relationship with the US, as Biden, in the memo, stressed: “I am directing all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”

There are about 70 countries around the world, including Nigeria, that criminalise same-sex relationships, according to the Human Rights Watch.

The agencies, through which the US would fight for the rights of LGBTQI+ persons, according to the memo, include the Departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

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  • Countries that violate rights of LGBTQI+ persons face ‘swift’ US response, including financial sanctions, visa restrictions

Specifically, Biden directed ‘swift and meaningful United States responses to human rights abuses of LGBTQI+ persons abroad.’

“The Department of State shall lead a standing group, with appropriate inter-agency representation, to help ensure the Federal Government’s swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons abroad.

“When foreign governments move to restrict the rights of LGBTQI+ persons or fail to enforce legal protections in place, thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance, agencies engaged abroad shall consider appropriate responses, including using the full range of diplomatic and assistance tools and, as appropriate, financial sanctions, visa restrictions, and other actions,” the memo said.

Further directing US agencies to ‘combat’ criminalisation of LGBTQI+ status, Biden ordered that existing efforts to combat the criminalisation by foreign governments of LGBTQI+ status or conduct should be strengthened with special attention on checking discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance.

Biden also directed the US Department of State to, on an annual basis and as part of the annual report submitted to the Congress pursuant to sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151n(d) and 2304(b)), report on human rights abuses experienced by LGBTQI+ persons globally.

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“This reporting shall include anti-LGBTQI+ laws as well as violence and discrimination committed by both state and non-state actors against LGBTQI+ persons,” the memo added.

  • US agencies to consider impact on rights of LGBTQI+ persons when making funding decisions in foreign aid

Another key aspect of the memo is the directive that US agencies involved in foreign aid and assistance should consider the impact of their programmes on the rights of LGBTQI+ persons when making funding decisions.

“Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development programs should consider the impact of programs funded by the Federal Government on human rights, including the rights of LGBTQI+ persons, when making funding decisions, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” the memo said.

Nigeria may lose out in donor funds if US agencies feel funds they provide in foreign aid have no positive impact on the rights of LGBTQI+ persons in the country.

  • US to favour ‘vulnerable’ LGBTQI+ asylum seekers

Biden, in the memo, directed that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers should be given priority status for purposes of resettlement in the US.

Ordering improved protection for LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, the memo added, “the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security shall ensure appropriate training is in place so that relevant Federal Government personnel and key partners can effectively identify and respond to the particular needs of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, including by providing to them adequate assistance and ensuring that the Federal Government takes all appropriate steps, such as potential increased use of Embassy Priority-1 referrals, to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.”

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The implication is that Nigerian LGBTQI+ persons who cite ‘discrimination’ imposed by the country’s anti-gay law are likely to get favourable considerations from US authorities when seeking asylum.

Barely a month since he came into office, Biden has repealed some decisions taken by his predecessor, Donald Trump, including the ban on transgender people serving openly in the army.

To underscore the reversal of policies of the Trump administration that relate to LGBTQI+ persons, Biden further directed that within 100 days, or as soon as possible, “all agencies engaged abroad shall review and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, take steps to rescind any directives, orders, regulations, policies, or guidance inconsistent with this memorandum, including those issued from January 20, 2017, to January 20, 2021, to the extent that they are inconsistent with this memorandum.”

The heads of the concerned US agencies were also directed to, within 100 days of the date of the memorandum, report to the President on their progress in implementing the directives and recommend additional opportunities and actions to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.

Former President Barack Obama had, in 2011, issued the first presidential memorandum directing US agencies abroad to promote LGBTQI rights globally.

Biden said his memorandum “reaffirms and supplements” the principles established in the presidential memorandum earlier issued by Obama.

The federal government under Jonathan had gone ahead to sign the anti-gay law, after it was unanimously passed by the National Assembly, despite the Obama administration’s threats to cut off aid to Nigeria. It is expected that the Biden administration will resume efforts by the US government, under the Democratic Party, to get Nigeria to recognise gay rights.

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