Kenya’s Chief Justice: “Gay Rights Are Human Rights”

Jim Burroway

February 1st, 2012

A video appeared on YouTube yesterday showing Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga declaring that “gay rights are human rights.” The remarks were delivered on September 8, 2011 at a groundbreaking ceremony for FIDA Uganda, a Ugandan organization of Women Lawyers. FIDA Uganda was among the organizations which denounced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The Chief Justice’s speech in Uganda is interesting for three reasons. First, his call for recognizing that “gay rights are human rights” actually pre-dates an identical declaration from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by two full months. Secondly, the woman wearing lavender you see seating herself at the beginning of the video is Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, who played an important role in reviving the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in October. And finally, Uganda and Kenya close neighbors, sharing a common history as part of Britian’s East African colonies, and they maintain extensive political and economic ties. Much of Uganda’s imports and exports flow through the Kenyan port of Mombasa, and the two countries are part of a larger emerging common market, the East African Community. The situation for LGBT people in Kenya is generally much better than in Uganda, although there have been instances of mob violence against suspected gay people in recent years.

Mutunga has an interesting history. In the early 1980s as a student, he was politically active against Kenyan president/dictator Daniel Arap Moi, which led to his detention and exile to Canada. When Kenya turned to multi-party elections in 1991, he returned home and became part of Kenya’s “Young Turks, advocating for human rights in the country. He continued to work in human rights positions throughout most of the next two decades. After Kenya reorganized under a new constitution following the disputed 2007 which broke down into nationwide violence, Mutunga was named to the country’s new High Court in 2011.

Here is the video and transcript of a portion of Justice Mutunga’s remarks:

We have fought and succeeded in demanding our rights of movement and association  although we can’t take them for granted. We should see less of the workshopping in hotels, less of the flipcharts and the [?], as we now move to the countrysides and make sure our people own and protect the human rights and social justice messages.

The other frontier of marginalization is the gay rights movement. Gay rights are human rights. Here I’m simply confining my statement to the context of human rights and social justice paradigm, and avoiding the controversy that exists in our constitutions and various legislation. As far as I know, human rights principles that we work on, do not allow us to implement human rights selectively. We need clarity on this issue within the human rights movement in East Africa, if we are to face the challenges that are spearheaded by powerful political and religious forces in our midst. I find the arguments made by some of our human rights activists, the so-called “moral arguments” simply rationalizations for using human rights principles opportunistically and selectively. We need to bring together the opposing viewpoints in the movement of this issue for final and conclusive debate.

I thank the FIDA movement, membership, leadership, and its national, regional and global network for the honor bestowed on me. I’m very proud of this honor and I will never take it for granted.

paul canning

February 1st, 2012

His appointment last year, and of his deputy, were major wins for LGBT rights in Kenya, he was widely vilified with much focus on the fact that he wears an earring! Civil society has swung behind LGBT increasingly over the past few years in Kenya and there has been a lot more positive and serious media coverage.

The riots you mention – which followed joint Xstian/Muslim incitement over false reports of gay weddings – were one example of how that support helped defeat anti-gay forces. The local state – the police – also came out of it well. Unfortunately this positive outcome was unreported in the west and the false reporting of the riots near Mombassa, by the BBC, NYT etc, who all reported the ‘weddings’ as fact, was all there was.

As Val Kalende was saying of Uganda, there is not enough reporting of the positive developments like Mutunga’s appointment.

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