An African nation has become the latest to criminalise homosexual acts, just weeks before France will plead for universal decriminalisation at the UN.
The National Assembly of Burundi passed a law on Friday making same-sex acts punishable by between three months and two years in prison, along with a substantial fine.
Reaction from gay rights groups was swift.
“The government has moved this bill quickly and unjustly through the legislative process,” said a representative of Association pour le Respect et les Droits des Homosexuels (ARDO).
“The whole process has happened over the course of a weekend, with no input from civil society or general discussion about the issue of homosexuality and freedom of expression within Burundi.”
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and ARDO issued strongly worded letters to the entire membership of Burundi’s Senate, asking them to vote against the legislation, which would criminalise homosexuality for the first time in the history of the country.
The Senate may vote on the bill as early as tomorrow and if it passes Burundian President Nkurunziza is likely to sign it into law.
IGLHRC and ARDO also wrote to President Nkurunziza, asking him to veto the legislation should it be presented to him for his signature. Both groups encourage others to contact Burundian authorities to protest the measure.
“Imprisoning people simply because of who they love offends every principle of human rights practice, which is to ensure dignity and respect for all people,” said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s executive director.
“This is less about sexuality and more about the visibility of a growing community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Africa refusing to be treated as dirt.
“These laws are meant to silence and terrorise our community and must be stopped.”
IGLHRC said that Burundi – a small country in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the south and east, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west – has been locked in an ethnically-based conflict for much of its post-independence history.
A negotiated peace settlement, brokered with the assistance of a number of African states, has led to the installation of a multi-party government. The last few years have seen a certain level of reconstruction in the country, increased stability and the emergence of a nascent civil society.
The United Nations has condemned laws that criminalise homosexuality as being violations of the rights to privacy and equality and has called upon member states that maintain such laws to review them.
Next month’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly will make history when a declaration against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will be presented.
All 27 countries of the European Union have signed the declaration, which will be presented by France.
The initiative for the declaration follows a campaign by the committee coordinating the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO).
More than 80 countries outlaw same-sex relations in all circumstances.
The maximum punishments range from a few years jail to life imprisonment.
In nine countries, or regions of countries, the mandatory punishment for homosexuality is death by execution.
In September the French minister of human rights and foreign affairs confirmed that she will appeal at the United Nations for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Rama Yade also said that the EU wanted to take the lead in stopping violence against women worldwide.
France will speak for all EU member states at the UN General Assembly, as they hold the rotating Presidency of the European Union.
Earlier this year it was reported that the French initiative on decrminalisation will take the form of a solemn declaration from UN states, rather than a vote in the UN on the matter.
France will instead submit a draft declaration at the UN General Assembly between December 15th and 20th. The British government already advocates universal decriminalisation.
It is thought that this is the first time a declaration of this kind has reached the General Assembly.