The Senate of Burundi is to vote on a new draft of the criminal code this week that would criminalise homosexual conduct for the first time.
Human rights activists have written to the African nation’s President and the Senate pointing out that the provision would violate the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Burundi is a party.
“We are deeply discouraged that the Senate is on the verge of passing a provision that violates basic human rights,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch.
“Senators should not yield to pressure to enshrine injustice into law.”
The new criminal code was drafted over a period of nearly two years, with the assistance of Burundian and international legal experts, after elections in 2005 restored a democratic system in Burundi and required the revision of legal texts.
However, in October 2008, at the end of the discussion on the bill, the Human Rights and Justice Commission in the National Assembly inserted a provision criminalising “anyone who engages in sexual relations with a person of the same sex.”
The provision would be the first law criminalising gays and lesbians in the country’s history.
The bill was approved by the National Assembly on November 22nd with little debate.
On February 6th the Senate Justice Commission completed a series of amendments to the National Assembly version, but it did not amend the provision on homosexuality.
Human Rights Watch claim that a number of Senators told them they were personally opposed to the provision, but were wavering under pressure from certain political figures and religious groups.
If the Senate passes the law, the president can challenge it by demanding a second reading or submitting it to the Constitutional Court for evaluation.
“The enforcement of a prohibition of homosexual conduct is likely to undermine attempts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS,” according to HRW.
“Persons stigmatised for their sexual conduct may shun treatment for fear of being identified as homosexual.
“Civil society groups that educate gay men about HIV fear they will find it more difficult to carry on their work.
“Self-identified gay Burundians interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed fears that gays would be more likely to be beaten and mistreated by police or ordinary citizens if the code provision is passed.
“The president of the National Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, Fidele Mbunde, a proponent of the amendment, told Human Rights Watch that he did not intend for arrests to be made under the law, but for it to “send a message” about Burundian values.”