Robert Mugabe, the 91-year-old leader of Zimbabwe, deviated slightly from his prepared remarks
during his Monday evening address to the United Nations General
Assembly, to do something that he does frequently: slur against
homosexuality. "We are not gays," he shouted. And it's worse than it
Mugabe made the comment in the course of a point about "double
standards," which is usually dictator code for "I'm tired of Western
countries calling out my human rights abuses," and about "new rights,"
which is usually code for "I long for the days when discrimination
against certain groups was considered acceptable."
Here's the full quote, with the line he added at the podium in bold:
Respecting and upholding human rights is the obligation of all
states, and is enshrined in the United Nations charter. Nowhere does the
charter abrogate the right to some to sit in judgment over others, in
carrying out this universal obligation. In that regard, we reject the
politicization of this important issue and the application of double
standards to victimize those who dare think and act independently of the
self-anointed prefects of our time.
We equally reject attempts to prescribe "new rights" that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays!
Cooperation and respect for each other will advance the cause of human
rights worldwide. Confrontation, vilification, and double-standards will
(Caveat: This is based off Mugabe's prepared remarks and my memory of
his speech as delivered. I will update if necessary once I can verify
from video of the speech.)
Mugabe barked the line, which drew audible laughter from the attendees at the United Nations General Assembly.
The Zimbabwean dictator has made overt homophobia
official policy for years, and has frequently couched this in criticism
of Western countries (which have sanctioned Mugabe for his appalling
human rights record), sometimes saying that Western leaders wish to
impose not just acceptance of LGBTQ rights but homosexuality itself on
Zimbabweans or Africans generally. Hence his declaration that "We are
Mugabe's colorful homophobia may be earnestly held, but it's also a
play for populism at home and a way to divert attention from tougher
issues. He's used homophobia as a way to attack President Obama
especially, who is popular in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus
deflect American criticism of Zimbabwe's dictatorial regime.
"Then we have this American president, Obama, born of an African
father, who is saying we will not give you aid if you don’t embrace
homosexuality," Mugabe said in July 2013.
"We ask, was he born out of homosexuality? We need continuity in our
race, and that comes from the woman, and no to homosexuality. John and
John, no; Maria and Maria, no."
Only Mugabe would bring this hateful political tactic to the floor of
the UN General Assembly, but he is unfortunately not alone in pursuing
it. Homophobia is a problem in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where it is
often encouraged by authoritarian or populist leaders like Mugabe. Much of the region criminalizes homosexuality. A global Pew study on attitudes toward homosexuality found that surveyed African countries tended to be among the least likely to agree that society "should accept homosexuality." The more comprehensive World Values Survey yielded similar results.
As gay rights improve in much of the world, they're getting worse in a
handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A 2013 Amnesty
detailed worsening and "dangerous" homophobia across much of the
continent. This is not uniform to the continent, of course, and some
countries such as South Africa have positive and improving LGBT rights
situations. The causes of this
are complex - the legacy of European colonialism, the perverse
incentives of post-colonial authoritarianism and conflict - but the
problem is real.
So why is Mugabe saying that this is about "new rights" being imposed
by hypocritical states that "sit in judgment"? Western countries,
particularly the US under Obama, have worked to support LGBTQ rights in
Africa. This has at times been met with backlash
and a belief, encouraged by populist or authoritarian African leaders,
that the United States wishes to impose homosexuality on their
populations. It's a way for those leaders to gin up fear of an outside
threat - always a useful tool - and to deflect broader Western calls for
improving human and political rights.
And, of course, there is likely some earnestly felt homophobia as well. This is Robert Mugabe, after all.