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Liberian President & Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Defends Criminalization of Homosexuality

Liberian president and Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defended a law criminalizing homosexuality, echoing a sentiment felt throughout a continent that lags far behind most of the West when it comes to human rights for gays and lesbians.

Sirleaf’s comments came during a joint Guardian interview with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in Liberia working on his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), which seeks to strengthen African governments. As Sirleaf expressed her shockingly homophobic (yet shockingly common in Africa) views to the paper, Blair sat uncomfortably and silently by her side.

“We like ourselves just the way we are,” the Liberian president said, defending her country’s law which criminalizes “voluntary sodomy” as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year behind bars. “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve,” she added.

Blair was asked if good governance and human rights went hand-in-hand, to which he replied, “I’m not giving you an answer on it.”

That’s not to say that Blair agrees with Sirleaf. Quite the opposite is true; according to The Guardian, Blair’s tenure as prime minister saw the implementation of civil partnerships, an end to the military’s gay ban and a lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals to 16.

Blair also “strongly supports” gay marriage.

But while in Africa, Blair will avoid the sensitive subject of gay rights, something that is anathema to the vast majority of Africans.

As if criminalizing gays isn’t punishment enough, there are measures afoot in Liberia that would increase penalties for anyone engaging in homosexual acts. One bill would make gay sex and even seduction a felony punishable by as many as five years in prison. Another bill, authored by Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of Liberia’s former president-turned- war criminal Charles Taylor, would make gay marriage punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.

“[Homosexuality] is a criminal offense,” Taylor told The Guardian. “It is un-African. It is a problem in our society. We consider deviant sexual behavior criminal behavior.”

Liberia is not alone. Homosexuality is reviled throughout Africa, and penalties for being born gay can be extremely severe. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 of Africa’s 56 countries. In Nigeria, it is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In Uganda, lawmakers drafted legislation that would have prescribed the death penalty for homosexuals.

In Liberia, at least six attacks against gays have been reported in the capital Monrovia in the last month.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was elected Africa’s first female president in 2006, won the 2011 Nobel Peace prize for her work campaigning for women’s rights. But supporting gay rights, which would be political suicide in homophobic Africa, is not on her agenda.

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