LGBTI rights within the Universal Periodic Review: Botswana

Botswana – In January 2013 the UPR 15th session reviewed Botswana and thirteen other countries. The NGOs’ reports had been sent, as it is compulsory, seven months before the review session. Caine Jason Kaene Youngman, a staunch member of LEGABIBO (Lesbians, Gays & Bisexuals of Botswana), an ILGA member since 2005, attended the session. Interview by Patricia Curzi.

Caine is a human rights activist mostly focused on the rights of LGBTIs. He worked as intern for the Department of Social Services of the Government of Botswana in 2009 later spent three months in 2010 in an Applied Research Unit at the Ministry of Local Government. In September 2010 he joined the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law & HIV/AIDS BONELA, a local NGO, where he worked with various organisations defending women’s, children’s, sex workers’ and prisoners’ rights.

Botswana was already under scrutiny in the first cycle at the UPR in 2008. This is now the second time its government undergoes the UPR review. How useful was the 2008 UPR process to advance LGBT rights?

The 2008 review wasn’t of much use to us directly. We did not do any extensive advocacy around it. Indirectly it was useful, as it made the government of Botswana aware that the world community is watching Botswana’s handling of LGBTI-related issues. This came right after LEGABIBO was refused registration in 2007.

The 2012 NGO UPR report is the result of a work engaging a number of other NGOs from the civil society. Don’t you fear LGBT claims will be disregarded as minor issues and that your voice will not be heard?

Discussions around LGBTI issues are always a burning issue. However, we have no doubt that LGBTIs would never be regarded as minor, because of the pressure we are applying on the government through the requests to register LEGABIBO and the pressure from the international community. The coalition has afforded all issues discussed equal opportunity and respect.

Despite each coalition member’s allegiance, whenever the UPR 2012 is discussed, all issues are mentioned. It might not be with the same eagerness that the concerned members would like, but they are always included. The press statements released so far have made mention of LGBTI issues as equally as they did with the other issues. Our organisational advocacy will always remain dedicated to ensuring that LEGABIBO and its agenda remain visible.

Did you address the government on the contradiction between Botswana’s homophobic penal code and the law which bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace since 2010?

That was one of the arguments in our case; and, for now, we are still trying for equal national legislation that is conducive for LGBTIs. Reference was made to the Employment Act of 2010 in our 2011 court case against the government: (Caine Youngman vs The Attorney General of Botswana). We have adopted a “non-finger pointing regime” when dealing with the government. We applaud all the positive moves they do, and at the same time we keep encouraging the government to fight discrimination perpetuated by its laws. We are relentless in this.

You’ve threatened to sue the government in 2011 for not changing the penal code, which, in contradiction with the country’s constitution, still criminalises consensual same-sex among adults. Have you succeeded in creating a public debate in Botswana?

For the sake of clarity, I’ll start by stating that the Constitution is just silent on protection of LGBTIs, despite the Penal Code criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct. Indeed, our work has made it possible for discussions around LGBTI issues to take place in Botswana. Before 2007, discussions on homosexuality were almost non-existent. Legislators and other community members would storm out of planned discussions the moment homosexuality was brought to the discussion. In 2005, at the Minorities in Botswana workshop, many people sat through all the discussions including those about women, the San people and refugees, but left the room when it was time to discuss LGBTI matters. Radio stations would not discuss the topic: they would not even give us a chance to voice our concerns. Private radio stations’ efforts were met by hostility.

When we started with radio interviews, we could go for the whole hour of a call-in show without anyone calling and being positive towards us. We would get prank calls just for the caller to end up insulting the receptionist. We stuck through it for years, and bit by bit the tone of the callers changed to a more balanced one. Up until the official rejection of LEGABIBO’s registration, legislators behaved like they were not bound to talk about homosexuality but, since it was an official matter, they had to respond. We also ran some print media articles: we had an agony column called “The Fabulous Duo” which was in print for almost six months, coming out once a month in the local newspaper. We have held public functions like marches and open space discussions without attacks. Mention of homosexuality in the local media has increased. Not only has it spread in coverage, but it also made it to the government-owned media like national television that followed the legal case we had against the government in 2011.This is the same national TV that refused to air an HIV/AIDS advert only because it included a lesbian and a gay couple. The advert was calling for inclusion of all members of the community in order for us to achieve zero new infections by 2015. The government newspaper also covered LGBTI issues.
LEGABIBO has had many invitations from various institutions, like the Anglican Church, the School of Medicine of the University of Botswana, the Brigade Institution, the Men’s Sector and a few others. We have even been invited by the parliamentary HIV/AIDS committee. This is a great indication that slowly a fairly accommodative platform is being created by our advocacy.

How useful did you find being present at the interactive dialogue between Botswana and other countries in Geneva? This was a great stage to be part of. It gave my organisation and me, our coalition and our sponsor, ILGA, the opportunity to interact with various diplomatic missions and other civil society members. We briefed them, discussed with them. This event also brought in the government of Botswana delegation to attend and also gave the diplomats and civil society the opportunity to ask the government questions prior to the review session. It is worth noting that most of the groundwork was done months before the review both in Botswana and in Geneva, all throughout 2012. To me, this stage was crucially important, as it puts a face to the issues being put forward by other missions to Botswana. It assures various missions that recommendations are not being made for a non-existent community – but a real community. After recommendations were made by various states to Botswana on behalf of LGBTIs, a follow-up to show gratitude was made to seven of the nine states by LEGABIBO and ILGA; all the states were appreciative of the gesture.

If you had to retain only one personal experience related to the UPR, which one would it be?
Facing your government, interacting with diplomats from other countries, being there at the United Nations talking about our issues, our struggle, is a powerful experience, one to remember! It at least allowed us the opportunity to interact with our government both officially and beyond. Having access to our legislators back home is a bit of a challenge, so it was a great opportunity to meet with them here and voice the same concerns we voice at home – but this time in an open, international arena. Geneva is a beautiful city with a very convenient transport system. Personally, my stay in Geneva was made easy by Patricia from ILGA, who went out of her way to help me. Also, my coalition mates were very flexible and always eager to help.

Source – ILGA