On the 17th October, a group of human rights lawyers and activists were arrested for ‘promoting homosexuality’ while consulting with clients in relation to Tanzania’s HIV legislation. The meeting planned to discuss recourse to the government’s ban of critical services for HIV positive patients, including privately run HIV outreach centres and the importation of water-based lubricants. In deploying Tanzania’s colonial-era law against homosexuality as a premise to undercut the healthcare suit, the government has demonstrated its ultimate disregard for the right to legal redress, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Bail has been revoked for all thirteen of the arrested colleagues, who continue to be held without formal charges and now face criminal prosecution.
The meeting was jointly convened by Community Health Services and Advocacy (CHESA) and the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA). In a press statement on the 20th October, ISLA stated that “We view this as an attempt to intimidate citizens from approaching judicial institutions when their rights have been violated, to create an environment where lawyers are afraid to provide legal representation and to ultimately create an environment where it is unthinkable to hold the state accountable for human rights violations.” On the same day, the head of Dar es Salaam police, Lazaro Mambosasa addressed the media, stating that the meeting’s attendees were ‘criminal’ in violating Tanzanian law criminalizing “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” Mambosasa called upon the Tanzanian public to alert police to similar incidents “so we can act in time.”
It is believed that 6% of the Tanzanian adult population, or 1.4 million people are living with HIV. Many sufferers are also victims of discrimination within their communities, particularly in poor and rural areas where half the population subscribe to a belief that HIV is ‘punishment for wrongdoing.’ Systemic discrimination towards HIV sufferers from the Tanzanian government has been seen to increase; HIV services are routinely conflated with homosexual-friendly services and forced to close. In September, police made similar arrests of twenty attendees at an AIDS awareness seminar run by the Bridge Initiative, a registered NGO, on the grounds that they were promoting homosexuality. According to Amnesty International, Tanzanian law has scope to punish homosexual relations with thirty years to life imprisonment and is among 38 out of 54 African countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Perhaps the most insidious part of these arrests is their contravention of both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights and the Tanzanian Constitution. The rights to freedom of expression and assembly underpin and reinforce all other human rights and are a particularly important channel for progress for marginalized groups, including homosexually-identifying people and victims of HIV positive. Moreover, this disregard for human rights that were supposedly enshrined in the constitution acts to stultify historic progress towards overcoming de jure discrimination. In carrying out these politically motivated arrests, the Tanzanian government has signaled that their concern for human rights is selective and readily mutable.
It is imperative that the international community provide ongoing support for civil society groups, such as ISLA and the Bridge Initiative, that provide essential services for marginalized communities. While the Tanzanian government has threatened humanitarian groups in the past, these public-private partnerships are essential in providing accessible, on-the-ground services to people who are not otherwise accommodated for by the government. In 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus, calling on members to “take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of human rights defenders against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions.” Nearly twenty years later, it remains clear that human rights defenders are still vulnerable and government guarantees of safety are conditional.