Relentless, long-term civil society advocacy can help deliver results for LGBTQI+ rights

Posted on March 20, 2024

A recent seminar hosted by the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Political Science Department took a closer look at the human rights architecture of regional organisations.

As Uganda and Ghana become the latest African countries passing or seeking to pass anti-LGBTQI+ laws, questions arise over the role of regional organisations in advocating for the human rights of marginalised groups.

Dr Mariel Reiss, conflict studies researcher from Germany’s University of Marburg and the keynote speaker, said the greatest challenge is that human rights have long been an area of great contestation in state-dominated regional organisations – not only in Africa but all over the world. This contestation, together with the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference, may limit the effectiveness of regional organisations in following through on their human rights commitments and resolutions.

“The more contested human rights are at national level, the more contested they are at regional level,” Dr Reiss said. “The development of human rights regarding marginalised groups is even more contested.”

Asked whether regional structures such as the African Union (AU) are equipped to respond to human rights challenges related to marginalised groups, she noted the critical role that civil society actors had played in putting LGBTQI+ rights on the agenda of the African Commission on Human and People’s rights, an AU body.

Reiss said the “relentless, long-term advocacy” of non-governmental organisations, civil society and human rights activists had led to the African Commission’s Resolution 275, passed in 2014 to protect people against violence and other human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Civil society organisations have been at the forefront. But you can’t look at one without the other,” she added, referring to the role of both state and non-state actors in the foregrounding of human rights.

She commended UP’s Centre for Human Rights for its contribution in promoting the academic discourse on LGBTQI+ rights while working with NGOs and conducting strategic litigation.

Marginalised groups’ struggles are not new

While recent developments on anti-LGBTQI+ laws in some countries might seem to signal a “retreat” of human rights, Reiss said perceptions of an upsurge in anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment were most likely due to the news cycle and exposure to information on a much larger scale than ever before.

“Contestation over the rights of marginalised groups is not really new. For black people, lesbians, black trans women and disabled people… there has always been a struggle.”

Asked who could potentially be a “powerful voice” in speaking up for the rights of marginalised groups, Reiss suggested that there was “more room and more relevance” for accredited non-state actors in regional organisations to claim in conversations on human rights.

Reiss, who conducts research on the complex relationship between changing patterns of interpretation and justification of political violence against LGBTQI+ persons, focusing on east and southern Africa, also touched on the importance of considering African regional integration models other than the European Union’s.

Learning from others

Reiss noted that in considering other models, especially for human rights architecture in regional organisations, there are now actors other than the EU to take into account, from South America and Asia to Africa itself, whose contributions in the early days of the development of regional organisations should not be overlooked.

“But it is not just about imposition from outside,” Reiss said, noting that the evolution of regional models could be influenced by both external and internal factors and developments. “It is a complex story to tell, with multiple dimensions of learning.”

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences