Dakar — President of The Gambia Yahya Jammeh, who in mid-May reportedly threatened to expel or behead lesbian and gay people the country, should fully retract his comments, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the President on 10 June.
President Jammeh has retracted his threat to kill homosexual people, but not the threat to expel them, the HRW statement said. His comments, which HRW says were made in a speech in May, "encourage hatred... [and] contribute to a climate in which basic rights can be assaulted with impunity".
Scott Long, director of HRW's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme said: "It is very dangerous when political leaders turn to homophobic statements to try to drum up political support. When statements like this are made, violence often follows - sometimes immediately and sometimes further down the line. It makes people think these are people that it is safe to attack," Long told IRIN in a telephone interview from New York.
In the letter to President Jammeh, HRW's Juliana Cano Nieto, a researcher with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme said, "Neither religion nor culture can justify calls to mob violence and murder."
According to reports of President Jammeh's comments quoted by HRW, he gave homosexuals 24 hours to leave the country and threatened to seek out and arrest gays and expel them from their homes. According to the BBC the President also vowed to "cut off the head" of any homosexual, and to impose stricter laws banning homosexuality.
The Gambian newspaper the Daily Observer quoted him as saying: "We are in a Muslim dominated country and I will not and shall never accept such individuals [homosexuals] in this country."
On 16 May, the day after the President's speech, Gambian police arrested two men from Senegal, apparently on suspicion of being homosexuals.
"People in the under-cover gay and lesbian community are terrified," said HRW's Long. "These statements drive them further under cover - this just intensifies the climate of fear."
The long-term impact will depend on how civil society reacts, according to Long. "What happened in Zimbabwe for instance, is instructive. Mugabe demonised gay people there in 1994 and...eventually the same kind of tactics of stigma and hatred that were used against lesbian and gays, graduated into a broader attack on everyone's human rights."
Defying international covenants
According to Human Rights Watch, President Jammeh's statements go against the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both of which Gambia has signed up to.
Article 26 of the African charter provides that "every individual shall have the duty to respect and consider his fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance".
According to Long there is some leverage for legal bodies to take the case forward. The UN human rights committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which examines violations of human rights could look into it.
And there is "a possibility of bringing this to bear" with the African Commission on Human Rights, which is increasingly active in looking at the causes of violence in Africa.
Stricter national law
Homosexual acts are illegal in Gambia - Article 144 of the criminal code punishes consensual sexual acts between men with 14 years in prison, while in 2005 the law was updated to include women, according to a May 2008 report by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).
Eleven West African countries deem homosexual acts illegal, as do 86 UN member states, according to the ILGA.
"Ex-British colonies tend to have the worst laws because they tend to relate directly back to Victorian legislation and do not relate to African culture or history - they're colonial relics," Long pointed out.
And the law may get stricter still. According to the BBC the President announced he will soon come up with a new law banning homosexual practices in the country, which will be more stringent than any found in other states, "including Iran".
European Union member governments, under the Slovenian Presidency have prepared a joint statement and are currently in discussion with the Gambian ministry of foreign affairs over the issue, according to Graham Birse, the acting British high commissioner.
One government representative told IRIN, "We decided we should come up with a common message and we are all aligned with it," adding, "Obviously we don't agree with the President's statements."
But for Long the strongest leverage international organisations have is "to shame and embarrass the president". And he thinks these efforts may be having some effect - President Jammeh has since denied any decapitation comments.
In the meantime, Human Rights Watch is monitoring the government's next steps and keeping track of how the police and others are acting on his statements.
"We are monitoring situation through contacts in-country to keep track of what the police and others are doing as a result of the statements, and we're waiting to see the government's next move," Long told IRIN. "If you can attack even these most marginalised people, it could set a precedent for attacking wider human rights."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]