11 April 2012

Liberia: Sirleaf Plays 'Pontuis Pilate' on Gay Issue -Will Sign No "Extremist Legislation"

Photo: IRIN
A gay couple.

When the Jews wanted Jesus Christ executed on heresy charges, the Roman occupation governor, Pontius Pilate, chose to let them have their will, without sharing the blame. While President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Pilate might live in different times and cultures and command different authorities, their actions seem similar in one fundamental way – fence sitting. Pilate, a Roman legalist, will not throw out a case concerning religious heresy for fear of jeopardizing Jewish cooperation. Similarly, President Sirleaf, a former rights activist but also a traditionalist, will not sanction any law restricting individual liberty nor that violating the sanctity of Liberia's traditional values. The question many are therefore is, "What becomes of the legal status of the burgeoning gay elements in Liberia as the President chooses to sit on the fence as the anti- and pro-gay debate flare and threats of extra-judicial action become palpable?" The Analyst has been finding out.

Observers considering President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's "final comments" on the ongoing gay rights imbroglio say unless she budges and refines her stance, Liberia is likely to adopt the now discredited "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule the U.S. military used in the 1990s to circumvent debates over gay and lesbian soldiers serving openly in the military.

They say that is likely because the president appears torn between upholding individual liberty and preserving Liberia's traditional values regarding perverse sex practices.

They drew their conclusion from the "Pres. Sirleaf's Final Comment on the Gay Issue", which the Executive Mansion released yesterday in efforts to refute allegations that the president has taken side on the issue.


Media accounts over the last few months, during which pro- and anti-gay activism rocked the foundation of civil liberty and traditional values in Liberia, had reported either that President Sirleaf favors anti-gay legislation or supports pro-gay legislation – whether in existence or in the legislative pipeline.

The variations weighed more on summations of what the president might have been understood to say rather than on what she actually said.

The British newspaper, The Guardian, seemingly surmising from President Sirleaf's reported comment, "We like ourselves just the way we are;  we've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve," reported on March 19, 2012 that the president has defended a law that criminalizes homosexual act.

The Guardian reporter, drawing his slant from the president's background as laureate of the 2011/2012 Nobel Peace Prize, acknowledged the existence of no anti-gay law nor anti-gay bills pending before the legislature, but he notwithstanding concluded that president favored anti-gay law when she said, "I won't sign any law that has to do with that area; one whatsoever."

In a protest note Presidential Press Secretary Jerolinmek Piah sent to the paper four days later on March 23, 2012, however, he accused the paper of failing to portray the position of the president.

"There is no law referencing homosexuality in Liberia, so she could not be defending a law on homosexuality. She is on record as saying (including in the video that accompanied your article online) that any law brought before her regarding homosexuality will be vetoed," he told the paper, prompting it to retract the story.

The protest note and the correction it exacted might serve to remove the cloud of suspicion that was gathering over Sirleaf's Liberia; but it did very little to allay fears back home that the government's lukewarm position on the creeping sexuality vice may spiral into a full-blown pro-gay legislation in spite of Liberia's traditional value against sodomy and same-sex relationship.

The fear became acute recently when, in response to a gay-lynching threat from an anonymous anti-gay group, the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (MICAT), warned that the government would take drastic action against those making the threats.

"The Government of Liberia says while it supports the rights of any of its citizens to hold dear their traditional values, it will neither countenance nor condone any form of intolerance whose objective is to stifle the exercise of individual freedoms and the advance of civil liberties.

Accordingly, the relevant security agencies have been instructed to seriously investigate these threats and to swiftly arrest and prosecute anyone who threatens 'to go after' gays and their supporters," the MICAT caveat said.

One local newspaper, seizing upon the strictness of MICAT's warning, reported that while the need to uphold the rule of law may prompt the government's concern, the actual reason could be that the government received an unspecified amount of bribe from unnamed sources to side with pro-gay elements bent on polluting the youths of Liberia.

MICAT's rubbishing of the story, as "false and erroneous", might not have helped the situation well, as more media reports sprang up, claiming that the government of Liberia has finally thrown its weight behind those seeking to legalize homosexualism in Liberia against the will of the majority.

The Executive Mansion would have preferred to allow the debate and innuendos to continue in the tradition of the citizens' democratic participation in matters of national concern.   However, it believes setting the record straight is health for a good beginning and a successful resolution of the debate. The Executive Mansion statement has been counting on the "tolerance of the Liberian people".

So what is the president's actual position on the raging debate, allegations, and innuendoes regarding the emerging tension?

Sirleaf's final comment 

Hoping that its clarification will "put to rest" the confusion that arose over President Sirleaf's position on the ongoing homosexual debate in Liberia, Presidential Press Secretary Piah noted in the "Pres. Sirleaf's Final Comment on The Gay Issue" that the debate itself appears premature.

This is because, he said, there were no an anti-gay or anti-lesbian laws anywhere in Liberia or pending before the legislature the repeal or enactment of which could spark such venomous debate about favor and conspiracy and therefore warrants threats of extra-judiciary action.

He conceded that Liberia's anti-homosexual beliefs went back to its founding, but he noted that the beliefs had targeted no specific social and political groups and that therefore neither the government nor any group of Liberians can order or expect that to happen in this age of democracy and rule of law.

This, he said, justified the president's position that she would veto any legislation promoting or restricting the sexual orientation of any group of citizens.

The press secretary said Liberia's 14-year civil war had spared it the headaches of the global debate on homosexual rights and that as the nation returned to normalcy, therefore, it has to brace itself for the realities and demands of democracy.

He suggested that this the nation could accomplish through the people and their representatives in parliament.

How much this statement contradicts his statement that President Sirleaf was prepared to veto any legislation restricting the rights of any sector of the Liberian population, Mr. Piah did not say.
However, he said President Sirleaf has spent her lifetime defending freedom and civil liberties for the Liberian people and peoples everywhere and that therefore she was not about giving up – not after the world recognized and rewarded her efforts recently.

"At the same time, the President will allow the democratic process to take its course and let people discuss issues in an atmosphere of freedom and without fear," he said, observers say putting the president squarely on the fence of the current debate.

Again, without saying what will become of the popular power of the people through their legislators, the presidential secretary said while President Sirleaf will not impose her personal beliefs on the people, she would not sanction the dictatorship of the majority.

Whether that meant that the president would oppose the outcome of a democratic process in the name of upholding individual liberty, he also did not say.

"As in any democracy, the President will not impose her personal beliefs on the people, but she reserves her constitutional prerogatives to stop any type of extremist legislation intended to marginalize or give a particular group of citizens a status because of their sexual orientation or practices," Mr. Piah said.

Where the president's reported avowal to veto "extremist legislation intended to marginalize" leaves fears that she might actually support gay rights in Liberia in pursuit of the protection of minority rights, remains anyone guess, according to observers. But they say instead of the guess reducing the debate, it is likely to exacerbate it.

In the midst of the confusion, the question many are asking is, "What becomes of the legal status of the burgeoning gay elements in Liberia as the President chooses to sit on the fence as the anti- and pro-gay debate flare and threats of extra-judicial action become palpable?"

Legal status

Considering the tempo of the rigmarole surrounding the debate, threats, and innuendoes, observers say gays in Liberia cannot expect anything more than the passive protection the government promises under the penal law of Liberia.

They believe that while President Sirleaf might successfully adopt a centrist role to shield her administration and her pro-democracy and pro-rule of law credentials from the glare of western governments, who are trading gay rights for humanitarian and reconstruction support, she has no choice but to work in favor of the will of the majority.

Support of the will of the majority of the people, they contend, is the soul of the democracy that some in the west claim to espouse at all costs.

In the case where the president cannot impose the will of donors over the will of the majority, they say, the best her administration will do is to kick can of gay legislation down the road for future consideration.

"This means that during her tenure, Liberia will tacitly adopt the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' rule, which will deny legal status to Liberian gays, but which will shield them from legal or mob actions," said one observer, who spoke with this paper yesterday.

In his view, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" rule, which would mirror the policy, begun in 1993, regarding lesbians and gay men in the U.S. military, will lay to rest the issue and all that is associated with it, since the nation was already living in denial of perverse sex practices.

Otherwise, they say, the president will have to continue playing "Pontius Pilate" as she finds ways to reduce the emerging tension between so-called pro- and anti-gay groups.

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