The United Nations, African Politics, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Dearest readers, I admit up front that this post is half-baked and thematically inconsistent.  I apologize for that, but it comes from a bunch of ideas that have been floating in my head and that seem connected, although I am not sure how.  For those of you who wanted another football post, there are always more coming soon.  For those of you who are sick of football, enjoy.

To my shock, the United Nations Human Rights Council finally adopted a resolution that applies human rights principles and protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.  This is a shocking first for the UN, and particularly for the ironically named Human Rights Council (can such a body truly cares about human rights includes members such as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, and, until recently, Libya?)  This is a UN resolution so it is essentially meaningless except in symbolism.  Nevertheless, the votes were fascinating, and telling about LGBT rights and a changing world.

This particular resolution was spearheaded by South Africa, and was supported by 22 other countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.  (In 2003, Brazil was the first nation to put forward such a resolution.)

Opposed to the resolutions were the following members: Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Russia, and Moldova.

Zambia, Burkina Faso, and China abstained, Kyrgyzstan was absent, and Libya had been suspended for obvious reasons.

The resolution was co-sponsored by the following countries:  Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Uruguay.

There is an immediately obvious divide primarily between a Middle East/Africa/predominantly Islamic countries bloc and everyone else.  It’s not quite that universal or simple though.  Russia and Moldova are really the lone Western who voted against the resolution.  Noticeably, historically Catholic countries favored the resolution (despite the Church’s opposition to all things LGBT.)  Latin America, for example, really came through, but then again Latin American governments are trending  progressive on LGBT issues, particularly Argentina and Uruguay.  The support even extended into the East despite the opposition of the Middle East.  All the non-Muslim Asian countries (save China) voted in favor of the resolution.  And even China’s abstention is cause for curiosity.

China usually votes against LGBT protections; this abstention is something of a shock.  The real surprises however, were Mauritius, Zambia, and Burkina Faso.  For years, the whole of Africa has fallen into line, and, led by Nigeria, has voted as a bloc against LGBT rights.  That two of those nations, Burkina Faso (predominantly Muslim) and Zambia (predominantly Christian) abstained from the vote is in itself jaw-dropping.  That Mauritius actually voted in favor of the resolution is a minor miracle.  Mauritius is a tiny island country near Madagascar.  Consensual homosexuality is still illegal there.  I am curious to know above all else why exactly Mauritius voted as it did.

In my search for the answer, an answer I still do not know, I read about the government of Mauritius.  Unlike most of Africa, Mauritius has a functioning democracy with peaceful transitions of power.  It rates at the top of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which probably has something to do with why Mauritius voted in favor of the UN resolution.  The better a nation’s human rights record, the more likely it was to vote in favor of the resolution.

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The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is basically what it sounds like: it rates how well the African nations are governed.  A little background is in order.  The Index, which is researched and published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, was intended as a way for Africans to monitor how good their governments are.  The Foundation was founded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire (he made his fortune through telecommunications and founded Celtel before selling it for over $3 billion), who is determined to help the Africa clean itself up, and join the world community as an equal partner.  The Foundation awards the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a prize given to African leaders who, during the course of their reign, significantly improve their countries and then (and this is key) allow the democratic process to work by peacefully transferring power to their successors.  The prize is $5 million and then $200,000 a year for the rest of the former leader’s life.  (This has led critics to call the prize a bribe, and there is an element of truth in that.  There are legitimate questions about the purpose and efficacy of the Ibrahim Prize.)  The obvious model for such a leader is Nelson Mandela, although the Prize began well after the Great Man stepped down.  The New Yorker published a fascinating profile (subscription required) of Mo Ibrahim this past March, and I encourage you to read it if you can.

The 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance lists the top five nations as Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde, and South Africa.  It is probably not coincidence that three of the top five nations are islands, and thus less likely to be unsettled by disturbances in neighboring countries.  (Not all islands scored well though.  Madagascar and Comoros are in the bottom half.)  South Africa, for its many faults, has had a relatively stable government since the fall of the apartheid regime, and Botswana has been a model of good governance and economic growth for decades.  Unsurprisingly, one of the (only two) recipients of the Ibrahim Prize was Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana.  The prize was not awarded in either 2009 or 2010, which is a rather telling and sad fact about governance in a continent of over 50 nations.

Admittedly, using the Ibrahim Index is a very faulty of determining whether a nation is well-governed.  The criteria are somewhat suspect, and good governance is a subjective and nebulous concept, more ideal than quantifiable.  Good governance is also, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder.  The brilliant Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade sings a song excoriating the corruption and the failed promises of her nation’s democracy yet the Ibrahim Index ranks Cape Verde near the top.  Sometimes, the Ibrahim Index just quantifies the obvious.  Things in Somalia are very, very bad, which is why it is at the bottom of the list with 8 points out of a total 100.  In comparison, the next worst governed country is Chad with 31 points.  This is pretty compelling numerical evidence that Somalia is indeed hell on Earth.

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In the New Yorker profile of Ibrahim, there was a question of who the next possible Ibrahim Prize winner would be, and sadly there were no contenders on the immediate horizon.  The one possibility is the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Johnson Sirleaf is an interesting case.  A former World Bank economist, she is the first woman to be elected the head of an African state, and thus far the only one.  She is extremely popular abroad, although I am not a Liberian and cannot vouch for her popularity at home.  Supposedly, she is not quite so loved in her own country.  (The true test will be whether she is reelected this fall.)  Her presidency followed the horrific and destructive dictatorships of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor and years of civil war, which included, among other horrors, the use of children as soldiers.

Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberia is not exactly a success story.  There are many, many problems, and the country has a very long way to go.  To her credit, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledges this.  The most recent Ibrahim Index tells an interesting story though.  Liberia is ranked 36th of 53, but that number alone is deceiving.  Liberia’s score have gone up significantly between 2004-05 and 2008-09.  Scores in specific areas have also significantly improved.  These areas include Safety and Rule of Law, Participation and Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity (where the score is still near the bottom), and even a bit in Human Development (health and social services), where  Liberia is woefully lacking.

None of this is to say that Liberia is good.  The Index hints however, that Liberia is on the right track.  Nevertheless, that statement is highly debatable.  Charges of corruption have been thrown at Johnson Sirleaf and her government.  In fairness, it is difficult to discern what is truth and what is propaganda.

I would like to think that Johnson Sirleaf is succeeding, if for no other reason than because the modern world has yet to produce a truly great female leader (although British Tories would probably disagree with my assessment.)  More importantly, the people of Liberia have suffered tremendously, and only a great leader can even start to turn around their nation.  It may well be impossible for one person to fix horrors that evolved over decades.  But a great leader may be able to stem the tide and put the nation on the right path.  Time will tell if that person is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

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One response to “The United Nations, African Politics, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

  1. Pingback: Gay Rights Are Human Rights | tracingthetree

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