By LUKE VARGAS
UNITED NATIONS (TRNS) – During Cameroon’s regularly scheduled Universal Periodic Review (UPR) today in Geneva, 16 members of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva pressured the country to take steps to improve the treatment of LGBT individuals.
A central target of criticism by member states was a penal code provision that criminalizes sex between same-sex individuals, regardless of consent.
The subsection of Penal Code Section 347 in question outlines penalties of between $40 and $400 for same-sex intercourse, as well as jail sentences between six months and five years.
The UPR is a U.N. mechanism with the stated goal of “[reminding] States of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” All 193 U.N. Member States are subject to UPR’s on a fixed four and a half year cycle.
During Wednesday’s UPR session, a total of 16 delegations – including Australia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. – registered their concern about the protection of LGBT individuals from violence, and many called for the full decriminalization of homosexuality within the country, a topic not mentioned within the 15-page U.N. country report that served as a foundation for today’s proceedings.
At Cameroon’s last UPR in February of 2009, only 7 countries made similar calls for reform.
— Australia UN Geneva (@AustraliaUN_GVA) May 1, 2013
The increased emphasis on LGBT rights during Cameroon’s review coincides with a recent uptick in worldwide efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. In April alone, three countries – France, New Zealand, and Uruguay – moved to fully legalize marriage equality.
Displaying a willingness to defend their social positions on the world stage, both Uruguay and France made appeals to Cameroon today to increase legislative protections of the LGBT community.
Responding to the statements of HRC members, Cameroon’s Foreign Minister Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo defended his country’s treatment of homosexual individuals, saying, “this is a complex country that has come before you” after citing the country’s colonial past and present day diversity.
“Cameroon needs time for maturing to take place,” Mbonjo said. “Please accept the idea that we are not ready to accept what other countries accept today.”
Minnesota-based human rights campaigners The Advocates for Human Rights explained to TRNS in a statement that while “attitudes are slowly changing” in Cameroon, the government has no excuse to stall reform.
“According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, arrests on the basis of sexual orientation are, by definition, human rights violations,” read the statement. “Cameroon does not get a free pass in this area or ‘more time.'”
While Cameroon’s laws concerning homosexuality are considered to be relatively harsh, the country is not an outlier among Commonwealth states, of which a total of 80% still criminalize homosexuality.
The U.S. Mission to Geneva added a degree of specificity to today’s proceedings when Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahue referenced a well-publicized incident in March of 2011 in which Cameroonian Jean-Claude Roger Mbede was arrested for sending a text message professing his love for a male companion.
Despite receiving substantial legal assistance following his arrest, Mbede was sentenced to three years in prison.
Appealing for greater protections for LGBT individuals, Donahue called on the government of Cameroon to stay out of the private affairs of its citizens, and she reiterated that the U.S. is carefully monitoring the treatment of Mbede.
In her remarks, Donahue said Cameroon should, “Respect Article 12 of the [Cameroonian] constitution which protects privacy, and eliminate abuses of this article that lead to arbitrary arrests and prosecutions on charges related to consensual same-sex sexual relations.”
Although Mbede was provisionally released from prison in July of 2012, his three-year prison sentence was upheld last December, prompting him to enter into hiding to avoid re-arrest.
Amnesty International has supported Mbede since 2011, and continues to advocate on his behalf.
Since 2005, the Association for the Defense of Gay and Lesbian Rights (ADEFHO), believes 51 individuals have been arrested and prosecuted in Cameroon based solely on suspicion of being gay or lesbian.
A complete video replay of Cameroon’s UPR session is available to watch here.