On November 24, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference during his visit to the African nation of Liberia. Standing at the podium with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Trudeau answered questions about human rights in the host country, including the rights of LGBT people. His response was completely inadequate and is a significant back-pedaling from the pointed criticism that African leaders received from Foreign Minister John Baird during the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mr. Trudeau’s comments on LGBT rights are grossly inadequate, and he missed a high-profile opportunity to affirm Canada’s strong opposition to laws that oppress LGBT citizens in countries like Liberia.
Mr. Trudeau, in responding to a question about same-sex marriage in Liberia, said:
The fact is, different countries have different paces of evolution in terms of recognizing and enshrining those rights, but we can see that there has been tremendous progress over the years in many different areas.
It’s hard to extract a coherent policy from this word salad, but it is clear that the Prime Minister, when asked a direct question about LGBT rights in Liberia, garbled an evasive answer that avoided taking a stand on LGBT rights overseas or condemning countries like Liberia that persecute their LGBT citizens.
President Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for helping to end the civil war in her country. It is understandable that Mr. Trudeau would want to share the podium with her to discuss civil rights. However, Liberia has a troubled history regarding LGBT rights. Sexual activity between men there is a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in jail. LGBT people are routinely harassed by the police, and the government refuses to allow LGBT advocacy groups to operate in the country. LGBT activists are frequently subjected to mob violence.
The Liberian legislature has refused to consider laws aimed at protecting the rights of LGBT citizens. In 2012, the Speaker of the House of Representatives said, in response to a petition to protect LGBT rights, “I am a Methodist and traditionalist. I will never support a gay bill because it is damaging to the survival of the country.” He also warned that any LGBT rights bill introduced in the House “will be thrown in the ‘Du or Montserrado River”. A bill introduced in 2012 sought to make same-sex marriage illegal, and another, sponsored by former President Charles Taylor’s wife Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, would have made sex between gay men a felony punishable by death.
To her credit, President Sirleaf has refused to sign the new anti-LGBT bills that have come to her from the legislature, saying that the existing laws were adequate, and “we like ourselves just the way we are.” However, the existing laws in Liberia are bad enough, and LGBT people in that country suffer a great deal. Mr. Trudeau missed an opportunity to tell LGBT Liberians that Canada stands with them and that anti-LGBT laws and policies in Liberia are not acceptable in a civilized nation.
John Baird, Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, did take advantage of such opportunities. At a Commonwealth Conference in 2012, he pointedly called out African and Caribbean nations for persecuting LGBT people, telling the assembled representatives:
Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality. Throughout most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, colonial-era laws remain on the books that could impose draconian punishments on gay people simply for being gay.
We will continue to press countries in the Commonwealth to live up to their international obligations, and uphold the basic contract any government should have with its people. The criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the fundamental Commonwealth value of human rights.
In 2014 Mr. Baird also spoke forcefully on behalf of the Canadian government in response to legislation passed by the Government of Uganda that made gay sex punishable by life in prison:
Canada is extremely disappointed that President Museveni has signed this piece of legislation, which will make homosexuality punishable with life imprisonment. We strongly urge the President to protect the human rights of all Ugandans regardless of their sexual orientation, in accordance with Uganda’s constitution.
This act is a serious setback for human rights, dignity and fundamental freedoms and deserves to be widely condemned. Regrettably, this discriminatory law will serve as an impediment in our relationship with the Ugandan government.
Canada has repeatedly raised our concerns with the Government of Uganda, and we have done so again. Our engagement on human rights issues will only become more persistent. We will continue to support efforts to decriminalize homosexuality and combat violence against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.
I was extremely proud of John Baird and Stephen Harper for taking such a strong and principled stand on LGBT rights overseas. There was no doubt where Canada stood on the issue, and the condemnation of countries that persecute LGBT people was clear and unequivocal.
Justin Trudeau’s comments on the subject may have been diplomatic, but they were cold comfort to the people of Africa who are being violently mistreated by their own governments because of their sexual orientation. The previous Conservative government found the moral courage to take a forceful position on this issue; I expect no less from the current Liberal government.
Justin Trudeau pointedly slammed Stephen Harper during the last election, derisively telling him “you don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign.” Now that the election is over, it seems that Canada is back to being a neutral “honest broker”, and Prime Minister Trudeau’s compassion for the LGBT people of Africa took a back seat to a photo-op with a Nobel Prize winner.
Hastings County, Ontario