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In an overwhelmingly positive vote for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the Central African nation of Burundi, the country’s Senate has rejected a provision that would have criminalized consensual same-sex activity. Legislation to revise the Penal Code was introduced in the Burundian Senate in November 2008 after having first been passed the National Assembly. The revision had a number of key advances for human rights, including the abolition of the death penalty, and the rendering of torture and genocide as crimes against humanity punishable under Burundian law. However, the revision also included a penalty of up to 2 years in jail for “anyone who has sexual intercourse with a person of his/her own sex.”1
The provision criminalizing consensual same-sex activity survived various revisions to the overall Code and was included in the final version of the bill that was submitted to the Burundian Senate on February 6, 2009. On February 17, 2009, however, 36 out of 43 Senators voted to strike it from the bill.
Burundian parliamentarians received appeals from throughout the world to reconsider the legislation. Civic leaders in Burundi and internationally argued that the provision would violate basic commitments to privacy and non-discrimination that are part of international human rights treaties and the Burundian constitution. Opponents also argued that a new sodomy law would accelerate the spread of HIV, by preventing men who have sex with men (MSM) and other sexual minorities from accessing HIV prevention, treatment and care. Burundi is one of a few countries in Africa receiving funds from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) to expand their HIV intervention to include men who have sex with men (MSM).
After the National Assembly passed the provision criminalizing consensual same-sex activity, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the Association pour le Respect et les Droits des Homosexuels (ARDHO) issued an appeal to the entire membership of Burundi’s Senate asking them to vote against the legislation. IGLHRC also worked with international and inter-governmental organizations to ensure that there would be a general condemnation of the proposed legislation. IGLHRC wrote to President Nkurunziza, asking him to veto the legislation if it reached his desk, and launched a petition against the bill that was widely signed by participants at the International AIDS and STI conference in Africa (ICASA).
The bill to revise the Penal Code now returns to the National Assembly. Both chambers are required to form a commission to reconcile competing versions of the bill before it is sent to the president for promulgation. Any reconciliation could, potentially, reinstate the provision criminalizing same-sex conduct.
Whatever the outcome, the fact that the majority of senators voted against the provision shows a growing recognition that all citizens are entitled to the full enjoyment of human rights irrespective of their sexual orientation.
In recent years governments in several African countries, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda, have threatened to strengthen their laws against homosexuality. Burundi itself added an amendment to its constitution to criminalize same-sex marriage in 2005.