Home > Commentary, Gender, Sexuality and the Law > Irish Aid, Malawi and Gay Rights

Irish Aid, Malawi and Gay Rights

In 2007 Irish Aid—the international aid branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs—establish bilateral aid programmes with Malawi. This action was a follow-up to the commitment in the White Paper on Irish Aid to establish more partner countries in the African continent. At the moment, the programmes are conducted by means of the funding of Irish NGOs working in Malawi. Slightly out-of-date information on the Malawi programme is available here. Of course, Irish Aid has important agreements with a number of countries in Africa and carries out very valuable work in partnership with NGOs and governmental agencies, but reading this news story this morning brought Malawi to mind.

The story concerns a same-sex couple that was arrested following the first public (and, of course, symbolic as opposed to legally binding) same-sex wedding in the country. Today they were refused bail while the police investigation proceeded. If they are tried and prosecuted for homosexuality and sodomy—both of which are offences in Malawi—the couple could be sentenced to up to 14 years in jail. Notwithstanding the fact that homosexuality is a crime in Malawi, it is perhaps a little surprising to see this action being progressed by the police and courts as the government of Malawi, as part of its attempts to tackle HIV/AIDs in the country, has at times encouraged gay people to come out.

Here arises, then, a situation where the conundrums around development aid and in-state human rights protections come clearly to the fore. On the one hand is the legitimate argument that funders ought not to suppose that the provision of aid constitutes a controlling hand in questions of sensitivity in the recipient state. On the other hand is the equally legitimate argument that one of the aims of development aid is not only alleviation of poverty but also the development of the rule of law, strong governance, and rights-based structures for the long-term strengthening of democracy, human rights and stability. Should then, a government such as ours, provide development aid to a state that criminalises homosexuality and sodomy and, moreover, appears intend to enforce that law against people who make public actions that appear to be designed to advocate for civil rights (as in this case)? Even if we should provide development aid (as I think we should), ought there to be some kind of human rights tie-ins regarding basic civil liberties? I am not convinced that human rights tie-ins are problematic per se although I think there is a risk of them becoming somewhat imperialistic and therefore they must be carefully handled.

But putting even those concerns aside for a moment, it may be easier to find some kind of consensus on the proposition that our Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and Minister of State for Overseas Development Peter Power ought to attempt to exert some influence over the relevant authorities in situations of this kind and, indeed, in an attempt to bring out a more systematic shift in legal norms relating to questions of personal morality and of personal identity.

  1. aoifenolan
    January 8, 2010 at 9:28 am

    In the most recent development, Amnesty International on Wednesday called on Malawian authorities to immediately release the two men:

  2. Aoife Nolan
    February 11, 2010 at 8:57 am

    And another statement from the Malawian Government suggesting strongly that they are prepared to carry out widespread persecution of gay Malawians. It also raises clear issues re.freedom of expression:

  3. February 19, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Malawi police now conducting a ‘sweep’ against homosexuals… http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-02-16-malawi-police-arrest-man-in-antigay-sweep

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