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Tunisian Human Rights Minister rejects recommendation for gay sex decriminalization

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The rise of moderate Islamists in Tunisia have foregrounded LGBT rights, especially after the publication of the country’s first gay magazine.

Kacem Jlidi
15 June 2012

Culture, traditions and religion are red lines that will not be flouted by gay rights, says Samir Dilou , Tunisian minister of human rights and transitional justice and spokesman of the Tunisian government.

The minister announced in a press conference held in Tunis on June 2 his rejection of calls by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the decriminalization of same-sex acts and religious defamation.

‘Tunisia has its own identity as an Arab Muslim state’, argues the minister. The concept of ‘sexual orientation’ is ‘specific to the West’, he was quoted as saying by Tunisia Live magazine .

The minister emphasized the importance of abiding by the supremacy of Tunisian law, which defines Tunisia as an Arab Muslim country. There is no such thing as absolute freedom; all freedoms are restricted by the law, he added.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, from the Islamist Ennahda party, said in a previous interview with French newspaper Le Monde that homosexuals may well join the party ‘if they obey the principles [that are] against same sex acts.’ He adds that there are no sanctions in Tunisia that are specific to homosexuals: ‘There are criminal laws that everyone must respect’ – he said, referring to Tunisia’s inherited French colonial penal code that decrees three years of prison for same sex acts.

The two rejected recommendations are part of a total of 124 recommendations that were addressed by the Human Rights Council meeting taking place in Geneva in late May (22-25) during which the Tunisian delegation – headed by Dilou – presented the country’s second human rights status report.

Among the total recommendations, 110 recommendations touching on the importance of judiciary reform and the need to respect the rights of women, children, and the disabled were approved.

The Human Rights minister clarified during the press conference that the remaining twelve recommendations are pending approval and his delegation needs more time to deliberate on such agreements as they are currently subject to national debate among the different movements of civil society and political parties.

The pending UNHRC recommendations mainly concern abolition of the death penalty, which hasn’t been practiced in Tunisia since 1991; equal inheritance rights between men and women; child custody; and the elimination of remaining forms of discrimination against women.

This is the second time this year that the Tunisian Minister of Human Rights has announced publicly his opposition to gay rights. Earlier this year Dilou referred to homosexuals as sick individuals who deserve medical treatment in a response to the launch of Tunisia’s first gay magazine - a position seriously criticized by Amnesty International , Reporters without Borders and Act up Paris.

The UN Human Rights Council’s recommendations also coincide with previous calls made this year by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay during a panel on violence and discrimination against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals.

“I certainly agree with the rejection of the recommendation to decriminalize religious defamation, as that would open the door for much giving of offence to people’s beliefs, and might plunge the country into a disastrous ideological anarchy, but I’m a bit more optimistic about the gay rights situation. I’m not too disappointed by this initial rejection  as that’s exactly what we expected at this point. I think this marks the start of a process – what is positive is that we succeeded in putting LGBT rights on the government’s agenda and it’s being discussed in public”; said Zahra, a 26 year old lesbian from Monastir city.    

‘This rejection doesn’t mark the end of the fight, but shows that advocacy efforts towards equality and ensuring gay rights are not in vain.  We need to keep the pressure up.”

“Dilou and his delegation might find themselves ensnared in a heap of contradictions if on the one hand they claim that as Islamists all governmental matters have to obey Islamic law which insists on full equality between men and women, when it comes to inheritance for example - then use the same arguments to oppose gay rights,” explained Fadi Krouj, Gayday magazine’s editor

“The challenge is to convince the government and the general public of the irrelevance of their cultural and religious arguments and fears. The game has just started”- he added in a post that appeared in his magazine.  

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