An alarming human rights crisis is unfolding right now in Tanzania, with authorities rounding up LGBTQ people for kidnapping and torture. In response, the U.S. State Department has released a statement expressing deep concern.
Homosexuality is criminalized in Tanzania, a country located on Africa’s eastern coast. Those accused can be punished by prison sentences of up to 30 years, or in some cases, human rights abuses like those that have suddenly escalated following an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric by local elected officials over the last few years.
In late October, Dar es Salaam administrative head Paul Makonda issued a statement threatening to kidnap and torture queer people. Makonda called on citizens to report suspected homosexuals and claimed that a tip line had received over 5,700 messages. The city established a 17-member commission for the purpose of outing accused individuals on social media before abducting them.
That followed a raid last year in which 12 people were seized at a hotel in Dar es Salaam, accused of promoting same-sex relationships.
Those who have been held on similar charges in the past reported police brutality that included beating, sexual assault, and being forced to crawl through sewage.
In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region off the coast of Tanzania, 10 people were kidnapped by security forces last week, accused of homosexuality, and subjected to physical torture. Police chief Suleiman Hassan described forcible anal abuse by authorities, supposedly to obtain evidence of homosexuality. Of course, there is no way to prove a person’s sexuality or obtain conclusive evidence of sexual practices through such intrusive exams.
Tanzania’s LGBTQ community has long suffered under oppressive attitudes from the public and elected officials. In recent years, the country banned support groups for queer people and blocked efforts to reduce HIV transmission. When lawyers met to discuss a challenge to the policy, Tanzanian officials had them rounded up and deported.
Last year, when the country contemplated releasing a list of suspected homosexuals, Health Minister Hamisi Kigwangalla falsely claimed that homosexuality does not occur in nature.
Internationally, the diplomatic response to the erosion of human rights has been stilted. The European Union recalled its ambassador to Tanzania, and the U.S. Embassy published an alert for Americans visiting the country.
“Exercise increased caution in Tanzania due to crime, terrorism, and targeting of LGBTI persons,” reads a bulletin on the embassy’s website. “Avoid public displays of affection, in particular for same-sex couples.”
Another alert instructs travelers to “review internet footprint and social media profiles. Remove or protect images and language that may run afoul of Tanzanian laws regarding homosexual practices and explicit sexual activity.”
Americans in Tanzania can subscribe to the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive alerts whenever new threats are identified.
In addition, the U.S. State Department released a statement expressing deep concern over “escalating attacks and legislative actions by the Government of Tanzania that violate civil liberties and human rights … We are troubled by the continued arrests and harassment of marginalized persons, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and others who seek to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly.”
The statement concluded with a recommendation that Tanzanian authorities “act decisively to safeguard the rights of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, journalists, health workers, political activists, and all people.”
There’s no sign that the United States is taking any further action in response to Tanzania’s human rights abuses.
The United States has canceled aid for Tanzania in the past over other human rights concerns. In 2016, the Obama administration cancelled a $473 million payment over concerns about elections in Zanzibar. Following several months of reforms in Tanzania, the United States resumed payment. Also the Obama administration, and particularly while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, the United States withheld aid money from countries that criminalized homosexuality. That commitment to withholding aid is credited as having helped stop Uganda’s proposed “kill the gays” bill.
Tanzania received about $629 million in aid from the United States in 2016.
But Republicans have called for the United States to relax its pressure on countries that abuse queer citizens. Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney complained that “our US taxpayer dollars are used to discourage Christian values in other democratic countries.”
What’s more, in 2009 Vice President Mike Pence defended countries that kidnap, torture, and execute queer people. “I oppose mandating that our Secretary of State, diplomatic and consular staff essentially promote a gay rights agenda around the globe,” he said at the time, and introduced an amendment that would have removed sexual orientation from the State Department’s list of priorities.
For now, America’s public response has been limited to two paragraphs on the State Department website. But in the absence of United States action, international human rights groups have stepped in to monitor the situation and offer what support they can.
Amnesty International has maintained a close watch on the country to ensure that abuses are not hidden from the international community.
And on the ground, the Refugee Coalition of East Africa provides support, through independent organizations, to those seeking to flee persecution.
“If you choose to flee to Kenya,” reads a statement on the Refugee Coalition’s website, “please know that we are here for you and we highly encourage you to reach out to any of our member organizations for support.”
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