Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Plot thickens in Botswana-America diplomatic relations over gay rights

In the week that the Botswana government is believed to have snubbed visiting American Special Envoy for LGBT rights Randy Berry, the American embassy in Gaborone vowed to continue supporting the Botswana gay rights campaign.

An abridged itinerary of Berry’s visit to Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Malawi indicated that the American Special envoy would meet government leaders to understand the legal and social context for homosexuals in the country, the Botswana government this week told Sunday Standard that they never had any meeting with Berry and were not even aware that he was in the country.

The United States Embassy in Gaborone stated on its Facebook page on Friday that it “was pleased to welcome the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons, Randy Berry, to Botswana January 21 and 22.”  

Indications are that the American Embassy in Gaborone tried to paper over their deep divisions with the government of Botswana over the issue. The embassy posted on its website that, “during his visit he interacted with civil society representatives, government leaders, and members of the media to better understand the legal and social context for LGBTI individuals in Botswana.” 

Government spokesperson Jeff Ramsay would not discuss the issue and referred all enquiries to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs International Cooperation. Botswana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Tebogo Motshome told the Sunday Standard that, “Please be informed that the Ministry is not aware of the visit by U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons, Randy Berry and that the Government has not had any engagements with him as he was the guest of the U.S Embassy.”   

 “We also wish to inform that the Botswana Government is not in a position to pronounce itself on the LGBTI issue as it is still before the courts. We also wish to reiterate that Botswana is open to receive visitors with open arms regardless of their position on any issue so Mr. Berry is most welcome to Botswana,” said Motshome. 

Although government claimed that it was not aware of Berry’s visit, Sunday Standard can reveal that Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Administration, Botlogile Tshireletso a gay rights champion was among invited guests at a dinner party hosted by the American Embassy for Berry. Tshireletso invitation card was sent to her more than a week before Berry arrived in Gaborone. Contacted for comment, Tshireletso broke ranks with government on the matter saying the nation needs to dialogue over homosexual issues.

“I was invited as a Minister and MP who is passionate about human rights issues. I’m not saying I was there representing Government’s position. They invited me and I am touched by the plight that homosexuals find themselves in,” she said.

She said there was need to debate the issue in Parliament. Asked if she does not fear that she is likely to be reprimanded by her employer Tshireletso said “I don’t think my presence at the event hosted by the US embassy could rub the government the wrong way.”  

Also present at the dinner party were former President Festus Mogae and former Speaker of the National Assembly Margaret Nasha both gay rights champions.

On its Facebook page the US Embassy posted pictures of its Ambassador to Botswana, Earl Miller, former Botswana President Festus Mogae, former Speaker of the National Assembly Dr Margret Nasha and Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Botlogile Tshireletso.  

The U.S. posted that, “we believe that equality is best achieved through indigenous grass-roots movements, with individuals encouraging dialogue and advancing change in their own communities,” reads the statement. 

It further states that “We also appreciate the work of civil society organizations such as BONELA, LEGABIBO, Pilot Mathambo, and Rainbow Identity, among others, for their tireless work in the field to promote human rights and acceptance of members of the LGBTI community and their ability to access basic services, including health care. Our support to these groups will continue.” LEGABIBO  is currently embroiled in a marathon court battle with the government of Botswana over gay rights.

United States also paid tribute to former President Festus Mogae for his support of homosexuals’ rights.

“We admire individuals such as former President Mogae for his principled stand in promoting the protection of human rights for members of the LGBTI community and their access to critical health services including anti-retroviral treatment,” reads the statement on the Facebook page. 

It says that at a dinner held in “honour of Special Envoy Berry, attended by former President Festus Mogae, Ambassador Miller stressed President Obama’s administration has placed great importance on protecting the human rights of LGBTI persons globally and prominently included LGBTI rights in the 2015 National Security Strategy.” 

President Obama has instructed officials across government to “ensure that US diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender persons” around the world.

Under the move, legal, moral and financial support will be boosted for gay rights organisations, emergency assistance will be sent to groups or individuals facing threats, and asylum in the US will be offered to people forced to flee anti-gay persecution in their countries, Obama said. 

Berry said his mission to Botswana was among others to get Batswana to eradicate discrimination against the LGBTI community. Berry also stated that he took pride in the fact that his President speaks boldly and openly in support of the LGBTI community and their rights and unlike many leaders he does not duck and avoid making a statement.

Berry said in Botswana it is all an issue of education, exposure and expansion to get the ball in motion and that it all comes down to the, “all men are created equal’ statement thus it is important for society to advance an understanding on what equality means. 

The American Special Envoy on LGBT rights said, he engages government representatives, leaders in civil society, religious leaders and the media which he regards as opinion leaders offering the public objective and rational perspectives. 

In a recent interview with a United Nations online magazine, Africa Renewal, former president Mogae, said “In my long interaction with LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-sexual] groups and extensive research, I have come to the realisation that we are limited in our knowledge and must be open to new discoveries. I have been converted; I used to hold the same beliefs as my counterparts.”

Mogae added that “President (Robert) Mugabe has said that he hates homosexuals and is on record as saying they are worse than pigs and dogs. That is still his position. Leadership is not always about you, it is about people and often circumstances. I call upon African leaders to open up to second generation rights.”

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