Nobel Prize winner stirs protests

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Three months ago, the president of Liberia received her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo and was hailed as a champion of women’s rights. Now she’s made it clear that human rights don’t extend to homosexuals, and that’s sparked some outrage in Norway.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf giving her Nobel lecture after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in December. The Nobel committee has claimed repeatedly that human rights and peace go hand in hand, but Sirleaf won't decriminalize a law against homosexuality. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has shocked some Norwegians who applauded her in Oslo in December, after telling a reporter from The Guardian, in the company of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that she wouldn’t be making any effort to decriminalize homosexuality in Liberia. Nor will she sign any law that decriminalizes homosexuality. Liberia, reported The Guardian, is one of 37 countries in Africa where homosexuality is forbidden.

Gays and lesbians in Liberia also risk attack and many reportedly fear for their lives. They are getting no sympathy or support from Sirleaf.

“We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we’d like to preserve,” said Sirleaf while sitting at a table with Blair who was visiting Liberia and clearly uncomfortable. As prime minister in the UK, he promoted gay rights, and he has claimed that human rights are essential for good government. When confronted with Sirleaf’s anti-gay attitude, though, he refused to comment on it and said he was in Liberia as founder of the African Governance Initiative to deal with other issues.

Sirleaf said she doubts any law decriminalizing homosexuality will get through Liberia’s legislature. If one does, “I won’t be signing any such law,” she said.

That’s upset Norway’s government minister who’s been in charge of foreign aid, Erik Solheim. “I’m provoked that such attitudes (as Sirleaf’s) are still found,” Solheim told newspaper Dagsavisen. “These are old-fashioned attitudes that we can’t accept.” He said the government would take up the statements made by Sirleaf.

The head of Norway’s main gay rights organization, Bård Nylund, said he was “very disappointed” by Sirleaf’s anti-gay attitude. “Gay rights aren’t just about the gay cause but about fundamental human rights that must apply to us all,” Nylund told Dagsavisen.

“As we all sang after (the terror attacks) on July 22, ‘if we create human dignity, we create peace,'” Nylund noted. “Human dignity is essential for peace work. Not everyone has that in Liberia, and it’s a paradox when she’s a Peace Prize winner.”

Nylund doesn’t believe Sirleaf’s Peace Prize should be withdrawn, but he questions what kind of research the Norwegian Nobel Committee did in advance of awarding her the prize. “If her anti-gay views had been known in advance, I think this award would have been problematic,” he said.

The Nobel Committee declined comment on the issue. “We don’t offer any ongoing comments on the statements or acts of prize winners,” Geir Lundestad, secretary for the committee, wrote in an e-mail to Dagsavisen.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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