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Nigeria’s war on LGBT: an urgent appeal to the UN for information and guidance

An open letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé

13 January 2014


AIDS-Free World assumes that the United Nations was deeply dismayed to learn that on 7 January 2014, when President Goodluck Jonathan signed an Act that prohibits marriages and civil unions between persons of the same sex throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he also endorsed a clause in the Act that reads, “A person or group of persons who…supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.”  

When President Jonathan’s written assent to the law was first made known through the media on 13 January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a public statement correctly declaring that, “Beyond even prohibiting same sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians” and is “inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the democratic reforms and human rights protections enshrined in its 1999 Constitution.” 

As you know, this Act was passed by Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives and forwarded for the President’s signature nearly one month ago, on 17 December 2013. We have no doubt that while awaiting President Jonathan’s decision, the United Nations and its agencies, UNAIDS in particular, fully considered the implications that its passage would have on the world body’s work and that of its civil society partners in Nigeria. We appeal to you now for your much needed information and guidance.  

We are aware that UN staff are immune from arrest and prosecution under this new law and will, in theory, be able to meet internally to discuss policy and programmes for marginalized and vulnerable LGBT. But such meetings would now be pointless, since they can neither involve nor benefit LGBT in the country.  In fact, to invite representatives of LGBT organizations to such meetings would be to court their imprisonment.  

The six most pressing questions for which we seek your urgent response are:

1) What instructions have been given to UN staff about operating under this new law? 

2) Will the funds that were allocated to Nigeria through the Global Fund specifically for work with men who have sex with men be suspended, until such time as this new law is revoked?

3) Will Nigeria be banned from hosting any future global or regional HIV meetings organized or supported by the UN? 

4) Does the UN plan to continue hosting, supporting, and attending national and sub-national HIV-related meetings in Nigeria, despite the fact that LGBT issues and representatives will be excluded by law from such meetings? 

5) If the immediate plan is to proceed with internal UN meetings dealing with LGBT and HIV, but to do so without the participation of the affected populations and the expertise of LGBT organizations, how will the well-established principle of Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV be accommodated?

6) Will the UN Secretariat be asking the government of Nigeria voluntarily to relinquish the Security Council seat it assumed on 2 January 2014, until such time as the Member State is no longer acting in violation of its international obligations? 

Excellencies, like all who consider human rights inviolable, we are shocked by the action of President Jonathan, and we look to the UN to provide guidance and leadership to the international community. Interim answers to the six questions we posed, while not necessarily permanent solutions, are necessary to ensure that the global response to HIV is neither paralyzed at this critical time, nor set on a disastrous reverse course. Your immediate responses will be most appreciated. 

Sincerely yours, 


Paula Donovan and Stephen Lewis
Co-Directors, AIDS-Free World

For your own ease of reference and the information of others who read this urgent appeal, we have provided some crucial facts and background about this issue, and a scanned photographic copy of the Act signed by President Goodluck Jonathan. 

* UNAIDS estimates that the rate of HIV among adults in Nigeria is 3.1 per cent. The rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Nigeria is 17.24 per cent. 

* The HIV epidemic in Nigeria is highly concentrated among high-risk groups. MSM now account for 10 per cent of new HIV infections among Nigerians each year.  

* On 13 December 2012, the Global Fund awarded Nigeria a grant of US$ 335 million, a significant portion of which was to target "most-at-risk populations" including MSM.  

* In his statement to the UN General Assembly in September 2013, President Jonathan said:  "Today, we have a renascent Africa that has moved away from the era of dictatorship to a new dawn where the ideals of good governance and an emphasis on human rights and justice are beginning to drive state-society relations."

* On the occasion of Nigeria's 53rd Independence Anniversary, 1 October 2013, President Jonathan stated: "Our Constitution is anchored ultimately on the idea of freedom and fundamental rights: freedom of expression; freedom from discrimination; freedom to vote and be voted for, and the right to human dignity. These are the core values of a true democracy. These are the values of which we must never lose sight."

Download this statement as a PDF.