Minister raises concerns over laws against gays in Malawi

Tue, Jun 14, 2011, 01:00

IRELAND’S MINISTER of State for Trade and Development has raised concerns with Malawian officials over the country’s draconian laws against homosexuality and its increasingly tense political climate which has worried aid donors.

Jan O’Sullivan is on a three-day trip to the southern African nation, which is one of nine priority countries for Irish Aid, the Government’s overseas development division. Ireland is providing almost €10 million in aid to Malawi this year, most of which is allocated to programmes related to agriculture and nutrition. Almost €2 million is spent on efforts to improve governance.

Relations between Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika and several donors have deteriorated in recent months. His government has faced much criticism over its laws on homosexuality and a media crackdown.

In April Malawi expelled the British ambassador following the publication of a leaked diplomatic cable that said the president was “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.

Britain immediately announced it would review its aid commitments to Malawi, which gets 40 per cent of its annual budget from donors, 20 per cent of which comes from Britain. Any aid freeze would hurt the country deeply, given that more than 70 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day.

Ms O’Sullivan said she had discussed these issues, and also concerns about press freedom, in meetings with Malawi’s finance, agriculture and development ministers. “We believe [the legislation on homosexuality] is wrong. We pointed that out in no uncertain terms. I specifically asked the minister for finance if they would review the legislation as soon as possible. He said he would raise it with the president,” she said.

“I think the most effective thing we can do as public representatives when we come to a country like Malawi, is to seriously raise the issues we are concerned about. I explained to him how [homosexuality] was illegal in Ireland until 1993 but we have now changed that and brought in the right to civil partnership. I explained to him that we had gone through that process and that we believe it is wrong for any minority in any country to be treated in this way.”

On the situation in Malawi more generally, Ms O’Sullivan acknowledged there was “a concern about the political climate” but she also argued that the country should also be recognised for what it has achieved in the 17 years since it adopted a democratic system.

“We want to see them developing the kind of democracy that we would recognise as quickly as possible but I think we have to recognise that it is the Malawian people ultimately that will have to determine that.” She urged the Malawian government to resolve the row with Britain.

“Our concern is mainly for the people of Malawi and it seems to me that [the controversy] has not benefited the people . . . I think the government of Malawi needs to recognise that their first concern should be for the people of the country and I hope that will influence their behaviour in the future.”