New human rights master takes a comparative approach

New human rights master takes a comparative approach

The importance of taking a comparative approach to human rights law to make human rights strategies more successful is borne out by the case of Uganda's anti-gay act

Leiden Law School is launching a new advanced master in European and International Human Rights Law which will start in September 2014. The most distinguishing feature of the programme is the comparative perspective it takes to regional and global human rights systems and the way in which ‘law in the books’ is time and again related to ‘the law in action’. The programme is thus expected to provide students with the flexibility to work in different human rights settings at the national and international level and with the ability to choose between different options for promoting the realisation of human rights in different political, social and cultural environments.

The human rights issues raised by Uganda's draconian anti-gay act that was signed into law last week by president Museveni shows the importance of such a perspective. The act threatens homosexuals and anyone supporting them in any way (e.g. by providing housing or promoting their rights) with severe prison sentences.

To put any effective pressure on Uganda to repeal its anti-homo legislation, deploying multiple human rights strategies will be crucial. Western countries were quick to denounce the act, but Museveni retorted by accusing them of 'social imperialism'. Whatever the merits of this accusation, a similar response cannot be sustained in respect of UN reactions to the act. That is why it is important that the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was also quick to denounce the act. She stressed that the act violates a host of fundamental human rights that are all enshrined in Uganda’s own constitution and in the international treaties it has ratified.

Maybe even more important, however, would be pressure from within Africa itself. Nobel Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has spoken out strongly against the act, but the African Commission on Human and People's Rights has remained silent so far. This may be explained by the sensitivity of homosexuality in the African region, but is quite worrying. Interestingly, however, the Commission's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa did stand up for gay rights, be it in an indirect way, just a few weeks ago. She expressed her deep concern about the consequences of a Nigerian act that prohibits same-sex marriage, because it would threaten human rights defenders working for the promotion of the rights of sexual minorities. Apparently support for gay rights is not completely lacking within the African human rights system, even if Museveni would like to suggest otherwise.

This example shows how different human rights mechanisms may provide different opportunities for channeling the protests and pressure to repeal the anti-gay law. To be as effective as possible it is very important to have a thorough knowledge of the variety of political and legal instruments available and proper insight into which ones would be most promising to strategically engage in the specific setting of the issue at hand. This is exactly what the new advanced master in human rights law tries to achieve by approaching human rights law in a comparative perspective.


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