Robert Mugabe, the 91-year-old leader of Zimbabwe, deviated slightly from his prepared remarks during his Monday evening address to the United Nations General Assembly, to do something that he does frequently: slur against homosexuality. "We are not gays," he shouted. And it's worse than it sounds.
Mugabe made the comment in the course of a point about "double standards," which is usually dictator code for "I'm tired of Western countries calling out my human rights abuses," and about "new rights," which is usually code for "I long for the days when discrimination against certain groups was considered acceptable."
Here's the full quote, with the line he added at the podium in bold:
Respecting and upholding human rights is the obligation of all states, and is enshrined in the United Nations charter. Nowhere does the charter abrogate the right to some to sit in judgment over others, in carrying out this universal obligation. In that regard, we reject the politicization of this important issue and the application of double standards to victimize those who dare think and act independently of the self-anointed prefects of our time.
We equally reject attempts to prescribe "new rights" that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays! Cooperation and respect for each other will advance the cause of human rights worldwide. Confrontation, vilification, and double-standards will not.
(Caveat: This is based off Mugabe's prepared remarks and my memory of his speech as delivered. I will update if necessary once I can verify from video of the speech.)
Mugabe barked the line, which drew audible laughter from the attendees at the United Nations General Assembly.
The Zimbabwean dictator has made overt homophobia official policy for years, and has frequently couched this in criticism of Western countries (which have sanctioned Mugabe for his appalling human rights record), sometimes saying that Western leaders wish to impose not just acceptance of LGBTQ rights but homosexuality itself on Zimbabweans or Africans generally. Hence his declaration that "We are not gays."
Mugabe's colorful homophobia may be earnestly held, but it's also a play for populism at home and a way to divert attention from tougher issues. He's used homophobia as a way to attack President Obama especially, who is popular in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus deflect American criticism of Zimbabwe's dictatorial regime.
"Then we have this American president, Obama, born of an African father, who is saying we will not give you aid if you don’t embrace homosexuality," Mugabe said in July 2013. "We ask, was he born out of homosexuality? We need continuity in our race, and that comes from the woman, and no to homosexuality. John and John, no; Maria and Maria, no."
Only Mugabe would bring this hateful political tactic to the floor of the UN General Assembly, but he is unfortunately not alone in pursuing it. Homophobia is a problem in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where it is often encouraged by authoritarian or populist leaders like Mugabe. Much of the region criminalizes homosexuality. A global Pew study on attitudes toward homosexuality found that surveyed African countries tended to be among the least likely to agree that society "should accept homosexuality." The more comprehensive World Values Survey yielded similar results.
As gay rights improve in much of the world, they're getting worse in a handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A 2013 Amnesty International report detailed worsening and "dangerous" homophobia across much of the continent. This is not uniform to the continent, of course, and some countries such as South Africa have positive and improving LGBT rights situations. The causes of this are complex — the legacy of European colonialism, the perverse incentives of post-colonial authoritarianism and conflict — but the problem is real.
So why is Mugabe saying that this is about "new rights" being imposed by hypocritical states that "sit in judgment"? Western countries, particularly the US under Obama, have worked to support LGBTQ rights in Africa. This has at times been met with backlash and a belief, encouraged by populist or authoritarian African leaders, that the United States wishes to impose homosexuality on their populations. It's a way for those leaders to gin up fear of an outside threat — always a useful tool — and to deflect broader Western calls for improving human and political rights.
And, of course, there is likely some earnestly felt homophobia as well. This is Robert Mugabe, after all.