Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been put on the defensive for not publicly challenging Senegal’s president over the country’s criminalization of homosexual acts while accepting support for Canada’s bid for a United Nations Security Council seat.
At the Munich Security Conference Friday, reporters pressed Trudeau about a media availability he held with Senegal’s Macky Sall in Dakar two days earlier. Sall announced he will encourage his African counterparts to cast their ballots for Canada this June for a two-year term on the council, starting in 2021.
Asked at the time if he raised LGBTQ issues with Sall, the prime minister told reporters the two leaders “talked about it” earlier.
“We know that Senegal is a leader in terms of democracy and in terms of values,” Trudeau said Wednesday. “But we all have work to do.”
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Sall then told reporters in French that Western African nation’s anti-gay laws reflect “our way of living,” and denied they were homphobic.
“We cannot ask Senegal to legalize homosexuality and organize tomorrow’s Gay Pride,” he said. “It is not possible. Our society does not accept it.”
Reporters asked Trudeau Friday what he would say to those who feel he stayed quiet about fundamental values in order to win support for Canada’s UN campaign.
The support of Senegal’s leader is something Canada has had for a while, a “reinforcement of a longstanding friendship” between the countries, Trudeau said.
“I always bring up human rights… including directly to the president about the issues facing LGBT communities in his country and indeed around the world,” Trudeau said. “We will continue to work to ensure that people’s rights are respected at home and around the world.”
Trudeau did not elaborate on why he did not challenge Sall publicly.
“One of the things that Canadians understand is we need to engage constructively with the world, stand up firmly for our values and look to help people as we improve conditions for people around the world,” he said.
“I’ve never shied away from bringing up human rights with leaders and I will continue to do that strongly in a way that moves the dial forward.”
According to The Canadian Press, Human Rights Watch has documented 38 cases between 2009 and 2016 in which police arrested someone for their “perceived sexual orientation″ and charged them with “unnatural acts” under Senegal’s criminal code. Some reports suggest many of those arrested are released within a few days, though the law does allow five-year prison sentences for the offence.
This is not the first time Trudeau has been accused of pulling his punches on this matter. In 2016, then-NDP MP Sheri Benson called out the prime minister for not speaking out against Liberia’s anti-gay laws and opposition to same-sex marriage while meeting with then-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
“Let me remind the prime minister that human rights are universal, no matter where you live or who you love,” Benson said in the House of Commons.
Former Alberta Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault, who served as the prime minister’s advisor on LGBTQ issues, responded at the time that while advancing human rights at home and abroad is important, Canada must be “sensitive” to where other nations are in their “own evolution.”
“Over time the long arc of history bends toward progress and we are helping with that long arc,” Boissonnault said.
The prime minister is on a week-long overseas tour, one that included stops in Ethiopia and Kuwait, that is partly about securing votes for Canada’s UN Security Council campaign. Canada currently faces stiff competition from Ireland and Norway for a coveted seat.
With 54 African countries voting at the UN General Assembly, the continent has been described as something of a “kingmaker” in the contest.
With files from The Canadian Press, earlier files