Nobel Peace Prize Winner Defends Liberian Antigay Law

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com March 20 2012 10:55 AM ET

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, defended a law that criminalizes homosexuality in a joint interview with Tony Blair, while the former British prime minister refused to comment on her remarks.

Sirleaf and Blair participated in the interview with The Guardian in Liberia. Lawmakers in the West African country, which already punishes homosexuality with up to one year in prison, are considering two pieces of legislation that would impose much harsher sentences, including one bill that would make same-sex marriage a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

“We like ourselves just the way we are,” said President Sirleaf. "We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve."

Blair, now a founder of the African Governance Initiative, which works to strengthen African governments, looked pained by her statements but declined to challenge Sirleaf. While serving as prime minister, he pressed for LGBT rights including civil partnerships and open military service.

"I'm not giving you an answer on it,” he said in his new capacity. “One of the advantages of doing what I do now is I can choose the issues I get into and the issues I don't. For us, the priorities are around power, roads, jobs delivery.”

Pressed on statements from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in January urging African leaders to respect gay rights, Blair said, "I'm not saying these issues aren't important, but the president has given her position and this is not one for me."

According to The Guardian, debate in Liberia ignited, for the most part with negative tones, late last year after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced new measures to integrate LGBT rights into U.S. foreign policy at a speech to the U.N. in Geneva. Her remarks prompted concern that foreign aid to impoverished nations would be tied to gay rights records.

Sirleaf, 73, received the Nobel Peace Prize last year for work to promote women’s rights. Now serving her second term, she became the first female president in Africa when she was elected in 2006.