The Yogyakarta Alliance: A Postcolonial League


A serious and critical examination of the German colonial history needs a concept of inclusion for LSBTIQ in development cooperation. 

For many years now civil society has been calling for a serious and critical reappraisal of Germany’s colonial history. There have been activities on many levels: from groups working towards the renaming of streets, to the successful installation of commemorative plaques e.g. in the Berlin government quarter. German colonies were located in present-day Namibia, Cameroon, Togo, Tanzania, Ruanda, Burundi, Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, and others. As part of imposed reparations following the end of World War One, Germany had to give up its colonies which were then further exploited by other European colonial powers. Calls for an official admission of guilt and for compensations for colonial crimes committed by Germany are getting louder.

Postcolonial criticism as theoretical background

This position is linked to the theoretical background of postcolonial criticism, an approach which originally developed at universities and has increasingly has increasingly been adopted by political activists. At times, however, postcolonial criticism—particularly to those striving for fair and just relations—conveys the impression that in a global context, the North is prone to cause harm and thus should rather refrain from taking any further action. Great caution and restraint can be observed especially among those supporting the causes of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and inter*persons in the Global South. What can be done? The Yogyakarta Alliance’s work revolves around this question.

The Yogyakarta Alliance has a postcolonial focus. It was founded in 2012 as a civil society initiative in Berlin. The league derived its name from the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). It promotes German development and foreign policies with an inclusive approach to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).

Development work needs postcolonial impulses

The Yogyakarta Alliance’s focus is both unique and clear. “Do no harm—but do something” is the group’s working principle. Integrating postcolonial impulses in developmental work makes sense and matters. For this to happen, the historical persecution and punishment of sexual and gender minorities must explicitly be taken into consideration. It is important to understand that penal codes targeting homosexual acts in the countries of the Global South originated in the colonies. Colonial powers furthermore enforced gender roles and often violently restricted the scope of gender identities and gender expressions. The effects of historical missionary activities, for example, are still tangible for young lesbians in Namibia today.

 “No offense, guys, but your countries came to our countries and violently took what wasn´t yours and left gay people outlawed. Isn´t it time to come up with an apology for colonialism and particularly for the homophobic laws that colonial rule introduced here?”

The idea of a campaign promoting an apology for colonialism—as suggested by Kenyan lawyer and activist Imani Kimiri—enthused the Yogyakarta Alliance at a meeting in Berlin, when Imani Kimiri was en route to the UK to work on such a campaign.

Homophobia as a result of the missionary colonialisation

The British exported their homophobic laws to the majority of their colonies. The ramifications can still be felt today. At present, homosexual acts are penalized in 36 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code was the first law criminalizing homosexuality introduced by the British colonial administration.

During a demonstration in Mumbai on the 61st anniversary of Indian independence in 2006, an apology was demanded for the great pain the introduction of this law has caused: “We call on the Indian government to abandon this abhorrent alien legacy that should have left our shores when the British did.”

British NGOs have also been working on the reappraisal of this part of colonial history. For years they urged the government to offer an apology—and finally succeeded: in late April 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May stated: “I deeply regret that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.” This was the first time she publicly gave a public statement about all the suffering the homophobic British laws have caused.

Civil society engagement brings change

Positive as it may be, this realization came at a very late point in time. It also did not include an admission of guilt of colonial crimes. Instead, it called on the Commonwealth states to promote the abolition of these laws and offered British support. Self-criticism was nowhere to be heard, neither was there any sign of critical reflection on the fact that decriminalization also took a very long time in the UK itself.

In India, progress was made without the support Theresa May had offered—a stance that appears neocolonial in itself. On September 6, 2018, the Indian Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional, thus ending the criminalization of consensual sexual acts of same-sex adults. The decision was first and foremost the result of years of engagement on behalf of the Indian public both in courts and in society.

In its opinion, the court referred to the Yogyakarta Principles, the Yogyakarta Principles Plus Ten, and the last report by the Independent UN-Expert on SOGI. “Society owes an apology to the LGBTI community and their families for being denied equal rights for years,” Judge Indu Malhotra stated. The verdict incidentally also noted the British Prime Minister’s apology.

Self-critical reflection is necessary

It’s time to put postcolonial theory into practice! People advocating the human rights of LGBTIQ should not ignore the colonial past and history of persecution, instead, self-critical reflection is of the essence. Only then can they act sincerely and convincingly. Postcolonial theory morally positions itself by the side of the offspring of colonized peoples and explicitly sides with vulnerable groups. It calls for the genuine inclusion of people of color, migrants, as well as the critical analysis of racism in the dialog between the North and the South. This also means that collaborative action shouldn’t exclusively focus on the aspect of homophobia. South African human rights lawyer Sibongile Ndashe has pointed out that local activists’ work is often ignored if it doesn’t fit into the widely known narrative of homophobia in Africa: “The single story of African homophobia hinders the work of local activists by ignoring on-the-ground-progress that doesn´t align with the established narrative.“

Almost all African states have records of homosexual traditions. The Hausa in Nigeria for example have the YanDoud: homosexual men whose gender is female. Nigerian lawyer and author Elnathan John has been researching this subject, among others. Colonization and European missionary movements violently suppressed these ways of life and traditions.

Central demands

Hence, the Yogyakarta Alliance calls on the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development to initiate a “Special Program Cultures and Colonialism” in order to collect and document “legacies, biographies, and traditions of regional homosexuality, gender, and gender histories.”

“German missionary history and colonial responsibilities” are explicitly to be reflected in this. Furthermore—and this is crucial for bringing together postcolonial theory and practice—“a concurrent program working with researchers and universities in the partner countries” is to be initiated.

Alongside numerous other states, Germany promotes the human rights of homosexuals and trans*persons. The Yogyakarta Alliance welcomes and encourages the government’s engagement, be it in the UN Human Rights Council, interstate diplomacy or more recently in the field of developmental cooperation. The Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development have asked the Yogyakarta Alliance for statements. We are in contact with implementing organizations such as the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GIZ, have been requested for workshops, and extend our international network at conferences.

Yogyakarta Alliance’s central demand is for the German government and all federally funded foundations to present a concept of inclusion for LGBTIQ with regards to foreign policies and developmental cooperation. With our Thirteen-Point-Paper we laid the conceptual foundation for this in November 2017.

The dedicated Yogyakarta Alliance core group regularly convenes in Berlin. Interested participants with backgrounds in developmental work, migrant organizations, churches or other relief agencies are welcome to join.