H. E. Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique and the current co-chair of the High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), recently wrote an open letter to Africa’s leaders imploring them to take a stand in the fight for human rights.

Chissano urged leaders across the continent to focus on three areas that will result in sustainable development: “the empowerment of women and gender equality; the rights and empowerment of adolescents and youth; and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people.”

This move comes on the heels of Nigeria’s much-talked about ban on homosexuality, which has already resulted in the arrest of dozens of gay men and activists, and has drawn criticism from the U.S.

In the missive published by The Africa Report, Chissano argued that focusing on human rights is not only fair, but will result in greater investment and development in Africa.

He writes:

These interlinked priorities and their policy implications have been carefully analysed by the High-Level Task Force for the ICPD that I co-chair.

We have found that they represent not only human rights imperatives, but smart, cost-effective investments to foster more equitable, healthy, productive, prosperous and inclusive societies, and a more sustainable world.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights, in particular, are a prerequisite for empowering women and the generations of young people on whom our future depends.

This simply means granting every one the freedom – and the means — to make informed decisions about very basic aspects of one’s life – one’s sexuality, health, and if, when and with whom to have relationships, marry or have children – without any form of discrimination, coercion or violence.

This also implies convenient, affordable access to quality information and services and to comprehensive sexuality education.

We can no longer afford to discriminate against people on the basis of age, sex, ethnicity, migrant status, sexual orientation and gender identity, or any other basis – we need to unleash the full potential of everyone.

Speaking to the recent pushback against gay Africans in nations like Nigeria and Uganda, Chissano told leaders that while he understands their antiquated views, he does not condone them. He also pressed leaders to treat every citizen the same, regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation.

As an African who has been around a long time, I understand the resistance to these ideas.

But I can also step back and see that the larger course of human history, especially of the past century or so, is one of expanding human rights and freedoms.

African leaders should be at the helm of this, and not hold back. Not at this critical moment.

The international agenda that we will help forge is not just for us here and now, but for the next generations and for the world.

As I think about these issues, I am reminded of the words of our recently departed leader, who gained so much wisdom over the course of his long walk to freedom.

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,” Nelson Mandela reminded us, “but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Let us live up to his immortal words.

We commend President Chissano for stepping up to speak out for the rights of all Africans. We hope more current and former leaders follow suit.

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