The Supreme Court of Mauritius has struck out a colonial-era law criminalising same-sex relations, bucking a trend seen elsewhere in Africa where laws cracking down on LGBT rights have been passed or proposed.
In a ruling on two cases brought by members of the gay community in the Indian Ocean island nation, the court said section 250 of the Mauritian criminal code, which dated back to 1898 during British colonial rule, was unconstitutional.
“Section 250 was not introduced in Mauritius to reflect any indigenous Mauritian values but was inherited as part of our colonial history from Britain,” the court said in a ruling handed down on Wednesday.
The government, the defendant in the cases, had said that while it was sympathetic to the arguments put forward by LGBT citizens, the values of wider society meant that the time was not right to change the law through parliament.
But the Supreme Court said the old law “criminalises the only natural way for the plaintiffs and other homosexual men to have sexual intercourse, whereas heterosexual men are permitted the right to have sexual intercourse in a way which is natural to them”.
UNAIDS, the United Nations agency in charge of combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic, said the ruling was an important step forward for public health and towards equal rights and respect for the LGBT community.
“UNAIDS applauds Mauritius for today’s decision, which will mean that men who have sex with men will have much easier access to the health and social services they need without fear of arrest or criminalisation,” said Anne Githuku-Shongwe, a senior UNAIDS official in the region. “It will save lives.”
She added that work would need to continue to break down the barriers of stigma and discrimination.
The Mauritian ruling stands in sharp contrast to developments elsewhere in Africa, especially in Uganda where one of the world’s harshest anti-homosexuality laws was passed in May, imposing the death penalty for some same-sex acts.
Despite Uganda being widely denounced for the law and having some of its aid flows cut off, lawmakers in a number of other African countries including Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan are working to bring in similar laws in their countries.
Those in favour of such laws say that same-sex relations are unnatural and that Africans must resist what they see as the imposition of Western values that threaten social order.