The United Nations Secretary General has joined his High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in warmly welcoming the decision by the High Court of Botswana to decriminalise consensual same-sex relations between adults.

In a major victory for LGBT rights advocates, High Court judges earlier ruled that criminalising same-sex relationships was unconstitutional, just a month after a Court in Kenya rejected attempts to repeal a similar colonial-era law.

The Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS – UNAIDS – also applauded the decision, calling it historic, while two members of The Elders also weighed in with starkly different positions.

UN Chief Antonio Guterres and Michelle Bachelet called it a landmark decision that should free lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Botswana from the range of discriminatory sanctions and practices arising from what she called the highly problematic provisions in the country’s Penal Code.

In a statement she said that punishing people based on their sexual orientation has a deeply negative impact that goes far beyond the risk of arrest and punishment – echoing sentiments from the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS.

“The Secretary General joins the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the acting Executive Director of UNAIDS Gunilla Carlsson in warmly welcoming the landmark decision by Botswana’s high court to decriminalise consensual same-sex relations. Botswana is the 9th country in the past five years to have decriminalised consensual same sex relationships. Consensual same-sex relationship remains criminalised in at least 67 countries and territories worldwide.” says  UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Two members of The Elders were asked to weigh on the decision – including Liberia’s former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in this exchange.

Sherwin: Madame Sirleaf you are on record as saying in 2012 that you would not sign any law that deals with decriminalisation of homosexuality in Liberia  – quote “we like ourselves just the way we are, we have certain traditional values in our society that we want to preserve”. Now that you no longer have the political incumbency perhaps as an albatross around your neck and as an Elder, has you position changed?

Sirleaf: It hasn’t. As simple as that.

Sherwin: So LGBT people do not have human rights?

Sirleaf: Oh that’s not true.

Sherwin: So what are you saying exactly?

Sirleaf: We’re not going to go to a law because there is no law. There is no law that criminalises at all, we believe that those matters are private matters, they are to be respected on the part of individuals and as long as there is no law that restricts it, there’s no reason to try to get a law.

Sherwin: So sodomy is not illegal in Liberia?

Sirleaf: No it’s not.

The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights is among a host of organisations that lists Liberia as among those countries where same sex relations remain criminalised. The current Chair of The Elders, Mary Robinson, had this to say.

“I just want to comment on the welcome news from Botswana of an African country that’s taken a stand on this because I think we need more African countries to move. I have always appreciated that human rights has to be embedded in the culture of a country, and that can take time and it can take a lot of internal discussion and my country didn’t move on this issue for a long time, I had to take a case to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg  and then we moved and now we’ve moved further and given some leadership in the world with our referendum on same-sex marriage which reflected where Ireland is today – but every country tends to move at its speed and in its way and the role of the UN and the role particularly of the human rights council is to very much encourage but also understand the need for human rights to be strongly embedded in the culture of the country and therefore work for support of women’s rights, support for LGBT rights.”

Similar decisions to the one in Botswana have been made by courts and/or lawmakers over the last five years – in Angola, Belize, India, Mozambique, Nauru, Palau, the Seychelles, and Trinidad and Tobago.