The World

The U.S. Would Have More Credibility on Gay Rights in Uganda if It Talked More About All Human Rights in Uganda

A woman participates in an anti-gay demonstration in Kampala on Feb. 14, 2010.

Photo by Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images

In the days leading up to President Yoweri Museveni finally signing Uganda’s anti-gay bill into law on Monday, he was heavily lobbied from Washington, including a warning from President Obama that the law would “complicate our valued relationship” and a phone call from national security advisor Susan Rice.

The Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, who has argued in favor of gay rights, makes the case that the very public pressure from the governments of the U.S. and European was counterproductive. The sad truth, Mwenda notes, is that while certainly no one would ever describe Museveni as progressive on the issue of gay rights, he may be less hostile than many of his citizens, 96 percent of whom say society should reject homosexuality. Museveni has opposed previous versions of this law, but political realities in Uganda came to hold more sway than international pressure.

(Yes, U.S. evangelical groups played a now-well-documented role in the law’s development, but it would be hard to argue they’re solely responsible for Ugandan public sentiment or the bill’s widespread popularity.) 

“If Museveni declined to sign the bill, people would interpret it as a result of Obama’s threats, a factor that would have made the Ugandan president look weak and cowardly,” Mwenda writes. “This is an impression Museveni cannot afford to have Ugandans hold of him.”

In Foreign Policy, Uganda-based journalist Elizabeth Allen argues that the ongoing outcry from gay rights groups, the international media, and foreign governments threatening to withhold aid made the bill into an issue of international sovereignty for Uganda and fed the narrative that homosexuality was an example of Western culture being forced on the country.

As John Nagenda, a presidential adviser who had previously opposed the bill, told the BBC in 2011, “this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying, ‘You do this or I withdraw my aid’ will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children.”

As my colleague June Thomas has noted, gay rights groups in Nigeria have also warned that threats of aid cuts and boycotts are counterproductive.

Of course, this shouldn’t stop gay rights groups from pointing out discriminatory laws and horrific abuses when they occur anywhere, but governments might have more credibility on these issues if they were more consistent on their approach to human rights.

As Helen Epstein points out at Al Jazeera, the issue of homosexuality tended to come up as a major topic of politics in Uganda after major political crackdowns on the opposition to Museveni’s rule—in 2009 after the killing of 13 protesters in Kampala,  in 2011 during Arab Spring-inspired protests, and again in recent months:

The bill died once again but was resurrected in December and passed parliament, just in time to divert public outrage from some of the worst human rights abuses in Uganda’s history. These include 1) the ongoing theft of government revenues and donor aid; 2) the resulting collapse of Uganda’s systems of public education and health care; 3) the virtual house arrest of Kizza Besigye, the country’s main opposition leader, who is followed wherever he goes, including even short trips to the local coffee shop, by truckloads of police in riot gear; 4) the harassment and possible murder of other government critics; 5) the draconian Public Order Management Bill, requiring police authorization for all meetings of more than three people; 6) Uganda’s support for the M23 rebels, who are wreaking havoc in neighboring Congo; and 7) worst of all, Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan’s civil war, which commenced Dec. 15. Ethiopia is reportedly considering entering the war to counter Uganda’s support for President Salva Kiir, and the conflict may well evolve into a massive regional conflict, with no end in sight.

None of these garnered nearly as much attention from Western governments or the media as the anti-homosexuality bill, and the U.S. has actually been increasing its support for the Ugandan military over this period. When the Ugandan public hears nary a word from the international community on these issues, it’s not hard to see why even those who oppose the law, or oppose Museveni, see the West as uniquely preoccupied with the issue of gay rights.

There are reasons for the silence on these issues, of course. The U.S. in particular seems to have made a calculation that its close security cooperation with Uganda outweighs concerns over human rights. But we shouldn’t be surprised that our very selective concern for the human rights of Ugandans—or Nigerians, or Gambians, or Russians—is viewed a bit skeptically.