Uganda Could Lose U.S. Aid, Face Sanctions Over Its Homosexuality Law

Patrick Goodenough | February 25, 2014 | 4:14am EST
Font Size

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, in Entebbe, Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie)

( – A review of the U.S. relationship with Uganda in response to newly enacted anti-homosexuality legislation could lead to options such as cutting aid or imposing sanctions, a State Department spokeswoman indicated on Monday.

But as the U.S. considers steps against Uganda, White House press secretary Jay Carney could not say whether the administration was also reassessing its relationship with other countries which similarly outlaw homosexual behavior.

Asked during a press briefing about many other countries in Africa where such laws are in place, Carney referred the question to the State Department.

“What I can tell you is that the law in Uganda was signed and our reaction, I think, is reflected in the statement that we put out, and in the fact that we are reviewing our relationship with Uganda in light of that decision.”

According to Amnesty International, homosexuality is illegal in 38 out of Africa’s 54 countries. They include Senegal and Tanzania, two of the three countries on the continent visited by President Obama last year.

Beyond countries where often lengthy prison sentences are imposed, convictions for homosexual acts carry the death penalty in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen and the shari’a-governed northern states of Nigeria, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday signed into law legislation toughening existing penalties for sexual activity between people of the same gender, with life imprisonment for repeat offenders and those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” and prison terms of five to seven years for promoting or “aiding and abetting” homosexual activity.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement afterwards that an internal review of the relationship with Uganda would now begin, “to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programs, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a press briefing that the administration was “considering a range of steps.” Asked whether that could include cutting aid, imposing sanctions or recalling the U.S. ambassador, she replied, “Sure. Certainly, we’re looking at a range of options.”

According to the State Department, $480.9 million in foreign aid for Uganda was appropriated in 2013, and $456.3 million was requested for fiscal year 2014.

“A key strategic partner to the United States, Uganda is instrumental to security efforts throughout the region,” the department said in its FY2014 budget justification submitted to Congress. “Uganda has also made significant progress in combating HIV/AIDS, fostering strong economic growth, and stabilizing northern Uganda after a 20-year insurgency.”

Among other things, U.S. assistance to Uganda promotes “good governance, human rights and multi-party democracy,” it said.

‘We do not want anybody to impose their views on us’

Monday’s signing came after a drawn-out controversy over a bill first introduced four years ago, which Museveni himself was long reluctant to support. In a statement last week, he attributed his shift to a determination by Ugandan scientists that “homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioral and not genetic.”

He challenged the U.S. government to work with Uganda to study whether some people are “born homosexual.” Should that be proved, he said, his government would review the legislation.

Museveni’s Feb. 18 statement came in response to an earlier warning by Obama that signing the bill into law “will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda.”

Government supporters of the bill have often characterized the issue as one of protecting Ugandan sovereignty and resisting Western cultural imperialism.

“There are a myriad acts the societies in the West do that we frown on or even detest,” Museveni said in the statement. “We, however, never comment on those acts or make them preconditions for working with the West. Africans do not seek to impose their views on anybody. We do not want anybody to impose their views on us.”

The law’s enactment drew criticism from former colonial power Britain, with Foreign Secretary William Hague questioning its compatibility with Uganda’s international treaty obligations.

The Netherlands, which had earlier suspended aid to the Ugandan government, said Monday it was now considering other steps, including reviewing whether any of its non-governmental aid goes to civil society groups that have supported the legislation.

“Disapproval of homosexuality by some can never justify violating the fundamental human rights of others,” said U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay. “This law will institutionalize discrimination and is likely to encourage harassment and violence against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Uganda has generally enjoyed good relations with the United States over the years since Museveni came to power in 1986.

Uganda won praise from the U.S. for its success in tackling HIV-AIDS, through prioritizing abstinence and faithfulness as well as condom use. The U.N. tracked a dramatic fall in the national HIV prevalence in Uganda, from 18.5 percent in 1992 to five percent in 2000. The level later rose slightly, and was measured at 6.7 percent in 2011. (Eighty percent of HIV infections in Uganda are attributable to heterosexual transmission, UNAIDS said in a report last year.)

President Bush chose Uganda as one of five countries he visited on an African tour in 2003, and Museveni twice visited the Oval Office during the Bush administration.

Uganda has played a leading role in the African Union Mission in Somalia, which arrived in the lawless country as a peacekeeping force in 2007 and since 2010 has been focused on trying to defeat the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab. It is the biggest contributor, with more than 6,000 troops currently deployed.

Hundreds of Ugandan troops have been killed in the conflict, and Al-Shabaab was blamed for an apparently retaliatory suicide bombing in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in July 2010, in which 76 people watching the soccer World Cup final on television were killed.

Obama did not visit Uganda while in Africa tour last year. Two of the three countries he did visit, Senegal and Tanzania, both outlaw homosexual behavior.

mrc merch