Unintended Consequences

How clumsy foreign advocates unwittingly helped Uganda's anti-gay bill become law.

Photo: Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images

KAMPALA, Uganda — After a grueling four years, the struggle to stop the passage of Uganda’s notorious anti-gay bill ended in defeat. On Monday, Feb. 24, the country’s long-serving president, Yoweri Museveni, officially assented to the bill, signing it into law before a crowd of journalists and supporters in a ceremony at the presidential residence outside Kampala, the country’s capital.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Shortly after the bill was introduced back in 2009, Western activists and human rights groups sprang into action, supporting a beleaguered group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists within Uganda by pressuring their own governments in Washington, London, and elsewhere to speak out strongly and unequivocally against the bill’s passage. And for a while, it seemed to be working. Shortly after the bill was tabled, Museveni was quoted as telling a group of parliamentarians (in his roundabout way) that he did not support the bill. "It’s not just our internal politics.… It is a foreign-policy issue," he said, "and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles, but also takes into account our foreign-policy interests." Indeed, the fact that so many Western governments had cordial ties with the Ugandan government was an asset to those working to defeat the bill — especially because Museveni has always had a keen interest in the world beyond Uganda’s borders and Uganda’s place within it.

Yet the United States and other Western governments never could quite seal the deal. In fact, international action surrounding the bill seemed to have spawned an equal and opposite reaction: turning the legislation and its attendant homophobia into symbols of national self-determination — something that increasingly energized the populist bona fides of whichever politician or public figure happened to be championing the bill and its cause.

This reaction was certainly a driving force behind Parliament’s decision to pass a modified version of the original bill this past December, despite the previously stated wishes of the president. In turn, it’s likely the reaction was also behind the president’s recent change of heart: Just prior to the signing of the bill on Monday, Museveni’s spokesman said that the president "wants to sign it with the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation."

All this suggests a worrisome but underacknowledged truth: that in Uganda, international advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights ultimately became self-defeating. Certainly, many well-known voices in Kampala and elsewhere see this as being the case. As Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda posted on Facebook this week, "To prove his sovereignty, Museveni had to sign the Anti-Homosexuality bill into a law. The mere fact that Obama threatened Museveni publicly" — referring to U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement on Feb. 16 that the law would "complicate" U.S. relations with Uganda — "is the very reason he chose to go ahead to sign the bill."

Now, with the law in place, advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights in Uganda will be severely constrained (though a consortium of constitutional and human rights lawyers are preparing to challenge the law in court). This new reality comes after years in which domestic LGBT rights supporters have been grateful for the international support they’ve received, but not always in agreement with the tone and substance of the foreign campaign to defeat the bill.

In many ways, then, Uganda offers a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of global LGBT activism. Although propelled by a worthy and welcome desire to defend LGBT people from discrimination, abuse, or worse, there is reason to worry that, if not more carefully considered, international advocacy might unintentionally create problems for the very communities it seeks to protect.


By now, much of the story of Uganda’s odious Anti-Homosexuality Act is well known. In late 2009, a previously unknown first-term member of Parliament, David Bahati, introduced the legislation. The original draft contained a clause stipulating the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," a made-up designation that covered everything from statutory rape to any repeated sexual encounter between consenting same-sex adults. The bill drew immediate opprobrium from the United States and other Western countries; it was dubbed the "Kill the Gays" bill by Rachel Maddow and others, and some governments threatened to cut aid to Uganda if the legislation passed.

Yet the bill was always popular at home. Irregular polling means definitive statistics about public opinion of the bill were difficult to come by, but homophobia is widespread in Uganda. In 2012, Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Parliament, told the Associated Press that Ugandans were "demanding" the passage of the bill. "Who are we not to do what they have told us? These people should not be begging us," Kadaga said.

A number of factors made the bill appealing from the get-go. Religion, for instance, contributed mightily. For years, pastors in Uganda had been preaching that homosexuals are little more than pedophiles — sexual "deviants" looking to abuse the country’s children. Meanwhile, as documented by Jeff Sharlet in an eye-opening essay for Harper’s in 2010, there were disturbing connections among American evangelicals, prominent conservative politicians in the United States, and some of the loudest champions of the anti-gay bill in Uganda, from the author of the bill to well-known clergymen like Pastor Martin Ssempa. An erstwhile friend of popular U.S. pastor Rick Warren, Ssempa had managed to steer tens of thousands of dollars in U.S. funds to his church in Uganda in order to promote abstinence-only sex education.

Needless to say, there were legitimate reasons that LGBT rights advocates in the United States and elsewhere were concerned about what was happening in Uganda, from the substance of the bill itself to the ways in which their fellow citizens, political representatives, and tax dollars may have been directly or indirectly implicated in supporting it. Yet it’s also true that in the process of fighting the bill, foreign governments and activists arguably made a number of tactical errors. These errors contributed to the anti-Western populism that the bill soon began to thrive upon, while also placing domestic LGBT rights advocates in an uncomfortable position.

Take the issue of aid cuts, for instance. These were suggested at different times in recent years as consequences for Uganda if the bill were to become law, and cuts are currently under consideration again in the United States and throughout Western Europe because of this week’s enactment. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, for example, have already vowed to stop $26 million in aid. Yet threats of cuts have never sat well in Uganda — among both supporters and opponents of the bill. In 2011, for instance, John Nagenda, a presidential advisor who was one of the first public figures to offer an impassioned statement against the bill, recoiled at the notion. "Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state, and we are tired of being given these lectures by people," Nagenda told the BBC in 2011. He added that "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."

Nagenda’s comments point to the fact that Western leaders and activists’ defense of LGBT rights in Uganda quickly became (and remain) pitted against claims about sovereignty and democracy — the right of a government to make its own independent decisions about a country’s laws. In response to early international criticism of the bill, for instance, Uganda’s former minister of ethics and integrity, Nsaba Buturo, complained that "countries which are annoyed at our independence to enact our laws … should be helped to understand that the bill is going through the normal democratic process of debate." Kadaga, meanwhile, offered this retort to public criticism from John Baird, the foreign minister of Canada, during an Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Quebec in November 2012: "If homosexuality is a value for the people of Canada, they should not seek to force Uganda to embrace it. We are not a colony or a protectorate of Canada." 

These kinds of statements and the sentiments behind them have only fueled popular support for the bill. When an indignant Kadaga returned home from Canada, she was welcomed by hundreds of anti-gay activists at Uganda’s main airport. Shortly thereafter, she promised to pass the bill as a "Christmas gift" to her fellow citizens. One year later, she did just that.

Activists within the LGBT community have also been troubled by aspects of international advocacy. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened Uganda (and any other country that received budget support from the United Kingdom) with aid cuts if it passed anti-gay laws. In response, LGBT rights defenders and organizations from across Africa — including several in Uganda — argued in an open letter that cuts would create "the real risk of a serious backlash against LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] people." (Similarly, Pepe Julian Onziema, a well-known Ugandan LGBT rights activist, said in an interview before the bill was signed, "To be honest with you, I really do not want aid cuts. I don’t want to be blamed for all these things … poor maternal health, poor health generally" — examples of things that aid money is meant to combat.)

The open letter also said that cuts would convey a troubling narrative: that "in a context of general human rights violations, where women are almost all vulnerable, or where health and food security are not guaranteed for anyone, singling out LGBTI issues emphasizes the idea that LGBTI rights are special rights and hierarchically more important than other rights."

Here, the signatories were talking about selectivity, or the problem that emerges when foreign governments — often influenced by their constituencies — engage in advocacy on behalf of one issue, while remaining publicly tepid about other issues with potentially life-or-death consequences. It’s no secret that political space in Uganda has been closing over the past several years. Indeed, the Anti-Homosexuality Act is part of a larger pattern of stripping various groups of their human and civil rights. Yet whenever a violent crackdown on protesters occurs or a prominent politician is beaten up by security forces for running afoul of the ruling party, the standard foreign response is one of "concern." That’s a far cry from the very loud, very public criticism meted out over the anti-gay bill — criticism that has been most welcome from a moral perspective, but which has isolated the bill from a broader, troubling political context.

Unfortunately, whether it’s the dilemma of democratic self-determination, the potential for backlash against LGBT people, or the problem of selectivity, it seems unlikely that meaningful introspection about what hasn’t worked in international advocacy will occur in the West — at least inside some governments and high-profile organizations. Take, for instance, a statement from Leslie Lefkow, the deputy director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, made soon after Museveni announced his decision to sign the bill into law. Responding to what she saw as a too-mild response from the White House, Lefkow said, "I don’t think the U.S. statement so far has been strong enough. We think that it’s very important that the U.S. and others send a very strong message that there will be consequences for signing this law."

It’s not precisely clear what "consequences" Lefkow and others have in mind, though aid cuts likely top the list. But diplomatic shock-and-awe clearly hasn’t worked in Uganda to date, and there’s little reason to believe it will now.

To be sure, international human rights advocates and foreign governments should not disengage from the struggle to support and protect LGBT people in Uganda or elsewhere. But there is a demonstrated need for smarter tactics, better coordination between the global and domestic fronts, and recognition that the loudest, most visible shows of support can sometimes have unintended consequences.

On the day the bill was signed, Joe Oloka-Onyango, a scholar of constitutional and human rights law in Uganda and an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, agreed to an interview. He was reluctant to engage in too much Monday-morning quarterbacking. Yet when asked why Western advocates still appeared not to appreciate the ways in which their activism had affected the debate around the anti-gay bill, he offered a concise critique. "Human rights organizations are very traditional in the way in which they operate," he said, "which is in a kind of missionary fashion: ‘We’re here to save the world.’ And sometimes, the world says, ‘We don’t want saving.’"

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