Obama’s wake-up call to Uganda

In February, President Obama announced that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s signing  the Anti-Homosexuality bill into law would “complicate our valued relationship with Uganda.” On June 19, the US finally announced what those “complications” look like: visa sanctions for human rights abusers, including for violations of LGBTI rights and those involved in public corruption, a $2.4 million cut in U.S. aid to the police, reallocation of some funds for the Health Ministry to nongovernmental groups, and the cancellation of plans to conduct an East African “military aviation exercise” in Uganda.

These steps bolster previous announcements cutting some aid to Uganda’s Interreligious Council because of its support for the bill, to cancel a military conference that had been planned in Uganda, and to redirect funding used to support Health Ministry salaries.

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Moving beyond rhetoric and condemnation of the law was urgently needed. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act stands out from other homophobic legislation for its sheer breadth and ambiguity. Not only does it increase the penalties for same-sex sexual conduct, but the law criminalizes “promotion of homosexuality” with up to seven years in prison without even defining what behavior or speech might constitute “promotion.”

Pressure for clarification has not worked. One diplomat recently told me that, when he asked Ugandan government officials if counseling and provision of condoms to a gay person is a violation of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, “not a single official of the government from the most senior on down has been able/willing to provide guidance.”

For the Ugandan government to keep everyone walking on eggshells and fearful of expressing divergent or critical views of the government has become increasingly common. The Office of the Prime Minister “suspended” some work by the Refugee Law Project (RLP), a nongovernmental group that is part of Makerere University, after the minister of ethics and integrity filed a complaint alleging that the organization was “promoting unnatural relationships.” RLP has helped to coordinate some work to challenge the Anti-Homosexuality Act in the constitutional court.

And the same day the U.S. announced changes to its assistance, Rita Aciro Lakor, executive director of Uganda Women's Network, was forced out of a meeting at the Gender Ministry and questioned by police for her work in publicly denouncing the ministry’s permanent secretary, who had been implicated by a parliamentary committee in corruption during his previous post in the Office of the Prime Minister.

The political backdrop of all of this is important: President Museveni is entering his 28th year in power and his party has announced that he will run again in the 2016 elections. There are serious concerns about where Uganda is heading. Intimidation of journalists has marked various episodes of Museveni’s long tenure. Over a dozen members of parliament have faced police interrogations and in some cases criminal charges for speaking out or participating in demonstrations against government policy. Opposition leaders have been placed under “preventive” house arrest when trying to attend demonstrations or address public gatherings. Police have responded to protests with intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and unnecessary lethal force.

While the steps taken by the US show an overdue willingness to reflect on Uganda’s deteriorating human rights situation, much remains to be done. There are still major questions about how U.S.-funded public health services can reach LGBTI people without discrimination and without putting them at risk of criminal prosecution in light of the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s sweeping provisions. And given the importance of the U.S.-Uganda military relationship to President Museveni, changes to military and security assistance should have been a larger part of the equation. Despite consistent reports of abuses by the military and the police, Uganda remains a close ally of the US military, which has remained largely silent in the face of those abuses. In May, President Museveni’s son, who currently heads the Ugandan military’s Special Forces, was invited to attend a U.S. military conference in Florida and posed for photos with high-ranking U.S. military commanders.

The review process sets an important benchmark – and shows a critical willingness to re-evaluate the bilateral relationship on the basis of rights concerns, not just strategic interests. But the U.S. and other donors to Uganda will need to continue to press for free expression, assembly, and association in Uganda and take prompt action whenever the authorities violate the rights of Ugandans, LGBTI or otherwise. The announcement from the White House should be just the beginning, not the end of this difficult road.

Burnett is a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who has long followed developments in Uganda.

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