Reinforcing LGBT rights at the US-Africa Leaders Summit

This week's summit in Washington of national leaders from across Africa offers an essential opportunity for the Obama administration to advance one of its stated foreign policy goals: to promote the safety, equality and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people around the world.

But it also presents a precarious balancing act between incentivizing progress without inducing a backlash that could worsen the situation for LGBT people in their home countries and impede international collaboration on other health, safety and development goals.

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The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit being held Aug. 4 to 6 will include the heads of state or government from 40 African countries – 32 of which maintain laws that criminalize sexual relations among LGBT people. Two of the presidents, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, lead countries that, just this year, have enacted extreme anti-LGBT laws that have intensified persecution in those countries.

Of course, sub-Saharan Africa is not the only region to oppress LGBT people; for instance, Russia and Brunei have also enacted new harsh anti-LGBT laws. But sub-Saharan Africa runs heavily counter to the trend toward substantial progress in other world regions, including Europe, North America and much of Latin America. Beyond discriminatory laws themselves, the hateful rhetoric surrounding passage of such laws has exacerbated vigilantism and violence against LGBT people and intensified underlying homophobia and transphobia.

This week's U.S.-Africa summit has a broad focus on development, economic growth, trade, regional stability and good governance. Although LGBT rights are not explicitly on the summit agenda, the event offers a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to emphasize that fair treatment of LGBT people is not a question of "special rights," but rather must be understood part and parcel of all economic development and political progress in Africa.

Last month, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) laid out a number of direct linkages between diminished economic productivity and policies that discriminate against LGBT people. In a letter to President Obama specifically regarding the summit, IGLHRC called for several concrete steps. These include reinforcing with African leaders that LGBT discrimination violates eligibility requirements under the U.S.-Africa Growth and Opportunity Act and demanding that African government trade partners investigate and prosecute those who carry out anti-LGBT violence. Likewise, the group recommends that the U.S. Trade Representative be required to develop a plan specifically for Africa to implement the president's stated goal of advancing LGBT rights through foreign policy.

"The cost of discrimination and exclusion of LGBT people must be addressed to accurately assess the opportunities for trade, investment and growth in Africa. In addition, protecting the basic rights of LGBT people must be an intrinsic part of the discussion about ... trade and investment on the continent," IGLHRC stated.

As always, efforts to advance LGBT rights need to avoid evoking charges of "modern-day colonialism" toward Africa, or of forcing leaders to choose between anti-LGBT domestic constituencies and international support. As documented in an incisive article on "unintended consequences" in Foreign Policy magazine last February, Museveni for several months resisted signing his parliament's notorious "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" into law. But after a perceived threat from Obama that doing so would "complicate" U.S.-Ugandan relations — alongside domestic pressure from virulently homophobic Ugandan religious groups — he eventually signed it.

At the time, Museveni made a point of stating that he was signing the bill "with the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda's independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation." (On Aug. 1, the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Law, but only on narrow technical grounds about how the bill was enacted by parliament, rather than on human rights grounds. The state remains free to appeal the ruling, and numerous other anti-LGBT laws, policies and practices persist.)

Another careful balancing act is how best to forcefully assert the importance of LGBT rights without obstructing other critical areas of collaboration. These may be on closely related topics, such as implementation of PEPFAR (U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) programs to combat HIV/AIDS; broadly related human rights issues such as coordination to rescue a large group of kidnapped girls in Nigeria; or seemingly more distant concerns such as counterterrorism efforts.

Ultimately, the long-term challenge for U.S. foreign policy is to avoid "siloing" LGBT rights apart from other issues of human rights and economic advancement. This only runs the risk of worsening the isolation and opprobrium faced by LGBT communities. Thus, the best strategy is to emphasize the many linkages between LGBT rights with other priorities, such as effective public health policies or efficient business practices. Indeed, the most constructive approach of all is to emphasize that — in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — "Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."

Despite the inherent difficulties of influencing policies in other nations, it remains the sad reality that foreign governments, NGOs and corporations are the principal allies available to millions of LGBT people in Africa and elsewhere around the world. The introduction of bills in Congress to institutionalize support for international LGBT rights is an important step. This week's summit with African leaders must take another incremental step to reemphasize that LGBT rights are a durable priority of U.S. foreign policy.

Smith is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute; an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and New York University; and author of Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.