Last month President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed into law a bill imposing harsh sentences for homosexual acts, including a penalty of life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.” Homosexual acts when one person is infected with HIV, “serial offenders,” and sex with minors, are examples of what is considered “aggravated homosexuality” under the new law.
The Ugandan anti gay law was first proposed in 2009, when an earlier provision, since dropped, proposed the death sentence for homosexual activity in certain cases. Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, publicly expressed their opposition to the bill. The government of France also criticized the bill, citing a “deep concern.” The European Parliament passed a resolution threatening to cut financial aid to Uganda, and even the Swedish government, which had had a long-term relationship with Uganda, said that it would revoke its $50 million development aid to the country if the bill passed. Dirk Niebel, the Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development in Germany, also indicated at the time that financial aid to Uganda would be cut if the bill passed.
The US response was similar, stating that Uganda’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) would be in jeopardy if the anti gay bill became law. Some African countries, including Uganda, benefit from AGOA, US legislation approved by Congress in 2000 for the purpose of helping the economies of sub-Saharan Africa. AGOA reduces tariffs on products imported from some African countries to promote commercial activities and help their economies.
Such strong international opposition resulted in the bill being eventually shelved, and led some to thinking that Uganda’s president would abandon its efforts to continue promoting anti gay policies in the country. However, last month, the new version of the bill which now punishes with life imprisonment some homosexual offenses, was enacted into law in Uganda.
Sadly, Uganda is not the only African nation with harsh anti gay laws. According to Amnesty International, homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries, where most sodomy laws were introduced during colonialism. On January 2014, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a new law that mandates a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union, and a 10-year term for “a person or group of persons who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.”
The great majority of Western countries have expressed near-universal condemnation of the new laws. Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands immediately stalled aid to Uganda over its new law. The World Bank froze a $90 million new loan. When Nigeria’s president approved his country’s new law, the European Union warned that he should not forget his “obligations” under international law. Shortly after Museveni’s announcement that the anti gay bill had become law in Uganda, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that enacting the bill would affect relations between the two nations. He described the proposal as an “affront and a danger to the gay community” in Uganda.
However, despite the response by the international community in opposing African anti-gay laws, in most African countries these laws are overwhelmingly supported by the general public, providing opportunities to win political points for presidents seeking election or re-election. In the cases of both Uganda and Nigeria, lawmakers claimed to be in favor of tougher legislation against homosexuality to counteract the influence of Western lifestyles that risked destroying family units.
The latest development in Uganda happened last week, when a mixed group of Ugandans and NGOs filed a petition against the country’s controversial anti-homosexuality law, saying it is unconstitutional and infringes on fundamental rights to non-discrimination and equality, as well as rights to privacy, freedom of expression, thought, civic participation, assembly and association.
The question remains, what is the most effective response by the international community to such anti gay laws?
Some have suggested suspending visa privileges for officials supporting the new laws; suspending bilateral delegations or exchanges in areas of interest to countries that have enacted anti gay laws; reviewing and potentially revoking participation in AGOA of any African country which criminalizes homosexuality; and ending any other form of economic aid to these countries.
However, some argue that suspending all financial support to these African countries would only be detrimental to those most in need.
Is the international community obligated to act when a nation or group of nations violate fundamental human rights? Are economic sanctions the most appropriate response? As usual, there are no easy answers in international law and relations.