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How the West can Promote LGBT Rights Abroad

Downtown Uganda, taxi park overlook. Photo by Andrew Regan

Downtown Uganda, taxi park overlook.
Photo by Andrew Regan

Despite the focus of the world on the worsening situation in Ukraine, news headlines have also been touched on the enactment of Uganda’s infamous anti-homosexuality law. Thankfully, the death penalty provisions that were part of the original 2009 bill have been removed, making the “Kill the Gays Bill” name no longer accurate, as has a provision making it illegal not to report gay people. But it still includes potential life sentences for same-sex relationships, has bans on gay rights advocacy that put Russia’s recent bills to shame, and contains a variety of other draconian measures, penalising both LGBT Ugandans and their supporters.

Certain Western critics of interventionist foreign policy, as well as many leaders within Africa’s anti-gay movement, want to act that the recent spate of setbacks for gay rights campaigners outside of the US and Western Europe is a backlash against Western interference on the issue. A Ugandan government spokesman, Ofwono Opondo, was the most consistent promoter of this view. The signing of the bill was not an attempt by President Yoweri Museveni to please the country’s overwhelmingly socially conservative population and Parliament (according to polling 96% of Ugandans oppose gay rights). Instead, if we believe Opondo, the unusually publicised bill signing was to demonstrate the nation’s independence in “the face of Western pressure and provocation”, that the US has been a “bully” that refuses to accept that “poor people have rights”.

If the Ugandan government want to prove that they are independent and will not bow to Western pressure, gay rights is certainly a smart issue to pick. Restricting them is domestically popular, after all. Unlike larger human rights issues, economic affairs, or matters of global security and national interests, none of the major governments, especially not the US, are likely to use it as sole justification for dramatic changes in foreign policy. It would be disproportionate, too challenging to broader US interests. The fact the US and other nations hardly lifted a finger when Nigeria enacted its own anti-gay measures in January, plus the fact countries such as the US continue strong relationships with homophobic nations such as Senegal and Saudi Arabia, will have given Museveni and his advisers ample evidence that the US, and most other Western nations, will be all bark and no bite when it comes to this issue.

The predicted Western backlash, as loud yet toothless as it was, was not enough to stop the bill’s passage. If anything, it emboldened the bill’s proponents, allowing them to add the “protecting our independence” angle to the media battle surrounding the legislation, and has possibly contributed to some of the more disgusting vitriol. Is this to say the West’s efforts to promote gay rights abroad have been counterproductive, doing more harm than good? Of course not.


Finding a balance

Like all human rights issues, even acknowledging them and publicising them is a powerful tool, and while both sides will be mobilised by international condemnation, the anti-gay movement did not need the mobilising. The status quo is already in their favour. The gay rights movement, in the long term, will. And let’s not forget that the international furore (not just from the liberal West) at the bill saw provisions such as the death penalty option stripped, and the bill temporarily held back for almost five years, only just being signed into law. If anything, Uganda demonstrates that a concentrated effort by the international community can defeat human rights-abusing laws.

On the flip-side, it shows that letting down the pressure, or showing other countries can get by with the same offences with just token condemnation (as happened with Nigeria), can allow these efforts to pick up steam. Even now, Kenya and Gambia are seeing increased pushes for homophobic laws, a sign that allowing Nigeria to pass its own atrocious law without international uproar emboldened anti-gay activists more than anything else. The lack of a serious response to Russia’s laws, as disgusting as they were and as near-unanimous as the condemnation was, did not suggest that anti-gay movements in Africa could expect similar leniency. The lack of anger at Nigeria, however, allowed countries such as Uganda to call the West’s bluff.

So, going forward, what should the West do to promote LGBT rights? There are merits to using foreign aid as a tool for human rights questions such as this. It makes sense to prioritise helping governments who do not endorse such extreme agendas, as nations such as Denmark and Norway have done by cutting off aid. Attaching pro-gay rights conditionalities to new or existing loans and human rights programs, as many countries, including the bigger donors, have done or discussed doing in recent years, can risk jeopardising otherwise legitimate development projects and otherwise fruitful relationships, but can be an effective method of influencing governments. Ensuring new and existing aid schemes are not damaged by such laws, as the World Bank has done by postponing a $90 million loan for health investments until they are certain the new law will not adversely impact the program, is simply common sense. Like with other issues such as corruption, broader human rights matters and (less idealistically) realist foreign policy goals, foreign aid can be a powerful stick-and-carrot method of getting nations to follow certain principles. Foreign investment will also likely be reduced from private sources in response to new anti-gay laws, in addition to governmental pressure. But these strategies are not fool-proof ideas.

As mentioned, taken to its extreme, it risks jeopardising serious development projects. Making gay rights the sole determinant of who gets foreign aid possibly causing more harm than good, possibly damaging the good-will, education, and economic development helpful to LGBT rights as well as development as a whole. We can’t immediately assume gay rights will arrive overnight in places like Africa. Even South Africa, which allows same-sex marriage, still has a large majority of the population unsympathetic to LGBT rights. Even if one views them as human rights, they must be worked towards. Using foreign aid to promote the issue is certainly one way, but a nuanced approach is needed. Go too far, it does more harm than good, for LGBT minorities and the country at large. Not go too far enough, and the response will likely be indifference. The Ugandan bill’s author, MP David Bahati, has dismissed the announced foreign aid cuts and policy changes from countries in North America and Western Europe (currently totaling $110 million, or £65 million), as a small price to pay. He has suggested countries such as Russia, India and China may make up for the losses in Western aid and investment.

Foreign aid, and other economic pressures such as divestment, cannot be treated as the only tools available. In the words of Godwyns Onwuchekwa, group co-ordinator for the UK-based Justice for Gay Africans campaign, this strategy risks neglecting soft power. “You can’t tell African people you won’t give them aid unless they do what you want them to do,” he was quoted by the BBC as saying. “They will tell you to go to hell. They have their pride.” Soft power, gradually working to change cultural norms, dialogue with governments, cooperating with NGOs, offers the best long-term chance of eliminating the causes of these anti-gay laws, while measures such as sanctions, foreign aid cuts, and international condemnation just address the symptoms. Despite their association with the Western world, LGBT rights are not a Western issue, having spread far beyond the regions of the world associated the most with them. Large parts of South America have, in particular, embraced the movement, many countries legalising same-sex marriage or civil unions and partnerships. Asian countries such as Nepal and Mongolia are making great strides. South Africa was (admittedly due to a court order) one of the first countries on the planet to legalise same-sex marriages.

Soft power must be focused on two aspects; the public and the governing elites. It seems in Uganda that foreign governments, as well as activists such as Desmond Tutu, had succeeded in privately swaying over President Museveni, who told them privately in January he had no intention of signing a “fascist” bill, but reversed course only a month later. Private dialogue with governmental leaders must be accompanied by more forceful public pressure, as well as long-term efforts such as educational investment and cultural cooperation to change attitudes. It must be applied consistently, but not stupidly – it is too small an issue to entirely define a national relationship, and one of those human rights issues that must be worked for incrementally. In the West, Nigeria’s government received barely any attacks, even compared to Russia.

Soft power can work both ways, however. The West has not just left behind a legacy of homophobic laws left over from colonisation, but is also contributing massively to the religious and populist outcry on the subject. Homophobic organisations, such as the Family Research Council, and individuals, such as Scott Lively and Rick Warren, in the US have been very influential in rallying up support for, and even helping craft, homophobic bills abroad. They have stirred up anti-gay fervor, including spreading myths such as the ex-gay movement and a gay agenda to make kids gay, and helped shape public policy. For LGBT rights supporters in the US, at least, standing up to these groups, defeating their domestic priorities (as they did recently by pressuring Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto a bill legalising discrimination based on sexuality), and countering their influence abroad can be the most powerful way to help LGBT rights throughout the world.

About Gianni Sarra

Gianni Sarra is the American Affairs contributor to The International Citizen, focusing on US politics and policy. He studies Politics of the International Economy at King's College London.
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