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Measured Responses to Brutal Anti-LGBT Laws in Uganda and Nigeria

on Sat, 03/01/2014 - 22:19

Tim Horn, HIV Project Director

The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, passed by the Parliament of Uganda on December 20, 2013, and signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on February 24, 2014, is nothing short of a fundamental human rights catastrophe. It is also a public health nightmare, in that the particulars of this brutal law may profoundly hinder HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support programs from engaging many Ugandan LGBTIs living with, and at risk of, HIV infection.

But a central question remains: Beyond outrage, how should the world respond to the brutal measures in Uganda and other African countries?

In short, the Ugandan law demands harsh punishment for LGBTI Ugandans—up to life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality” and gay sex (the original death penalty proposal was eventually dropped). The law is similar to legislation signed by President Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan of Nigeria; the governments of Kenya and Malawi are considering their own draconian bills. 

The Ugandan law also makes “promoting, aiding, or abetting” homosexuality punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment, which potentially applies to groups providing critical HIV services to a population that is already profoundly marginalized and stigmatized by rampant homophobia in a country were more than seven percent of the population is living with the virus.

According to Enrique Restoy, senior advisor on human rights at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance:

“When this particular population is criminalized, like it is the case in Uganda now that the anti-homosexuality bill has been passed, it drives these populations on the ground. They [start to] fear of coming out to get the services they need to prevent the HIV transmission … or to treat themselves.

“There will be less and less people who will be openly gay. There will be less and less people who will disclose their status to their female partners. And therefore, it would be much more difficult to control the transmission of HIV … We heard the Ministry of Health already saying that they will guarantee access to services for the LGBT community, which is fine. But at the same time, with this policy, they are actually making sure that access is not happening. And this has a traumatic effect on one of the serious problems the wider Ugandan society is facing, not just the LGBT community.”

The response to the law has been swift and profound. On February 28, the World Bank suspended a planned $90 million loan to strengthen its health care system, which followed decisions by Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway to redirect aid away from the Ugandan government and directly into the hands of nongovernmental programs (an additional $25 million).

The U.S. State Department is currently reviewing its options. According to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki:

 “Now that this law has been enacted, we are beginning an internal review of our relationship with the government of Uganda to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programs, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values.”

Petitions, such as one posted to the “We the People” portal maintained by the White House, are calling for the U.S. to terminate all aid to Uganda in response to the law.

The problem, of course, is that indiscriminately cutting off aid to Uganda ultimately hurts those who require critical resources the most (according to an April 2012 report by the Uganda AIDS Commission, PEPFAR and Global Fund support resulted in more than 68 percent of eligible Ugandan adults living with HIV being provided with access to antiretroviral therapy in 2011). As Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch succinctly notes:

"Most of this funding is for economic development, education and health projects. Shutting off the spigot would hurt those who need it the most. There would be fewer AIDS drugs, fewer mosquito nets, fewer health services and less clean water for vulnerable populations."

Plus, any action by the U.S. government and other funders that does not follow the lead and clear guidance of activists and rights organizations in the affected countries is misguided, at best.

Reasonable Responses to Unreasonable Measures

On February 28, amfAR, the Council for Global Equality, the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF), HealthGAP, Human Rights Campaign, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and Pangaea Global AIDS hosted a teleconference to develop guidance for consideration by the U.S. government, taking their lead from Nigerian, Ugandan, and other African human rights advocates.

Roughly 90 community leaders participated, and several key actions were identified for advancement:

  • Sign-on letter for U.S. organizations to send to the U.S. government for greater concerted action. This letter will refine the draft action agenda set out in the teleconference invitation and will include the following:
    • Immediate review by PEPFAR of all its funding for those organizations that have supported these laws.
    • Review U.S. development and other investment in Nigeria and Uganda; where possible reprogram funding from discriminating governments towards NGOs and civil society organizations, while ensuring ongoing access to medicines and other services for those in need, particularly ARV treatment for people living with HIV.
    • Use the full weight of U.S. diplomatic authority to press the countries concerned to repeal these laws, and discourage others from adopting similar draconian legislation. Help people at risk gain asylum in the U.S. and elsewhere.
    • Seek formal assurances from the governments of Nigeria and Uganda that LGBTI people, particularly those living with HIV and their supporters, as well as national stakeholders who have promoted key-populations HIV strategies, will not be prosecuted and will be protected from attack from the laws’ supporters. Further, that U.S. embassies, in conjunction with the embassies of other countries, monitor the situation on the ground, providing immediate assistance, support, and safety to those who lives may now be at risk because of these laws.
    • Collaborate with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria to review how funding to these countries can be reprogrammed away from discriminating governments and toward organizations committed to proven evidence- and rights-based interventions.
    • Make evidence- and rights-based approaches to HIV in Africa, including LGBTI rights, a key priority of the upcoming U.S. Ambassadors meeting in Washington, D.C., in March 2014.
    • Encourage the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to urgently hold a hearing on the situation.
    • Encourage the UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa to play a greater leadership role in speaking out against these laws.
    • Issue visa bans to government officals of Nigeria and Uganda and their families for travel, residence, and study in the United States.
    • Express concern about Uganda's assuming the presidency of the UN General Assembly in September 2014.

The sign-on letter will be circulated widely early next week, with a rapid turnaround and the aim of sending it to the U.S. government by the middle of the week (March 5, 2014) – TAG will disseminate a link to the sign-on letter once it is posted.

Other action items include:

  • Support to Nigerian and Ugandan LGBTI communities, advocates, and their supporters. This would include advocacy, and investment in existing special emergency funds in case individuals need rapid-response protection, evacuation, legal support, and other services.
  • Mobilize private-sector support. This would include engaging major corporations active in the two countries, and sub-Saharan Africa more broadly, to speak out publicly against the laws (similar to the approach corporations have taken against the anti-LGBTI bill in Arizona) and advocate for their repeal.
  • Encourage greater, concerted leadership from the United Nations and Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (e.g., the African Union). This will include encouraging the UN to support the African Union in rapidly launching an African-led High Level Commission to address stigma and discrimination in the response to AIDS in Africa, and building an action strategy based on evidence and human rights, particularly addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, including the LGBTI community.

AmfAR and Pangaea will be establishing regular teleconferences in the coming weeks and months to share updates on progress and new developments. Those who are interested in participating should reach out to Chris Collins at amfAR or Ben Plumley at Pangaea.