In 2011 Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato was beaten to death after a national newspaper’s cover featured his face above the words “Hang Them.” In the summer of 2013, two gay Russian men were stabbed for their sexuality. That July, Jamaican teenager Dwayne Jones was chopped to death for cross-dressing. In August 2014, Bryan Higgins died in San Francisco after he was beaten for being gay.
Death is a common punishment for homosexuality across the world. In some countries, like the United States, those crimes are committed by the vigilante justice of a mob or single individual, who usually face their day in court. Elsewhere, these murders are often state-sanctioned and administered. There are laws against homosexuality in 67 countries across the world; ten of those nations will kill you for being gay.
Last November, Gambian president Yahya Jammeh passed a law making homosexuality punishable by life in prison. The law comes as no surprise; in 2008, he threatened gay people with decapitation. After the law’s passage, the European Union cut $186 million in aid to Gambia, and the United States removed Gambia from a highly anticipated trade agreement.
Both Gambia’s law and the United States’ willingness to sanction the country derive from a previous law in Uganda. In 2013, Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which called for “known homosexuals” to be put to death. It gained popular approval following a 2009 visit by three American evangelicals who led a massive seminar preaching against “the homosexual agenda.” Perhaps because of the media attention, the United States attempted to prevent the passage of this bill by punishing Uganda with sanctions this past summer after the law was passed. It was later repealed.
Most gay rights organizations and many Westerners generally see the Western intervention in Uganda and Gambia as a positive defense of human rights. That praise, though, is misplaced. While the United States—and all international bodies—are right to be concerned with gay rights, the improper and haphazard execution of such interventions is highly problematic. American policy towards international gay rights has failed to actually prevent imprisonments or save as many lives as it has claimed to.
Intervention Gone Wrong
This type of intervention was ineffective in the Ugandan case and success is unlikely in Gambia. Last June, the United States cut aid to Uganda and canceled a joint military exercise to express anger over the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The bill imposed life terms for “aggravated” homosexual sex—including sex while being HIV-positive—and also criminalized lesbianism for the first time in the country’s history. The United States’ response relocated national health funding, limited visa rights for those Ugandan officials suspected of human rights violations, and cut money for a community policing program. The World Bank also suspended a $90 million loan intended for Ugandan health services.
However, even after the United States announced the new sanctions, the crusade to toughen laws against homosexuals in Uganda did not abate. By associating homosexuality with a “Western agenda,” the World Bank and United States placed greater pressure on Ugandan politicians to uphold the laws, lest they seem weak to domestic voters seeking independence from Western influence. Indeed, the government’s statement in response to the aid cancellation said exactly that: “Uganda is a sovereign country and can never bow to anybody or be blackmailed by anybody.”
This is not to say that U.S. actions were completely ineffective. In an interview with the HPR, Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Coalition, spoke of how the United States was partially effective. By embarrassing Uganda with the cuts and then offering the country a seat at the U.S.-Africa Summit in August, the United States forced the Ugandan government to move up a Supreme Court ruling that ultimately nullified the law. However, Stern also commented that attitudes have not necessarily changed on the ground. This November, politicians re-introduced a new law—re-written so it cannot be annulled by the courts and with harsher punishments attached to homosexuality. When the court struck down the law, many Ugandans saw the decision as victory for the United States, not for their compatriots. Stern commented, “The intentions of well-meaning members of the international community have to be so meticulously put into action, because if you don’t have visible support from Ugandans themselves … involvement from the international community will backfire.”
The intervention in Gambia has not been any more successful. When the European Union threatened to cut aid, President Jemmah simply cut dialogue with the bloc, refusing to negotiate at all. The foreign minister condemned the cut in aid, but stated defiantly, “We will rather die than be colonized twice.” The Gambian law, too, remains on the books.
Without receiving any guarantees of the law’s retraction, the West gave up too early, losing any leverage that it might have had. Now, Uganda and Gambia can essentially operate without further repercussions. After all, the consequences have already been inflicted. They called the bluff and won.
Additionally, Western focus on these laws alone has detracted focus from the greater realities of discrimination that are imposed elsewhere by the Ugandan government. After the Ugandan Supreme Court dismissed its law, the World Bank considered reinstating its loan for healthcare, but without proper safeguards to prevent healthcare discrimination against LGBTQ Ugandans. While it is difficult to catch someone committing the act of “aggravated homosexuality” in the privacy of his or her own home, healthcare discrimination is frequent, constant, and life-threatening. Just this past July, Uganda’s president approved the HIV Prevention and Control Act, which is causing even greater fear of punishment for treating gay patients, who are often associated with the stigmatized disease. Rather than focusing on healthcare—a smaller goal that the World Bank’s funding could have more directly controlled—they chose to address the larger law because it created more attention.
Not just the efficacy of U.S. and Western policies, but also their random and selective application, can have adverse consequences. Uganda and Gambia are not alone in their discrimination against gay people, nor are they alone in codifying their prejudices. Stern confirmed, “Uganda is absolutely not the worst place in the world to be LGBT.” So why has the United States targeted this nation? One reason is that Ugandan activists drew international attention to their country because they believed it would make them safer. “We talk about Uganda today because of a strategic decision by LGBT activists within Uganda,” says Stern. However, that Ugandan activists can speak up actually speaks to the strength of their LGBTQ community. In countries without such active LGBTQ communities, U.S. officials never learn of the struggles faced by LGBTQ individuals, yet these are the places where people need the most help because they have the weakest LGBTQ communities. Stern highlights that “their silence is actually a sign that they need our support.”
Strategic priorities also guide U.S. decisions to focus on Uganda and Gambia. Russia is one of the worst gay rights abusers on record, yet the United States has other strategic priorities there that prevent intervention—from Russian involvement in Syria to their incursions into Ukraine. Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates sentence homosexuals to death, but U.S. oil interests and counterterrorism partnerships in the region prevent substantial action there. It is far easier to target Uganda. While Uganda may play a role in the fight against al-Shabaab or the Lord’s Resistance Army, its role is more limited, and those goals are seen as less significant than those pursued elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East. With the U.S.-Saudi relationship crucial both for moderating the influences of radical Islamist groups and procuring oil, Yemen essential for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and Iran still at risk of developing a nuclear weapon, the United States’ relationships with these countries are simply far more essential to larger policy. Last January, Nigeria passed a law that would jail people for “promoting” homosexuality. However, Nigeria has oil and significant regional influence, and it leads the fight against Boko Haram. Thus, there was no U.S. response to the Nigerian law beyond a slight scolding from Secretary of State John Kerry.
Nonetheless, it is not surprising that the United States picks where to defend human rights based on its strategic objectives, and it does not inherently devalue the human rights cases that it does choose to take up. The problem, though, is that the U.S. government and media give its citizens an image of the world based around these selections. American media often portrays countries like Uganda and Gambia—poor, African countries—as the main perpetrators of anti-gay injustices. That disproportionality does a disservice to the millions of other oppressed gay people around the world. Moreover, it continues to portray an inaccurate narrative of African societies in comparison to the rest of the world, where such violence and discriminatory laws are also commonplace.
Crafting New Strategy
If the United States really wants to protect LGBTQ individuals, it cannot select where, when, and how it addresses discrimination solely based on other geopolitical strategic priorities. Of course, where relationships are both fragile and essential to national security, gay rights will realistically never be on the table. But there is still much room to work with friends and allies, as well as to address cases through more subtle means. The United States must not only address gay rights in countries with little power or media coverage. It must also go where attention is not being paid and put pressure on countries that are friends or allies.
Indonesia is one such example. In its Aceh province, one can be punished with 100 lashes for committing a homosexual act—a draconian law that is hardly reported on in the United States. Though this law is particularly harsh, it only applies to the small region of Aech, which is already an outlier as the only part of the country to administer sharia law. The law lacks mass national support, and so would be easier to repeal. Similarly, many of the anti-gay laws that are in place across the world derive from old colonial codes. They were not newly passed or reinvigorated by popular support, as was the case in Uganda.
In India, for instance, there is strong national support for repealing the country’s anti-gay law, even though the Supreme Court upheld it in 2014. And while the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party may not currently support its repeal, the Congress Party’s leadership has stood against the code, speaking to the potential for striking it down. The support is broad enough that international pressure could put the issue back on the table if Western organizations work through more subtle channels than those employed in Uganda or Gambia. Similarly, in Guyana, the last South American country that jails people for homosexuality, the Prime Minister convened a committee in 2012 to explore the possibility of decriminalizing homosexuality. While the committee ultimately did nothing, the government’s previously-demonstrated willingness makes decriminalization a more realistic possibility.
Thus, the United States has room to act as a human rights enforcer, and probably should in cases like Uganda where U.S. citizens are at least partly responsible for discrimination against the LGBTQ community. But it must reevaluate how and when it handles these situations. U.S. strategy for defending LGBTQ human rights must be more cohesive and subtle, targeting places where it can win meaningful battles and using better negotiation tactics in countries like Uganda and Gambia where tensions are high. The American government might also be more effective in places with less dramatic cases than those in Uganda and Gambia—from South Africa to India—and it must fight for those people, too. “We can’t only invest in the so-called ‘worst places on Earth,’” Stern argues. “The United States is capable of being most helpful where the U.S. government record is not hotly contested … otherwise U.S. involvement can backfire on local communities.” After all, America must remember that its defense of gay rights internationally is not designed solely for the purpose of demonstrating Western commitment to human rights. It must recommit to the one and only valid goal of these missions: saving lives.
This article has been updated from an earlier version (2/25/15).
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons