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Uganda’s new homophobic law puts foreign aid at risk

The harsh law punishes the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ with up to 20 years in prison, while President Yuseveni says, ‘nobody will move us’

Demonstrators march to support Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ law.
Demonstrators march to support Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ law.ABUBAKER LUBOWA (REUTERS)

Uganda has recently approved a law that targets gays, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender people, causing an international uproar. The law is considered to be one of the world’s most radical anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and it may affect the African country’s economy and healthcare system, which rely heavily on international funding. Calling it “shameful,” the law has already drawn the condemnation of the United States and the European Union, who say Uganda faces sanctions if it is not repealed. The World Bank and other international organizations are also reevaluating their relationship with the sub-Saharan state. In response, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni declared: “Nobody will move us — we should be ready for a war. Remember that war is not for the soft.”

Despite a 50% decline in the poverty rate over the past 30 years in Uganda, the country remains one of the most impoverished in the world. Reports from the Afrobarometer website reveal that 30% of the population still lives on less than $1.77 a day. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the African country is the sixth-largest recipient of international aid on the continent. Nearly 40% of its budget relies on foreign aid, especially in critical areas like health and education, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The United States gives $950 million a year to Uganda, but when the country passed a law authorizing harsh penalties for “promotion of homosexuality,” the U.S. acted swiftly. President Joe Biden declared that American officials will review Uganda’s place in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which determines tariffs for sub-Saharan economies. Additionally, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that certain visas for Ugandan leaders might be restricted. Local media outlets in Uganda claim that Speaker of Parliament Anita Among’s visa has already been canceled. Among recently tweeted that the law “protects the sanctity of the family” and embodies Uganda’s “culture, values and aspirations.”

The World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have also announced that they will rethink their role in Uganda, where they invest billions of dollars. The new law is an “affront to the values of the World Bank,” said its president, David Malpass, in an interview with Devex. “We are reviewing our projects and considering the next steps.”

In 2014, Uganda was warned of the repercussions of its institutional homophobia when it attempted to pass a similar rule. The Constitutional Court eventually overturned it on a simple technicality. At that time, the country sustained a loss of approximately $110 million in financial aid cuts from the World Bank, Sweden, and Denmark. A humanitarian organization contacted by EL PAÍS refused to comment on potential sanctions because of the adverse effects on the civilian population.

The law may prove to be a misstep for Uganda’s international relations, according to some experts. “Enacting this law could have dire consequences, because we are the weaker, economically vulnerable ones,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a professor of political history at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital. Ndebesa believes that an amendment to the existing penal code would have attracted less international attention, but now Uganda finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The country is caught between external pressure and “the fear of not responding to the concerns of Ugandans, who are the ones who vote… It’s a clash of societies with different worldviews and values,” he adds. Ndebesa noted that certain political circles in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania often claim homosexuality is a foreign import. Many LGTBQ+ activists consider it paradoxical that countries with laws against homosexuality often inherited them from the colonial era.

A setback in the battle against HIV

The new law poses a threat to HIV prevention and treatment policies in Uganda. Over a million Ugandans aged 15-64 are HIV positive (6.2% of the population, according to the World Health Organization). In 2021, 89% of Ugandans with AIDS said they knew they had the disease. But sexual minorities still struggle to receive treatment due to fear of discrimination and stigmatization. HIV rates are five times higher among gay men living in countries where same-sex relationships are criminalized. Additionally, the prevalence of HIV is 12 times higher than average in countries with laws similar to the one passed in Uganda.

“Most of the funding for the fight against HIV comes from the United States,”says Peter Magelah, a human rights activist in Uganda where the most vulnerable will be hurt the most. “This will not only affect government funding, but also the many NGOs working here. Uganda’s strained relations with the outside world will also mean that other causes, such as the fight for human rights and access to justice, will also suffer.”

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief have said the law puts Uganda in “grave danger” by hindering health education and AIDS outreach.

“Be ready for a war”

President Museveni, who has ruled the African nation for the past 37 years, defended his decision in a May 31 statement posted on Twitter. “The NRM [National Resistance Movement, the ruling party] has never had two languages; what we tell you in the day is what we shall say to you at night. The signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is finished, NOBODY will move us, We should be ready for a war. Remember war is not for the soft.”

Same-sex relations were already illegal in Uganda under colonial-era legislation that criminalizes “unnatural carnal knowledge” and carries a life sentence. The new law is even tougher, punishing homosexual behavior with life imprisonment and, in aggravated cases, the death penalty for having sex with a minor or transmitting HIV.

Ugandan activists and experts are urging Uganda’s Constitutional Court to reconsider a rule that they deem “unjust” and “discriminatory.” Adrian Jjuuko, the executive director of Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, says the rule violates “human rights principles such as equality and dignity.” He also argues the law is flawed because “it was passed by legislators with no public input, including from the LGTBQ+ community.” Allan Nsubuga, a psychologist who identifies as non-binary and works for the NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda, fears international sanctions will reinforce hostility toward sexual minorities. “I can’t say much without jeopardizing my team’s safety and my own,” he says. “This law is unjust and unfairly reflects on all Ugandans. It is unfair to hold an entire nation responsible for the actions of a few individuals.”

In a public statement, Ashwanee Budoo-Scholz, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Africa, said the law “violates several fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, privacy and equity in Uganda, where violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people is already commonplace.”

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