Will sanctions help sexual minorities in Uganda? Maybe, given what we know from Poland.


Ugandan pupils from different schools take part in an event organized by born-again Christians to celebrate the signing of a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, at the Omega Healing Center outside of Kampala, in Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Stephen Wandera)

The White House blog on Thursday announced a series of additional actions the US government was taking against Uganda following enactment of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. These go beyond the actions taken by the US government shortly after the bill was passed.

The new measures include canceling a military aviation exercise in Uganda, shifting financial support from the Ugandan Ministry of Health to non-governmental organizations working on health, restricting entry to the U.S. for individuals “determined to have committed…violations or abuses against LGBT individuals”, and ending support of Uganda’s community policing program. The U.S. is trying to navigate the delicate balance between its professed commitment to human rights and its important strategic relationship with Uganda, made explicit in the statement released Thursday (emphasis added):

In taking the measures that we have described, the U.S. government is mindful of the wide range of issues encompassed by our relationship with Uganda — including our development and humanitarian support for the Ugandan people, our efforts to counter the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, and a partnership that advances our security interests in the region. We will seek to advance these interests while also working with both governmental and non-governmental partners to end discrimination against LGBT people in Uganda and around the world — a struggle central to the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights.

The initial response from the Ugandan government as reported in Friday’s newspapers was dismissive:

These measures by the US government do not diminish our resolve to obtain and exercise full sovereignty. Mr Obama has more on his plate [with the war] in Syria and Iraq, and could be diverting domestic attention for a while.

The same government spokesperson downplayed the decreased funding from the U.S., saying Uganda was learning how to move “away from donor dependency.” At least publicly, the Ugandan government has shown great resolve in the face of Western condemnation of the anti-homosexuality bill. Ugandan citizens supportive of the anti-homosexuality bill have also been public in their continued support in the wake of Western disapproval.


Ugandans supportive of their government’s anti-gay stance attend a march and rally organized by a coalition of Ugandan religious leaders and government officials, at the Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala, Uganda, Monday, March 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie)

Will the new measures by the U.S. against Uganda improve the situation for sexual minorities in Uganda? Some analysts raise concerns that punitive measures by Western governments will generate a backlash that will “have the unintended effect of emboldening homophobic rhetoric that links aid and LGBT rights to neocolonial intervention,” and could further endanger the lives of sexual minorities. The anti-homosexuality act in Uganda has already yielded an increase in human rights violations.

But the answer might be different if we draw from University of Florida political scientist Conor O’Dwyer‘s study of gay rights in Poland. Prior to Poland’s accession to the European Union, the European Parliament warned it would block accession of any country that violated the rights of sexual minorities. Initially, the EU restrictions generated a political backlash against sexual minorities in Poland. But the political backlash against same-sex rights in Poland can be partially credited with mobilizing same-sex rights activists. O’Dwyer wrote, “The once moribund activist network became denser, more professional, self-consciously political, and national in scope.”

Uganda is not Poland, but the Polish example suggests the new measures being taken by the U.S. (alongside pressure from other donor countries) could lead to greater mobilization of sexual minorities rights activists. The implications from the Polish case according to O’Dwyer suggest external pressure could be beneficial to sexual minorities in the long run:

Poland’s gay rights movement offers a new perspective on how transnational actors like the EU can foster rights in “difficult cases.” Poland’s experience suggests that fears of backlash against international pressure are not only overstated, but misunderstand the consequences of such a backlash. Ultimately it can strengthen rights advocacy; thus, there is an important rationale to apply the full pressure of conditionality on applicants and new members to live up to their minority-rights obligations.

Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.
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