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.
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.
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.