The West's outcry over Uganda's hateful anti-gay law may do more harm than good

By only standing up to Museveni's latest abuse, outsiders play into his hands

Share

Governments have always had a grubby habit of getting involved in their citizens' sex lives. But it is relatively new to see sexuality as part of foreign policy. In the past few months we have watched the peculiar spectacle of Russia and the United States transposing their geopolitical antagonisms onto a struggle over gay rights in Russia. Now, Ugandan leaders are using homophobia to pursue anti-imperialist politics, while Western leaders are painting their criticism of this as indicative of their concern for human rights. But neither posture is genuine. There are two truths in this sad tale: mutual hypocrisy and the victimisation of Uganda's LGBTQ community.

Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda – one of the many sorry hangovers from British colonialism – before President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act yesterday. But now sentences are harsher and activism on the issue has been outlawed. Discussion of the bill has led to an increase in homophobia. Uganda's LGBTQ community are right to be afraid now it has passed.

In finally supporting the bill – it's been knocking around parliament since 2009 – Museveni made claims to anti-imperialism. He invited the world's media to the bill's signing and told them that he is “prepared” for a “collision” with the West over the new law. He is projecting his homophobic law into the domain of foreign policy. He claims that Western support of gay rights as human rights is a form of “social imperialism”.

Predictably, the international community has responded with outrage. The US is conducting “an internal review” of its relationship with Uganda and Obama has strongly condemned Uganda's homophobic legislation.

He is not alone. The EU has condemned the move, as have UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Development Secretary Justine Greening.

It's easy enough for a Western observer to see the farcical inconsistency in Museveni's anti-imperialist posture. He has been in power since 1986 and has been a staunch ally of the West - politically, economically, militarily - throughout his rule.

What may be more difficult to see is the likewise farcical inconsistency in the West's support of rights in Uganda. Sadly, it's been lacking until this point. This new law is hardly the first, worst, or likely to the be the last, abuse of fundamental rights in Uganda or by Ugandan military forces abroad.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, in Entebbe, Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, in Entebbe, Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Museveni's military has committed crimes at home and abroad, including resource pillage in eastern DRC. He is anti-democratic, having ruled for 28 years, changed the constitution, run flawed elections and arrested opposition figures. In his most recent term in office, his government has attacked peaceful protesters, faced major corruption scandals, severely limited the right to free assembly and political protest, increased state surveillance and brought in a law that allows the police to arrest women for the clothes they wear.

Little if anything was said loudly and publicly by Western leaders in protest over these issues.

Neither Museveni nor Western leaders are consistent. And while both may believe much of their own rhetoric over the Anti-Homosexuality Act, what they are saying is cover for their real motivations.

In both cases the simple answer is domestic politics. Museveni will gain support – both within his National Resistance Movement and in the country at large – for the hateful law. Obama and co hope to burnish their liberal credentials and keep a key constituency at home happy.

In both cases Museveni and his Western critics wrap their politics up in what will be taken as self-evident truths in respective nations: anti-imperialism in Uganda; the universality of rights in the West.

It is obvious that Museveni's actions covered by his bogus rhetoric are incredibly damaging to Uganda's LGBTQ community – they will now be persecuted further.

What is perhaps less clear is the possible negative effect that Western responses will have on the very people they are supposedly supporting.

In an interview earlier this month, prominent Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha told Think Africa Press that he appreciates outside support but fears further scapegoating if aid is suspended. Western rhetoric and actions could help promote a further backlash against the LGBTQ community.

Everybody should condemn this hateful legislation, but western politicians must see that inconsistently condemning rights abuses limits their strength when they do condemn them. One can't support gay rights without supporting other rights or it undermines the universal argument for those rights.

Demonstrators protest outside the Ugandan embassy, in central London, on December 10, 2009  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Museveni is implicitly asking Ugandans why  the West is so upset about gay rights. He tells them it is because they are looking to promote homosexuality. In the face of such lack of criticism on other crucial issues, many Ugandans will decide that their president is correct. And given this lack of strong condemnation up until now, future criticism for other abuses runs the risk of being seen through a bogus “promoting homosexuality”/”social imperialism” lens. Not only does this limit the efficacy of supporting rights but it also puts the visible LGBTQ community in Uganda at risk.

Homophobia should be condemned in the strongest terms. But too often, the West uses universal rights rhetoric for other goals – increasing political support or to aid some other strategic interest. This inconsistency – or phony solidarity if we are being cynical – doesn't help Uganda's gay rights struggle, it certainly doesn't help other rights struggles and it could lead to further victimisation of an already victimised community.

Western politicians have had years to put serious pressure on Museveni's regime for a number of rights abuses. Doing so loudly on this issue - one of Museveni's choosing and one over which Western pressure could in fact play into his hands - doesn't make up for lost time. In fact, it could make it worse.

James Schneider is the editor of Think Africa Press

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence