Will LGBTI policy be discussed at all at US-Africa Leaders Summit?

A man holds up a sign at a demonstration in New York City to protest Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. The issue of anti-gay discrimination in Africa is not officially included in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit agenda. Photo by: Kaytee Riek / CC BY-NC-SA

UPDATE 9:36am ET: The Uganda Constitutional Court annulled the anti-gay legislation on Friday, Aug. 1, ruling that the bill was passed by MPs in December without the requisite quorum and was therefore illegal.

The U.S. government issued sanctions against Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni in February signed a bill into law that criminalized homosexuality, including imposing a visa ban on officials involved in human rights abuses and corruption. But both Museveni and Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, who signed a similar law in early January, received an invitation to attend next week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., the largest event any U.S. President has held with African heads of state and government.

Now, LGBTI advocates are asking whether the invitations are a contrary display to the U.S. stance on LGBTI rights, and lament that the issue of anti-gay discrimination in Africa does not officially sit on the agenda alongside trade and investment for the summit in Washington, which will serve to create stronger U.S.-Africa ties with more than 40 African leaders.

Thirty-seven African countries have laws that criminalize LGBT relationships, and leaders of 32 of those countries have been invited to the Aug. 4-6 summit, according to The Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights First.

“If we give them this kind of space, before you know it, every African country will be passing legislation,” Ugandan LGBTI activist Richard Lusimbo said Wednesday during a briefing on LGBT rights in Africa sponsored by the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington.

Lusimbo called for stronger action, adding that the situation requires a much more direct message.

“Complicated democracies with complicated bureaucracies are often slow,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, also present on Wednesday’s panel. “When we do move … we act with greater legitimacy and greater strength.”

Many donors have reviewed and are re-channeling their assistance, and aid and advocacy groups are clamoring for the laws in both Nigeria and Uganda to be repealed — and the law is currently being reviewed by Uganda’s Constitutional Court. But local council leaders in Uganda, for example, currently feel more empowered than ever to evict, fire or discriminate against citizens in the country based on their sexual orientation, Lusimbo suggested. And while the fear now rests largely on LGBT beneficiaries of HIV and AIDS services, the law’s ramifications go beyond them and affect organizations providing the services, which could be accused of abetting or promoting homosexuality by simply offering treatment to these groups.

But Uganda has heard the message already, and the Ugandan government will continue to hear about it every single time officials interact with the U.S., said Malinowski, who took office in April.

“The message has been delivered loud and clear and in ways that I think the Uganda government has felt and in ways that will have an impact,” Malinowski said. “[The State Department] will be judged by that and we should be.”

And the visa ban did not merely apply to one category of people, he said, adding “we sent the message we are watching across the board.”

When leaders from countries who have gone in this negative direction go to conferences or meetings with foreign investors — which would include the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — they hear about this again, he said. And in some respects, the U.S. reaction has surprised Uganda, given the strength of the relationship between the U.S. and the East African country prior to where it stands right now.

Malinowski also noted other ways in which the U.S. has already responded, such as providing direct assistance — more than $12 million in more than 50 countries so far — to nongovernmental organizations and activists on the front lines of the struggle through the Global Equality Fund, a multimillion-dollar public-private fund launched in 2011 to advance and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons around the world.

As to invitations being extended to Yoweri, Museveni and presidents who have passed similar anti-gay laws, “it’s a summit that includes the entire continent, there are a number of countries represented with which we have a variety of problems … but we also have common interests and cooperation,” Malinowski said.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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