Damned if you do(n’t): How did Western donors react to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act?

Marching in solidarity with Uganda's LGBTI community/CREDIT: africanrainbowfamily.org
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The previous blog posts have shown how a range of international actors have, or are rumored to have, played a role in the AHA – in particular the American Religious Right and Russia. A remaining question is how the ‘Western’ donor community has reacted to the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA).

In general, Western donors are confronted with the following dilemma in addressing anti-LGBTQ legislation in Africa: on the one hand, such interventions can potentially cause harm, by feeding into the widely hold views that LGBTQ rights are neocolonial Western constructs – something which is often stated by proponents of the law in Uganda, who frame the law directly in opposition to the West. On the other hand, a lack of reaction by Western actors – or at least, of public reactions – feeds into the idea that the international community is tolerating and potentially facilitating these laws. At the same time, this shouldn’t signify a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: some argue that public actions, whether it are sanctions or aid cuts, can actually make a difference, as long as they’re sufficiently strategic and hopefully effective, for example through prioritizing impact above visibility; or as Outright International summarized  ‘do no harm, but do something’.

Uganda’s previous version of the AHA, which was developed between 2009 and 2014, is used as an example of all the above dynamics. On the one hand, firm Western statements and actions were seen as adding fuel to the flames, making Ugandan politicians ever more determined to pass the law. On the other hand, the law was also seen as an example of how Western pressure and donor cuts did actually play an important role in having the law cancelled: it was estimated that over $118 million was halted or redirected by a range of actors, such as the United States, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands. On top of this, the World Bank postponed a 90 million loan to the country.

How did Westerns donors react to the current law?

How did this previous experience influence the (re)actions of Western actors in the current process?

In an initial phase, most donors and diplomats seemed to have been particularly aware of the fact that their public actions could add fuel to the fire. Diplomatic missions were more careful in their public reactions on the issue; and the overall focus was on behind the scenes diplomacy with the Ugandan government. Public statements did still happen, but mainly after the passage of the bill through the Ugandan parliament in late March, and the signature of the bill into law in May – which provoked a wide range of statements from e.g. the EU, the US, and the WB. At that point, the only aid cut came from the Netherlands, which stated it would end it support to the Justice and Law sector – worth about 25 million euro (although it didn’t specify if the support would be redirected to other sectors). No other donor reacted by suspending, cutting or redirecting aid: the focus remained on quiet diplomacy.

Then, on the 8 August, the World Bank put out a statement, announcing that no future funding was possible, as the current law ‘contradicts the World Bank Group’s values’; and until additional measures are in place “protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination and exclusion in the projects we finance.” In December, the United States announced a whole range of measures, such as the expansion of a visa restriction policy; or sanctions for John Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of the Uganda Prisons Service. It also announced how it is pausing and redirecting support to the government of Uganda, respectively through the Department of Defense, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

What was the reaction in Uganda?

What were the reactions within Uganda to the above statements and measures? Also here, these played out along the lines layed out in the introduction.

First, there indeed have been many statements by Ugandan politicians directed against the West, confirming the idea that Western statements added fuel to the fire. Many of statements during the parliamentary debates were for example explicitly directed against the West. In response to the US visa ban, the Ugandan state minister for foreign affairs, Henry Okello Oryem, criticized the US and West of having an agenda to “coerce us into accepting same sex relationships using aid and loans”. In a 26-page letter dated 17 August in reaction to the World Bank statement, President Museveni lashed out against western ‘imperialist actors’ that chose to rebuke or condemn other countries over their own decision, and called them ‘insufferable’ and “shallow”. He compared the ‘intolerant’ World Bank to ‘religious fundamentalists’, warning their unilateral decisions could boomerang. The President didn’t only use words, but also actions. It was reported how Museveni did not go to the September 2023 inaugural Africa Climate Summit (ACS) in Nairobi, because he was “unwilling to engage and associate with a leader from the US, given that America protested and ‘punished’ Uganda after he signed into law an anti-LGBTQ bill”. In doing so, he was referring to the presence of US climate envoy John Kerry,  “stating categorically that he could not sit and be lectured by US climate envoy John Kerry”.

Within Uganda, the impact of the Western actions has also been instrumentalized or exaggerated, for example through exaggerations about the scope of the US visa sanction regime. Or, the World Bank statement has at times been used as an excuse for the bad state of the economy and government finances (fueled by a major public debt). A press release by the Local Government Workers’ Union for example argued how they have learned “with concern that Government intends to cut all civil servants salaries including Local government workers to mitigate the effect caused by the above-mentioned action [the World Bank sanctions]”)

Second, at the same time, there indeed have been signs that the international pressure, and in particular of the World Bank, has been successful in softening the law. When President Museveni was first presented the bill from parliament, in April 2023, he initially refused to sign it, instead sending it back to the parliament. In doing so, he specifically mentioned how a World Bank official had pointed out two problematic issues with the current law – namely the “requirement for employers to make sure that there are no homosexuals in their company and penalizing owners for houses being rented by homosexuals”. While he made sure to add that the ‘NRM is clear about its anti-gay stance’, the directed the MPs to sort out these issues. And indeed, both of these issue were thrown out. 

Also the August World Bank statement did seem to have an effect: on the same day as the statement, the Ministry of Health issued a press release, in which they reiterated “not to deny services to ANY client who present themselves for services” (emphasis in original), and not to discriminate – in which the press release explicitly mentioned sexual orientation.

Similarly, both the President and a number of state agencies did try to downplay the role, and/or minimize its effects. Shortly after the bill was signed, President Museveni launched a diplomatic charm offensive to the international community; arguing how the West’s uproar and actions were because of “distortions and misrepresentations” – something he for example argued in a bilateral meeting with the American ambassador, in which he clarified how homosexuality per se is not criminalized, but recruitment, promotion and homosexual activities.  Also in his state of the nation address on 7 June, Museveni already strongly watered down the impact of the law. [i]

On 25 August, the Director of Public Prosecutions sent around a directive stating “You are hereby directed to ensure that all files with charges preferred under the AHA should first be submitted to Headquarters with a written legal opinion for further guidance before a decision to charge is made.”[ii] In other words, the directive clarified how the AHA shouldn’t simply be applied; and was therefore a further illustration of how a range of state agencies issued statements to this extent – something which was widely perceived the result of the international pressure on this issue.

Yet, the law is still there; and – as a number of reports have shown – does create harmful effects for LGBTQ+ actors in the country. How come that, other than the WB and the US, no other donors have taken a significant stance? Compared to the reactions in 2009-2014, the overall donor reactions remain significantly less.  

A more technical way of looking at the impact of the law

There are two arguments used by those against action: first, that it backfires; and two, that it’s not the role of the international community to have national laws changed. One international official summarized this as: “If you play with fire, you’ll get fire back. It’ll be more and more difficult to get something done.”; while another one international actors argued how “If you take this to extremes, no one can win this; if everyone is at the barricades, no one wins. Space is needed for a diplomatic solution; in silence.” With regards to their role, it is argued how  “the activists who push us to make AHA disappear. They push is and tell us: make it go away. But this is not our role”.

In this context, it is important to highlight the differences between the capitals and the in-country missions about this: whereas capitals in general have been advocating for more action and/or to put it high on the agenda, the in-country missions are in favor of a much more careful approach. Concretely, most Western donors or diplomats in Kampala describe a major pressure from their capitals. Different from other human rights abuses in Uganda, it is something which receives much attention in their respective capitals, through for example parliamentary questions or media attention– all of which create a pressure on the embassies and missions in Uganda. Yet, this isn’t always welcomed by the in-country missions, who feel the attention is disproportionate in reaction to the other governance transgressions in the country – such as corruption or human rights abuses. As one official summarized this: “I want us to look at discrimination in general, not focus on one topic, such as AHA.”

While this is definitely a legitimate argument, it unfortunately takes place in a context where there is overall little attention to structural human rights abuses within Uganda. Relative little diplomatic capital has been spent on the human rights abuses before and after the 2021 elections, and this has only worsened – for example given the little attention given to the abductions of NUP members, some of whom are still in prison. The attention to AHA has worsened this process, with other governance transgressions being more than ever “on the backburner” – to use the word of one international official.  

What all missions have in common is a rather technical way of looking at the impact of the law, namely in relation to their funding portfolio. As one official summarized: “Key in all of this is: is there a link between our projects and discrimination? There certainly is discrimination in wider society, and on the streets; but does it affect our projects?” In other words, donors principally look if the law affects access to the projects they are funding: is there increased discrimination in doing so? Much work has been done on this: consultations, missions from capitals, commissioned studies, and monitoring reports. And, the available information does confirm the discrimination taking place, and the overall negative impact on public health provision – something which is documented both in a number of publicly available reports, press articles, and in at least one internal donor-report. Given that there’s however been limited action so far – the World Bank and US remain the only actors which have done so – the more important underlying question seems to be: when do donors find enough discrimination taking place?

Why is there less action?

The question is then: why is there much less overall appetite for action among the donor community to take action; and particularly: why is this different from 10 years ago, with the previous incarnation of the law?

This overall reaction also has to be understood in the context of changing relations between the Ugandan government and the donor community. Over the years, the Museveni regime has transitioned from being a donor darling, to being a ‘hybrid regime’, to now being considered a regime which is firmly placed on the authoritarian end of this scale. There has been a shrinking of the democratic space, which is characterized by further increasing corruption and human rights abuses.  Moreover, there also has been a deterioration of relations between the Museveni government and Western donors-  particularly since the 2021 elections.  President Museveni called President Museveni for example called the EU ‘fools’ for what he perceived as support to leading opposition figure Bobi Wine; while government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo, called the EU ambassadors ‘charlatans, passing for diplomats’.

This overall situation has led to what one longstanding donor actor summarized as a ‘loss of confidence in the product’: a reduced belief in the ‘democratization’ of the Museveni regime, and the role which international donors can play in this. At the same time, there are strong institutional incentives among the development community to keep spending their funds – a reduction in funds would make it hard to regain the original funding levels. Moreover, advocating for an aid cut is – on an individual level – not considered the best career move. The combination of both of these means that there’s pretty much a ‘business as usual’ for the donor community, except when there’s a powerful incentive not to do so – which largely has to come from their domestic constituencies. For now, this so far mainly seems to be the case for the United States; which in turn played an important role in the decision of the World Bank.  

What is also not helping are the changing geopolitical circumstances, triggered by the war in Ukraine, and the increasing role of Russia on the global stage. As shown in the previous blog post, Russia started a charm offensive across the continent since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, including in Uganda. In response to this, European diplomats across the wider region did emphasized how they are using a more “transactional” approach. As one European policymaker put it to me, “We need to show better what we have to offer, away from a patronizing attitude”. All of this has to make them the EU more attractive partner in these new geopolitical, and increasingly multipolar circumstances. But, this doesn’t necessarily help the protection of human rights issues – a protection which might come at a diplomatic cost which the EU isn’t willing the spend.  And indeed, Ugandan activists have criticized the EU’s inaction over the law.

In this overall situation, the difference in reaction to the law between the EU and the US has become rather pronounced. For example, as part of its range of measures, the US issued a business advisory for Uganda, highlighting the dangers of doing business in the country after the enactment of the law.  The EU, on the other hand, did not issue such a statement, on the contrary – organizing a major Uganda-EU business forum. Similarly, as part of the US’ suite of actions was to limit the diplomatic engagements of its ambassador in the country. The EU ambassador on the other hand  takes an opposite approach, meeting actors from across the spectrum – including controversial ones.

What does this mean for the future?

To conclude, the actions of Western donors are not homogenous, with a variety of approaches taken by different actors. What many Western actors have in common is a focus on non-discrimination, i.e.  a focus on checking whether the law leads to discrimination in access to their services. Yet, it needs to be emphasized how this still is different from stopping the law overall, and how the mere existence of the law existing creates its own dynamics, both in how the wider society, as well as individual state officials perceive the law and its implementation. Indeed, as argued in the introduction, a number of reports have shown the negative impact of the law on the ground, through an escalation of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

Donors are very much looking towards what the constitutional court will do: a number of petitions were filed against the law; and the ruling is expected to happen at any moment. This will determine if, and how much action, is still necessary. For many, their bets are on that the law will be kept, but stripped of its most harmful aspects. In doing so, the law would be another example of the Pax Musevenica, favoring both the international community – who can be assured that it is no longer harmful; as well as those in favor of the law.

Kristof Titeca is Professor of Development Studies at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His latest book is ‘Nasser Road. Political Posters from Uganda’. Follow him on X at @KristofTiteca

[i] “in Uganda, sex is confidential, even heterosexual sex. Therefore, if a homosexual keeps his being to himself or confidentially seeks assistance from the doctors or priests, it will not offend this law. I have told our MPs, that if there are still some illogicalities in the law, such as forcing employers to know who is a homosexual in the company or landlords to know which tenants are homosexuals, we shall work to amend them and keep the substance.”

[ii] Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, ‘Re: Management of cases with charges preferred under the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023’, Circular No. 18/2023, 25 August 2023. On file with author.

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