21 Jan Reflections on the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill
The proposed anti-homosexuality legislation introduced by Ugandan parliament back-bencher David Bahati is creating an international outcry. The bill–introduced as a private member’s bill without government support–would impose the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as “sex with a minor or a disabled person, where the offender is HIV-positive, a parent or a person in authority over the victim, or where drugs are used to overpower the victim.” It otherwise imposes a penalty of life imprisonment for homosexuality, and includes lesser punishment of seven years for promoting homosexuality and three years for failing to report offenses.
The proposed legislation has caused an international outcry, so much so that the Ugandan President Museveni has publicly called for a delay of the legislation, saying that
“I told them that this bill was brought up by a private member and I have not even had time to discuss it with him. It is neither the Government nor the [ruling] NRM party. It is a private member…. This is a foreign policy issue and we have to discuss it in a manner that does not compromise our principles but also takes care of our foreign policy interest.”
My friend who just returned from Uganda said that those words were designed to kill the bill before more damage was done to Uganda’s reputation.
The proposed legislation is, in the words of evangelical pastor Rick Warren, “unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals.” In an open letter to Ugandan pastors, he urged opposition to the bill:
“the freedom to make moral choices, and our right to free expression are gifts endowed by God. Uganda is a democratic country with a remarkable and wise people, and in a democracy everyone has a right to speak up. For these reasons, I urge you, the pastors of Uganda, to speak out against the proposed law.”
The proposed bill also has generated a huge media outcry, as well as threats to withdraw foreign aid, and diplomatic protests from many quarters, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Because the law is so extreme, it highlights the sharp cultural divide between the West and Latin America, on the one hand, and Africa and the Middle East on the other. This map draws about as stark a geographic divide as one could imagine. The issue of homosexual rights vs. traditional family values therefore provides an extremely useful prism about norm entrepreneurship across cultures and continents. While I know of no one who would defend this bill, how much cultural and ideological pluralism should be allowed in the slow and steady progress of international human rights? What “margin of appreciation” is permissible on an issue such as this?
Finally, as a foreign relations matter, the proposed legislation also raises the significant practical issue of pragmatic transnational norm advocacy. What is the most effective response for those in the West who wish to defeat this bill? Is it threats of economic sanctions, démarches from European diplomats, or pastoral letters from one (famous) clergyman to another? Is the best recipe for success a mix of carrots and sticks, or a soft appeal to reason and conscience? I for one have little doubt that on an issue like this someone like Rick Warren carries more weight with local Ugandans than, say, Amnesty International. But I also doubt his words have more weight than a 45-minute phone call between President Museveni and Hillary Clinton.
The goal of scrapping the draconian bill of a Ugandan backbencher should be easily achievable. But what is the best means to that end?