Reflections on the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill

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?

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Africa, Europe, Featured, International Human Rights Law, National Security Law
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Nathan Wagner
Nathan Wagner

“[H]ow much cultural and ideological pluralism should be allowed in the slow and steady progress of international human rights?”  [emphasis added]

The proposed Ugandan bill is terrible – but this issue perhaps more than any other reveals how much the “progress of international human rights” is a western project to impose western ideals on a frequently indifferent and sometimes actively hostile rest of the world.  Our moral certainty about gay rights makes us drop the mask of respect we ordinarily assume when listening to non-western peoples say what we like to hear – or what we have coached them to say.  It is easy enough to disclaim exceptional place or prerogative when one can believe one’s own convictions backed by global custom and consensus.  Take away the supposition of consensus and the exceptionalism returns.

Do we dare guess what “the progress of international human rights” will look like if ever there are no longer the incentives of money and of power for the non-western world to mouth our shibboleths?  The West and its ideals are, after all, guaranteed eternal possession neither of the authority to write norms nor of the levers of power in international institutions.    We would do well to remember.