Response to Anti-Homosexuality Act: US Announces Hold on CDC Aid to Uganda

According to Reuters, yesterday the US announced that it had put a hold on health program funding from the Centers for Disease Control to the Ministry of Health in Uganda while it reviews the content of the programs.  This comes over two weeks after President Museveni signed the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law.  Several European countries have also suspended aid – including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.   According to a Ugandan health official, this money was to be used for purchasing life prolonging anti-retroviral treatments for HIV patients. 

Some things to carefully consider in light of this decision:

Sometimes democratic institutions produce policies that seem contradictory to democracy.  The Anti-homosexuality Act was heavily debated for several years and passed by a parliament produced by an election deemed free and fair by the regional community (joint EAC-IGAD-COMESA observers) and mostly free (but not fair) by the United States-based Democracy Monitoring Group.  While far from perfect, the election produced MPs who are accepted as representatives of their constituents.   Despite being unpopular abroad for its human rights violations, the anti-homosexuality bill has been greeted with support domestically in Uganda.  While there are no official poll numbers regarding support for the law, only 4% of Ugandans in a 2013 poll said homosexuality should be accepted. As a result, the law demonstrates how democracy in a society that does not prescribe to Western liberal norms can sometimes produce laws that seem to contradict the mores of liberal democracy.

The US has only announced the suspension of a small portion of its aid budget, although the total dollar amount is unclear.  This aid could include important drugs for HIV patients.  Anti-retroviral therapy decreases the amount of the HIV virus within a person’s system, prolonging their life and, for mothers, decreasing their chances of passing the disease onto their unborn child.  Cessation of anti-retroviral therapy can allow the disease to mutate, making it resistant to treatment.  The long-term effects of an ART shortage in Uganda could be catastrophic for its 1.4 million to 1.8 million people living with HIV/AIDS.

Withholding these funds is likely to have little impact on deliberations during the case with the Ugandan Constitutional Court over the constitutionality of the law, which was recently filed by 50 civil society groups under the umbrella of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law.  Instead, it seems as though some of the most vulnerable Ugandans will suffer for their country’s resistance to conform to Western human rights rhetoric.

Normatively, I am against any form of discrimination and see the law as a blatant disregard for human rights.  I disagree with Museveni’s assessment that sexual orientation is not a product of nature but of nurture.  His ‘scientific findings’ are obviously the result of selective investigation.  A full literature review would reveal that there is no scientific evidence to conclude either way.  While, it is my own belief that gender and sexual orientation are inherent, rather than learned, attributes, I also can set aside my normative sensibilities to think logically about the issue at hand.  For almost all Ugandans (if we can rely on survey data), homosexuality goes against the norms of their society.

Evidence shows that to some extent, these norms are the result of shifting attitudes among the youth.  This could be caused by an explosion of evangelicalism within the country.  However norms cannot be forced to change over night by anyone from within or outside of the country.  To paint such a picture is to assume that Ugandans are an incredibly gullible bunch of people, willing victims to American evangelical missionaries.  This is simply untrue.

Instead, we might consider whether there were already existing conservative social norms within the society.  One only has to look a bit further in the legislative records to see that Uganda has also recently passed a law prohibiting women from wearing skirts or shorts above the knee.  In addition, homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since the colonial period.

These norms cannot be forced to change over night by anyone from within or outside of the country.  Instead, what is the more likely causal story here is a convergence of conservative groups within Uganda.  Evangelicals are attracted to Uganda because it is a conservative country open to Americans.  Ugandans are attracted to the evangelical movement because it shares some their conservative social norms.  This convergence has led to a politicization of sex, from homosexuality to miniskirts.  While certainly the role of American evangelical movements has been important, to say that this would not have happened without the influence of American evangelicals is to create a useless counterfactual, carrying little analytical weight.

If the US and other international actors hope to ensure human rights within Uganda, they might think to engage in more meaningful tactics than suspending vital aid that could threaten the lives of ordinary Ugandans.  If we are going to suspend aid, why CDC aid? Why not suspend all aid to send a clear signal?  Part of the answer to this question probably relates to America’s close ties to Uganda’s military and its ongoing efforts to counter al-Shabab in Somalia and the LRA in central Africa.

We should take into account our own histories and policies on gay rights.  It seems a bit hypocritical for a country that has not extended full rights and dignity to its entire population regardless of sexual orientation to criticize the actions taken by another.  It wasn’t until 2003 that the US Supreme Court ruled that consensual same sex relations should be legal.  In most states today, homosexual couples are not free to marry.  These important points limit the credibility of the US in pressuring Uganda (or another country) on LGBT rights.

Social norms evolve, sometimes requiring a generational change or more.  For the time being, Uganda’s norms appear to be shifting toward more conservative beliefs that challenge human rights.  In order to counter such shifts, it will take education and programs to foster more progressive attitudes.

The question remains – does any country have the ethical justification for manipulating the social norms and culture of another, even if those norms threaten the rights of some?  To this, I have no answer.

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