U.S. officials have received assurances from the Ugandan president that he would work to block a harshly anti-gay bill from becoming law in his country and would veto the legislation should it come to his desk, according to the State Department.
Jon Tollefson, a State Department spokesperson, told DC Agenda that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has pledged on several occasions to the top U.S. diplomat engaged in Africa that he would stop progress on the anti-gay bill.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson received this assurance from Museveni on Oct. 24 during an in-person meeting with the president in Uganda and again during a phone conversation with Museveni on Dec. 4, Tollefson said.
Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the anti-gay legislation — a bill sponsored by a member of the president’s party — would, among other things, institute the death penalty for repeat offenders of the homosexual acts ban and those who have homosexual sex while HIV positive.
Additionally, the bill would criminalize the formation of LGBT organizations and the publication or broadcast of pro-gay materials in Uganda.
The legislation is moving forward in the Ugandan parliament, and this week lawmakers were slated to have a second reading of the bill, according to the Times of London. Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said the bill is expected to come up again in January for a final reading.
Tollefson said during the Oct. 24 meeting that Carson met with Museveni and other high-ranking Ugandan officials to express concern about the legislation and conveyed that its passage would be “a big step backwards in human rights” that “could really have the potential to harm the reputation of Uganda.”
“And the president understood the concerns and said that he would do what he could to make sure the bill was not passed,” Tollefson said. “He would not sign the bill. … He made a commitment to the secretary that he would work to make sure it wasn’t signed into law.”
Tollefson said when the bill started moving forward and gaining international attention, Carson on Dec. 4 contacted Museveni by phone to reiterate U.S. concerns, and the president again expressed his commitment to stop the bill from becoming law.
“So that being said, the assistant secretary is expecting the president to live up to that commitment and … he expects President Museveni to live up to his reputation as a leader in the HIV/AIDS struggle in Africa,” Tollefson said. “It’s a significant human rights issue. I know it also gets in the way of treatment and prevention and education on the HIV/AIDS front.”
Asked whether it’s the understanding of U.S. officials that Museveni would veto the legislation should it come to his desk, Tollefson replied, “Right, that’s a commitment that he’s made. He made that personally to the assistant secretary on that first meeting that he had on Oct. 24 and again on a call on Dec. 4, and so we’re going to continue to expect that.”
Tollefson said the United States wants Museveni to go beyond his private commitment to blocking the bill from becoming law and to make a public statement against the legislation.
“He has not done that, and we’ve asked him to come out and say how — be a leader in this, just as he’s a leader in HIV/AIDS,” Tollefson said.
On Friday at the State Department, Carson briefed non-governmental organizations on the commitment Museveni made to the United States and explained the work U.S. officials have done to prevent the measure from becoming law.
Tollefson said about 20 NGOs were represented at the briefing, including groups focused on African development, LGBT issues and confronting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Among the groups that were invited to the briefing, which was closed to the public, were the Human Rights Campaign, the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch.
Bromley was among those in attendance at the briefing. He confirmed for DC Agenda that he was told Carson had received assurances from the Ugandan president that he would work to stop the bill from becoming law.
But Bromley said he isn’t sure whether the president would terminate the bill by vetoing it or via some other method.
“I’m not incredibly sure that veto is the right word because I’m still trying to clarify whether the president actually has the authority to veto under the parliamentary system, but basically he assured Assistant Secretary Carson in October and then again in December that he would keep the bill from going forward,” Bromley said.
Noting that the bill came from a member of the president’s party and his party “dominates the politics” in Uganda, Bromley said pressure from the president would “certainly slow the bill.”
“But Secretary Carson made it clear that on two occasions, President Museveni has said he would stop the bill from going forward and he said that he’s continuing to write to him and sending messages that the U.S. expects him to honor his word,” Bromley said.
Tollefson also detailed work the State Department has done to help block the legislation from going forward and said Carson has made clear to Museveni that — in addition to rejecting the measure — the United States expects full decriminalization of homosexuality in Uganda.
“He made very clear that we will not accept simply the removal of the death penalty or some of the harsher aspects of the law,” Tollefson said. “We expect full decriminalization of sexual acts between adults. There’s no hedging on that.”
Noting that supporters of the legislation in Uganda have been saying religious leaders are in favor of the bill, Tollefson said the State Department has delivered to the country statements from U.S. religious leaders denouncing the legislation. A statement from Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in California, was among the statements from religious leaders sent to Uganda in opposition to the bill. Warren recently spoke out against the bill.
Tollefson said the State Department also believes the legislation could have a detrimental effect on the region around Uganda and noted that movement on anti-gay legislation in Uganda and other countries will be recorded in the State Department’s annual human rights report.
“It won’t just be focused on Uganda, we’re not going to make a lot of effort to remove this from Uganda while remaining silent on neighboring countries that have similar legislation even if they’re already on the books,” he said.
Asked whether restricting funds under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief could be a way to deter Uganda from passing the bill, Tollefson said that question came up during the Friday briefing, but U.S. officials are reluctant to pursue that option.
PEPFAR, a multi-billion dollar initiative started by President George W. Bush, provides treatment for those living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries.
“Public funds to start retroviral treatment is not a one-day commitment, it’s a lifetime commitment, and we haven’t had that discussion and we don’t want to have that discussion,” Tollefson said. “And, of course, no one would want to see that happen, so it’s not something that we want to consider.”
Bromley said he’s impressed with the State Department’s level of commitment to stopping the anti-gay legislation from being passed.
“I’m very pleased that the State Department has been so forceful and is now publicly challenging President Museveni to honor his word and commitment,” Bromley said. “I’m pleased that they are responding as assertively as they are and that they are now doing so in a public fashion.”