The top U.S. diplomat in Africa met over the weekend with leaders in Uganda to express concerns about an anti-gay bill pending before the country’s parliament that could be headed for a vote as soon as this week, according to the State Department.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson, said during a daily briefing Monday that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson met with high-profile leaders in Uganda “over the weekend” and raised concerns about the bill, which among other things would punish homosexual acts with life in prison. The questioning was initiated by the Washington Blade.
“As we have regularly said, we call on the parliament of Uganda to look very carefully at this because Uganda’s own Human Rights Council has made clear that if this were to pass, it would put the country out of compliance with its own international human rights obligations,” Nuland said. “And so, Assistant Secretary Carson had a chance to make that point again and our strong opposition to this, to the president, to the parliament and to key decision makers in Uganda.”
Nuland also affirmed media reports from last week that the legislation has passed out of the Legal & Parliamentary Affairs Committee, saying, “Our understanding is that a version of the bill has now passed the committee in Uganda.”
Carson spoke with these leaders on the same Africa trip where he’s meeting with Museveni as well as other leaders in the area in an attempt to end violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
It wouldn’t be the first time Carson has raised concerns about the bill with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni. In 2009, the Washington Blade reported that Carson met with Museveni about the bill and later had conversations about it on the phone. On both occasions, the State Department said Museveni had pledged to block the bill from becoming law and would veto it if it came to his desk.
Nuland later said Carson met with Uganda Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who’s reportedly been a chief advocate of the anti-gay bill, although it’s unclear whether the meeting was just with her or a larger group of Ugandan leaders. Kadaga is quoted in Reuters earlier this month as saying, “Ugandans want that law as a Christmas gift. They have asked for it and we’ll give them that gift.”
Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the proposed bill would expand existing law to institute life imprisonment for those found guilty of homosexuality in addition to prohibiting public support for LGBT rights. According to Sexual Minorities Uganda, parents and teachers would be fined if they don’t report gay children and students and landlords who rent to gay people would be punished with jail time.
The legislation — colloquially known in the United States as the “Kill the Gays” bill — became infamous in the international community after its introduction in 2009 for including a provision that would institute the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”
But it’s unclear whether this provision remains in the legislation. Early on Friday, BBC News Africa reported that a legislative committee had “endorsed” the legislation, but had dropped the death penalty provision. Previous reports had indicated the death penalty provision has been dropped, and yet that language was found in the bill.
Nuland told the Blade the State Department is uncertain about whether the death penalty provision has been dropped from the bill because the committee has yet to make its report on the bill public.
“I don’t know that we have actually seen the version that passed committee,” Nuland said. “They’ve been a little bit close hold about this, partly because there’s been so much controversy in the international community. So our concern is about any criminalization of homosexuality, obviously.”
Some countries, such as Britain and Sweden, have threatened to cut foreign aid to Uganda if this bill becomes law. U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott H. DeLisi was quoted in a Ugandan newspaper as saying the United States has “decided to continue giving aid to Uganda,” but that was in response to misuse of foreign aid and not the anti-gay bill.
Nuland declined to directly answer a question from the Blade about whether the State Department was considering whether to cut foreign aid from Uganda if the legislation becomes law.
“I’m not going to get into any hypothetical situations,” Nuland said. “Our focus now is on raising awareness of the concerns within Uganda about this bill, so we don’t get to that stage.”
Asked by another reporter about whether a pledge to cut aid would be “a good, strong point to make” if the United States opposes the bill, Nuland said she won’t “make prospective points from the podium here about where we might go if this bill passes.”
Nuland refocused attention to talks within the country, saying, “I think there is a very intense conversation going on inside Uganda about this, and the far better course of action would be for the bill not to pass.”
Pressed further on the prospects of cutting aid by yet another reporter, Nuland signaled those talks should happen at a later time, saying, “Again, we’re at a relatively preliminary stage here where you’ve had one committee pass this. There is room for those kinds of conversations. Our first focus at the moment is on getting reconsideration of this.”
Nuland also addressed questions about the United States denying Kadaga a visa. The spokesperson said she’s not aware of a visa question and said the State Department can’t generally talk about such issues.
A transcript of the exchange between Nuland and reporters follows:
Q: Yeah, I have a question on Uganda, actually. There’s an anti-homosexuality bill that’s making its way through the legislature right there. What is the State Department’s current assessment of where that bill is and if that’s going to be headed toward a vote anytime soon?
MS. NULAND: Again, Assistant Secretary Carson was also in Uganda over the weekend. He had a chance to raise again our concerns about this issue, which we’ve been very vocal about. Our understanding is that a version of the bill has now passed a committee in Uganda. As we have regularly said, we call on the parliament in Uganda to look very carefully at this, because Uganda’s own human rights council has made clear that if this were to pass, it would put the country out of compliance with its own international human rights obligations. And so Assistant Secretary Carson had a chance to make that point again and our strong opposition to this, to the president, to the parliament, and to key decision makers in Uganda.
Q: And there was – and once the bill had a provision that would institute the death penalty for homosexual acts. As far as the State Department knows, has that provision been removed or is it still in the bill?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t know that we have actually seen the version that passed committee. They’ve been a little bit close hold about this, partly because there’s been so much controversy in the international community. So our concern is about any criminalization of homosexuality, obviously.
Q: And one last question. Some countries, Britain and Sweden, have threatened to cut foreign aid to Uganda if this bill becomes law. Is there any consideration in the U.S. Administration to cut foreign aid to Uganda if that bill becomes law?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into any hypothetical situations. Our focus now is on raising awareness of the concerns within Uganda about this bill so that we don’t get to that stage.
Q: Wait, wait one second. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t – don’t you think that would be a pretty strong point to make to the Ugandans if you think this is a bad idea that you would say, hey, you can go ahead and do this, but it’s not only going to not only violate your international commitments but it’s also going to jeopardize American assistance? Why would you –
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not to make prospective points from the podium here about where we might go if this bill passes. I think there is a very intense conversation going on inside Uganda about this, and the far better course of action would be for the bill not to pass.
Q: And isn’t that what happened a couple of years ago when the harsh bill was put up and there were active threats from not just the U.K. but also the United States that if this bill were to pass, aid would be cut? And that was part of why the bill was tabled, no?
MS. NULAND: Again, we’re at a relatively preliminary stage here where you’ve had one committee pass this. There is room for those kinds of conversations. Our first focus at the moment is on getting reconsideration of this.
Q: On this, Toria. Did Secretary Carson meet with the speaker of the parliament?
MS. NULAND: My understanding is he did see the speaker of the parliament, whether it was in a larger group or whether it was a distinct meeting that he did, yes.
Q: But he – so he made that point directly to her?
MS. NULAND: Yes, he did.
Q: Okay. Can you – do you have in your guidance there the ability to deny the reports that built up over the long weekend that the United States had denied her a visa?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we don’t talk about visa issuance one way or the other, so I don’t have any information about it one way or the other. But I frankly hadn’t heard that there was a visa question involved in this at all.
Q: There was one. And the parliament then issued its own statement which was slightly ambiguous, but it sounded like they were trying to say that, no, you guys had not denied her a visa.
MS. NULAND: I’m not aware of any visa issues. But in general, as you know, we can’t talk about these things.