November 27, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
U.S. officials dispute media reports on Uganda anti-gay bill

U.S. officials offered a different account about the status of a draconian anti-gay bill in Uganda on Tuesday, saying the legislation had yet to move out of committee and disputing earlier media reports and State Department comments by saying the panel is incapable of removing the infamous death penalty provision from the legislation.

In an email to the Washington Blade on Tuesday, an informed source at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala said the bill is still in committee. That contradicts media reports on the bill — which imposes a penalty of life in prison for homosexual acts — that indicated the Legal & Parliamentary Affairs Committee had reported out the bill last week.

Additionally, the embassy source, who asked not to be named, said that the committee can only compile a report on the bill for recommendations to the bill, and can’t make changes to it. That means the panel can’t take out the death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality,” which media sources reported was removed.

An earlier version of the bill defined “aggravated homosexuality” as someone with HIV engaging in homosexual acts, having homosexual sex with a minor or the repeated offense of homosexuality.

Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokesperson, affirmed on Tuesday when speaking with the Washington Blade over the phone that the legislation had yet to pass in committee.

“As with all domestic legislation, it’s up to the Ugandan Parliament to determine whether or not to move forward with a bill,” Thompson said. “The bill is currently in committee and has not yet reached the full parliament for consideration.”

On Monday, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson, affirmed media reports that the bill had passed committee, saying during a daily press briefing, “Our understanding is that a version of the bill has now passed the committee in Uganda.” Thompson on Tuesday said Nuland may have misspoke when making those comments.

Thompson referred questions about whether the committee has authority to make changes to the legislation or take out the death penalty provision to the Uganda government. Additionally, she said she couldn’t answer questions about expectations for the timing of when the bill might pass out of committee and be taken up by the full parliament.

Advocates have said the vote could happen as soon as this week, but are hoping action is delayed beyond Dec. 14, when the legislative session ends.

Additionally, Thompson articulated previously stated concerns that the United States has with the legislation.

“The United States shares the concerns of several members of Uganda’s civil society and the Ugandan government’s own human rights commission, which determined the anti-homosexuality bill violates both Uganda’s constitution and its obligations under international law,” Thompson said. “Beyond that, we have serious concerns about the negative impact of the bill on public health interests in Uganda, including our concerns that it would undercut Uganda’s ability to fight HIV/AIDS infection and the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Thompson added, “We just note that as President Obama said in reference to the same anti-homosexuality bill in his comments during the National Prayer Breakfast, it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are.”

Following talks that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson had with high-profile leaders over the weekend in Uganda, Thompson said diplomatic outreach to the Ugandan government continues, although she wasn’t immediately sure whether these talks involve Carson or other diplomats.

“Even if Assistant Secretary Carson hasn’t spoken with them beyond that — I think right now he’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo — our diplomatic offices, they’re on the ground in Uganda,” Thompson said. “Even though I’m not there, I can pretty assuredly say that this is an issue of ongoing and continual dialogue between our government … and the government of Uganda.”

Thompson declined to comment on the response that Ugandan officials offered to U.S. officials, saying, “We generally don’t provide a play-by-play on our diplomatic exchanges, so I can’t tell you exactly what the Ugandans said to him. But this is an issue that is of great concern, of course, to the U.S. government because that doesn’t embody the principles that we extol across the globe, and they don’t live up to the universally accepted standards for human rights.”

In 2009, the Washington Blade reported that Carson met with President Yoweri Museveni about the bill and later had conversations about it on the phone. On both occasions, the State Department said at the time Museveni had pledged to block the bill from becoming law and would veto it if it came to his desk.

UPDATE: During the State Department daily briefing on Tuesday, Nuland corrected herself by saying the anti-gay bill hasn’t yet passed out of committee, adding she believes Museveni “took onboard” the potential negative impact of the bill during his talks with Carson.

The transcript of that portion of the briefing follows:

QUESTION: Do you have anything to add to what – the Uganda answer you gave yesterday? Has there been any more contact, do you know, between – since Ambassador – since Assistant Secretary Carson was there on this – the anti-homosexuality law?

MS. NULAND: Just a little bit more on Assistant Secretary Carson’s conversation: He did talk to parliamentary leaders and to President Museveni very directly about our concerns, the concerns of the international community. Our understanding is that President Museveni certainly took onboard the fact that this could have a serious impact on the way Uganda is perceived, the way Uganda is supported in the international community. There are many hoops for this thing to go through, as you know. I think yesterday we said that the bill had passed the parliamentary committee. My understanding is that’s incorrect. It hasn’t even gotten to that stage. So we just need to continue to highlight the issues.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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