Despite calls from LGBT advocates urging the Obama administration to speak out, Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz had no comment Friday on the Gambia president’s threats this week to “slit the throats” of gay men in his country.
Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Schultz said he had no knowledge of Gambia President Yahya Jemmeh’s anti-gay comments and declined to directly condemn them.
“I haven’t seen those comments, so I don’t want to directly respond from here without having read them,” Schultz said. “But I will say the president has a strong record of speaking out for human rights and equal rights in countries around the world.”
The White House didn’t respond to a follow up request via email from the Blade on whether it would condemn the remarks.
The exchange follows a joint letter Thursday from Human Rights President Chad Griffin and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy, who wrote to National Security Adviser Susan Rice seeking a White House statement against the Gambia president.
“A strongly worded and timely statement will help advance human rights in the country by exposing these ongoing injustices to the world and by standing on the side of ordinary Gambians who continue to advocate for accountability and justice in the country,” the letter says.
Additionally, the letter calls for consideration of visa bans for Gambia leaders engaged in anti-LGBT conduct as well as review of military and security assistance with the country. A visa ban would have particular impact on Jemmeh because, as the Blade reported in March, Jemmeh owns a $3.5 million mansion in Maryland less than 20 miles from the White House.
Jemmeh, who’s been in power since 1994 and survived a coup attempt on December 30, made the anti-gay comments in the Wolof language during a recent rally in which he also threatened the political opposition, according to a translation of his remarks obtained by the international news agency Vice News.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern notes, the remarks are “par for the course” for the Gambia president. In additional to making other anti-gay remarks, Jemmeh in October signed into a law making “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life in prison. As defined under the law, “aggravated homosexuality” includes “serial offenders” of homosexuality as well as engaging in homosexual conduct with a minor or while having HIV. The law is based on the anti-sodomy laws that Great Britain inflicted on colonies like Gambia during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Jeffrey Smith, an Africa specialist at the Robert K. Center Human Rights Center, expressed incredulity that Schultz was unaware of Jemmeh’s comments at the rally and said further response from the White House is “absolutely” necessary.
“We’ve been raising the alarm bells for a long time, so it’s difficult to believe that someone would be unaware of this horrible rhetoric, but not only the horrible rhetoric, also the real consequences that this rhetoric come with,” Smith said. “It in essence gives a green light and a license to those to commit violence and commit acts of vigilante violence.”
HRC didn’t respond to a request to comment on whether the organization is satisfied with Schultz’s remarks during the White House briefing or if a further statement is warranted.
Although the European Union has decided to cut $14 million in aid to Gambia for its anti-gay behavior, the United States maintains a relationship with the country. Jemmeh is among the heads of state who posed for a picture with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during an Africa summit in D.C. last year.
But the Obama administration has taken some action against Gambia. In December, the United States announced Gambia is no longer eligible to take part in a duty-free trade program under the African Growth & Opportunity Act due to human rights concerns.
Still, the letter from HRC and the RFK center says “it has become increasingly clear that stronger action is required” from the Obama administration because threats against gay people in the country continue.
“As the human rights situation in The Gambia grows more dire, we strongly urge you to consider the steps we have recommended in order to protect the country’s highly vulnerable and already marginalized groups, including LGBT people, who undoubtedly remain under serious threat,” the letter says.