Greater involvement from first lady Michelle Obama was one option discussed during a recent congressional hearing as a way for the U.S. to help derail a harshly anti-gay bill in Uganda from becoming law.
Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, was among the people who testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Thursday that Obama’s work against the international HIV/AIDS epidemic would make her a strong voice against the bill.
Johnson said the women’s caucus in the Ugandan parliament is supporting the legislation and opposition from the first lady — as well as President Obama — could influence women’s groups in Uganda to drop their support.
“I’m wondering if there is women leaders within the U.S. Congress — and perhaps the first lady herself — might be able to play some role in having discussions about the potential impact of this bill — not just on human rights, but on HIV prevention within the country,” Johnson said.
Julius Kaggwa, a leader of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law who came from Uganda to testify on the legislation, also said greater involvement from President Obama and Michelle Obama would be helpful in efforts to stop the bill.
“If President Obama and the first lady of the United States can engage more with our first family — especially in the area of HIV/AIDS, which is of great concern to us as sexual minorities — and the issue of human rights generally, I think that would be very, very helpful,” he said.
A stronger voice from the first lady and President Obama was one among several options considered to stop the anti-gay legislation that’s been pending the Uganda parliament since October.
Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the bill would, among other things, institute the death penalty for repeat offenders of the homosexual acts ban and for those who have homosexual sex while HIV positive. The harsh penalties for LGBT people in the legislation have inspired growing outrage and concern around the world, including LGBT activists in the U.S.
Karl Wycoff, deputy assistant secretary of state for East African Affairs, testified that the State Department has been working to prevent the bill from being enacted into law even as the U.S. considers the country an ally.
“The introduction of this anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda characterizes just such a moment — one where we must say to our friends who’s friendship we value that together we must stand against injustice, and in this case, injustice against the LGBT community,” he said.
Wycoff noted how the White House in January issued a statement in opposition to the legislation and said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed concerns about the bill with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in addition to publicly opposing the legislation in two speeches.
“Our embassy … has been very active on this subject with representatives of the Ugandan government, with civil society, with local gay and lesbian groups and with others who press for this bill to be dropped,” Wycoff said.
Last month, DC Agenda first reported State Department officials had received assurances from Museveni that he would work to block the legislation from becoming law and would veto the bill should it come to his desk. But during the hearing, Wycoff declined to characterize publicly the discussions the State Department had with the president.
Witnesses also discussed efforts of activists within Uganda working to prevent the bill from becoming law. Kaggwa said local groups have been trying to stop the measure, but noted that persuading lawmakers to oppose the bill is difficult because of the country’s deep cultural beliefs against homosexuality.
Kaggwa said one of the best points for opponents to bring up about the legislation is how it would require Ugandan citizens to report on those believed to be homosexual.
“The element of setting a mother against a daughter, the element of setting a sister against a brother, is something that we all can identify with,” Kaggwa said. “These are the arguments that we are using. We should make this bill really draconian, that instead of bringing together families, instead of preserving family, as purported by people who are pushing the bill, it’s [separating] families.”
Following the testimony, lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who chaired the hearing, told reporters that bolstering the local effort in Uganda against the legislation would be one means for the United States to step up efforts against the bill.
“I do think it is important for us to listen and receive guidance from people on the ground in Uganda — not just thinking from afar what to do,” she said. “I think there’s probably additional ways where we can empower local activists, local voices in Uganda at the same time as we speak crystal clear our dedication to human rights for all [people] across the globe.”
Another option lawmakers are considering is revoking Uganda’s beneficiary trade status should the bill become law. Baldwin noted during the hearing that earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to Clinton saying Uganda’s trade relationship with the United States would be revoked if the country’s parliament enacts the legislation.
While a number of strategies were put forth as ways to prevent the legislation from becoming law, one option witnesses denied as being an appropriate response was restriction of funds under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The program, also known as PEPFAR, is a multi-billion dollar initiative started by former President George W. Bush that provides treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries.
Christine Lubinski, executive director of the HIV Medicine Association, said the $1.3 billion that the U.S. spends in aid to Uganda is “too much of a day-to-day lifeline for too many people.”
“It seems like there’s significant other avenues to pursue; the HIV money would not be good one,” she said.
But Johnson said there could be other avenues to pursue with AIDS relief money if Uganda passes the legislation. He said PEPFAR money could be “channeled differently” to non-governmental organizations that would implement HIV/AIDS relief programs in the country.
Another concern raised during the hearing was whether international efforts would have an adverse effect on stopping the anti-gay legislation because of the country’s history under colonial rule.
Wycoff said attention from the international community has actually contributed to some efforts in Uganda calling for the passage of the legislation.
“Ironically, foreign criticism of the bill has in some ways bolstered internal support for the legislation as many Ugandans interpret foreign condemnation as interference in their internal affairs,” he said.
But Kaggwa said international concern about the legislation is helpful, so long as local opposition against the bill is heard just as strongly.
“It is important that these local, indigenous voices are heard as heavily or as loudly as the international voices,” he said. “We believe that if that voice supplements our own voices, then we will be productive. But if the foreign voices are louder than ours, then I’m afraid that might have a counter-productive effect.”
Johnson said people opposed to the legislation are working to make sure both local and regional voices are heard against the bill, and that Obama could make the local voices stronger.
“I think that could be an aspect in which the administration could be more proactive in terms of talking to other African nations, and talking to the African Union, about making its voice heard on the legislation,” he said.
A number of Democratic U.S. House members spoke out against the bill during the hearing. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the commission, said the bill “is steeped in religious bigotry and homophobia.”
“I want to make it clear that there are many members in this Congress — both Democrat and Republican — who have deep, deep concerns about what’s happening in Uganda and are outraged by this draft legislation,” he said.
Baldwin called the legislation “an extreme and hateful attempt to make people criminals not because of anything they do, but because of who they are and who they love.”
She noted that 90 other U.S. House members joined her in signing a letter to presidents Obama and Museveni, requesting their strong opposition to the legislation.
“I hope that all Ugandans, and particularly those who are [LGBT], will hear the voice of this Congress state very clearly that we will not tolerate these types of human rights violations,” she said.
No Republican member of the commission attended the hearing. A Republican staffer for the commission didn’t immediately respond to DC Agenda’s request to comment on why GOP members were absent.