December 22, 2015 at 9:46 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department defends LGBT rights efforts in Africa

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President Obama has spoken out in support of LGBT rights in Africa during trips to the continent in July and in 2013. The State Department on Dec. 21, 2015, dismissed a New York Times article that suggests U.S. efforts in support of LGBT rights on the continent have sparked a backlash. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)


Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

The State Department on Monday pushed back against a report that suggests U.S. efforts in support of LGBT rights in Africa have caused a backlash.

An article that ran in the Sunday edition of the New York Times quotes the chair of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission who said a law signed by then-President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014 that, among other things, punishes those who enter into a same-sex marriage with up to 14 years in prison, was “blowback” to the Obama administration’s promotion of LGBT rights on the continent. A student man who lives in the continent’s most populous country told Norimitsu Onishi, the chief of the newspaper’s southern Africa bureau who wrote the story, that “U.S. support is making matters worse.”

“The article fundamentally misrepresents the situation of LGBTI persons in Africa,” the State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade in a statement. “LGBTI individuals and organizations have been systematically harassed and denied their basic freedoms for decades, long before the U.S. began to formally support their human rights and development.”

The spokesperson stressed that “‘do no harm’ is the most important principle guiding our efforts.”

“We always work in close consultation with local civil society groups and affected communities,” the spokesperson told the Blade. “We follow their advice when deciding when to speak out, when to work more quietly and on how to offer support in the most effective and sensitive way possible.”

U.S. works ‘closely and cautiously’ with advocates

Promoting LGBT rights abroad has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 delivered her landmark “gay rights are human rights” speech in Geneva that commemorated International Human Rights Day.

President Obama in July during a press conference in Nairobi with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta discussed LGBT rights. Obama during a 2013 press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall in his country’s capital of Dakar spoke out against laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

The State Department has criticized Cameroon, Zimbabwe and other African countries over their LGBT rights records.

Special U.S. Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry in July 14 met with several Ugandan advocates during his trip to their country. LGBT activists were among the members of Kenyan civil society who attended a town hall with Obama in Nairobi a few days later.

“It is a fundamental tenet of U.S. foreign policy that every human being has the right not to be subjected to violence or discrimination because of who they are or who they love,” the State Department spokesperson told the Blade on Monday. “We have made progress in this area by working closely and cautiously with the affected communities.”

Gambian government blasts ‘decadent and ungodly societies’

A number of African heads of state in recent years have criticized the U.S. over its support of LGBT rights.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 dismissed Obama’s criticism of his decision to sign his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.

“Africans do not seek to impose their views on anybody,” said Museveni. “We do not want anybody to impose their views on us. This very debate was provoked by Western groups who come to our schools and try to recruit children into homosexuality. It is better to limit the damage rather than exacerbate it.”

The Gambian government in May rejected National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s criticism of its LGBT rights record; noting it “will not be dictated by decadent and ungodly societies, nations or institutions.” Deputy Kenyan President William Ruto in July sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extended marriage rights to gays and lesbians throughout the United States.

Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, in 2012 filed a federal lawsuit against Scott Lively, an American evangelical who allegedly stoked anti-gay attitudes before MP David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2009. An opponent of LGBT rights in Nigeria with whom the New York Times spoke works closely with the World Congress of Families, an Illinois-based organization that supports efforts against LGBT rights around the world.

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A Ugandan LGBT advocacy group in a 2012 federal lawsuit accuses Scott Lively of stoking anti-gay attitudes in their country before MP David Bahati introduced his Anti-Homosexuality Bill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“The U.S. government does not promote ‘LGBT rights;’ we promote and protect the human rights of all people regardless of faith, creed, or sexual orientation, and that includes LGBTI individuals,” said the State Department spokesperson.

The New York Times also reported the U.S. since 2012 has contributed more than $700 million to global LGBT advocacy efforts. The newspaper said more than half of these funds have gone to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

A State Department spokesperson described the $700 million figure as “grossly mischaracterized.”

The spokesperson told the Blade the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development since 2012 have spent nearly $41 million “specifically to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTI persons globally.” Roughly $6.6 million of these funds were spent in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The $700 million figure refers to funding for marginalized and at-risk communities, including LGBTI communities, as well as with persons who have disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities, women and girls exposed to gender-based violence, and others,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson told the Blade the majority of the $700 million is through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, “which helps many different communities affected by HIV/AIDS.”

Advocates in Africa with whom the Blade spoke defended U.S. efforts in support of LGBT rights.

“I have worked with state department officials and I can confirm that the ‘do no harm’ approach has been a strong part of their approach with LGBT groups in Nigeria and Uganda,” said Cheikh Traore, an LGBT rights advocate in the Nigerian city of Lagos.

Davis Mac-Iyalla, a gay Nigerian man who sought asylum in the U.K. in 2008, on Monday said he too disagrees “with the premise that U.S. aid to Africa on LGBT rights may have done any harm.”

“In fact it’s done only good in terms of LGBT advocacy in my opinion,” he said.

Michael Guest of the Council for Global Equality agreed.

“LGBT people in Africa and elsewhere have found inspiration not only in the changed climate for LGBT rights in this country, but in this administration’s clear recognition that fairness toward LGBT people has to be part of our support for equal human rights worldwide,” he told the Blade.

“It’s no surprise that those who’ve done so much harm toward LGBT people would blame their actions on the U.S.,” Guest, who was the U.S. ambassador to Romania from 2001-2004, added. “But it would be wrong for our country not to speak out against human rights abuses directed at LGBT people in Nigeria and elsewhere, in the same way that it speaks against any other human rights abuse.”

The Blade has reached out to Onishi for comment.

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GLIFAA in June honored Pepe Onziema of Sexual Minorities Uganda, right, during its annual Pride event at the State Department. (Photo courtesy of State Department)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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