The U.S. Might Just Let Uganda Get Away With Its New Anti-Gay Law

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni gestures after signing the anti-gay bill

With the stroke of a pen on Monday, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni made the supposed crime of being gay punishable by life in prison. He did so despite the firm warnings of President Barack Obama to withhold his signature — and it’s looking unlikely that he’ll face any major consequences in the near future.

Under the terms of the bill that became Ugandan law on Monday, aside from making homosexual behavior punishable by up to life in prison, all advocacy on behalf of gay rights is now banned. The law also provides incentives for citizens to turn in associates of theirs who are gay and declares that performing a same-sex marriage carries a sentence of seven years. “As a country and a people, the United States has consistently stood for the protection of fundamental freedoms and universal human rights,” Obama said in a statement just over a week ago. “As we have conveyed to President Museveni, enacting this legislation will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda,” Obama warned.

Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Obama on Monday, calling the law “a dangerous slide backward” for human rights in Uganda and warning of potential consequences. “As President Obama stated, this legislation is not just morally wrong, it complicates a valued relationship,” he said in a statement. “Now that this law has been enacted, we are beginning an internal review of our relationship with the Government of Uganda to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programs, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values.”

But just what the results of that review will be — and whether the U.S. will be able to do much to prevent the law from being put into effect — is a question that is more difficult than it would appear on the surface. Janet Lewis, a researcher on security in sub-Saharan Africa and Uganda in particular, told ThinkProgress that the law puts the Obama administration in “a really difficult place.” The last few years have seen the development of a strong military alliance between the U.S. and Uganda, Lewis noted, particularly in helping fund and train the Ugandan military. That training and professionalization has been put to good use in neighboring Somalia, where Uganda is taking part in the African Union mission to defeat terrorist group al-Shabaab, a goal of both Obama and Museveni.

“It’s pretty difficult to say — I don’t really know if it’s realistic to say that the U.S. is going to be able to roll back any of that military training,” Lewis said. “I suspect that [the U.S.] will condemn the anti-gay bill, but Uganda is one of many countries in Africa now with anti-gay legislation on the books now,” she continued. “But the U.S. needs African allies to help manage security issues on the continent, so probably the Ugandan government recognizes that.”

Museveni himself seems aware of that fact, given his response to Obama’s pronouncement last Sunday. “I would like to discourage the USA government from taking the line that passing this law will ‘complicate our valued relationship’ with the USA as President Obama said. Countries and societies should relate with each other on the basis of mutual respect and independence in decision making,” the statement from Museveni read.

“Africans do not seek to impose their views on anybody,” Museveni continued. “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 White House seemed to acknowledge that there wasn’t much it could do immediately, judging by the vagueness in their statements in response the law’s enactment. “We will continue to urge the Ugandan government to repeal this abhorrent law and to advocate for the protection of the universal human rights of LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement released Monday morning. But during his daily press briefing, Carney noted that there was no “official” position taken yet on the response to the bill, joining Kerry in pointing to the internal review that is set to be undertaken.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee likewise punted when asked whether legislative action would soon be taken against Uganda, referring ThinkProgress to Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), chair of the subcommittee on African Affairs. Earlier today, Coons released a statement condemning the law, saying “the United States must not stand by as democratic values and humanitarian principles are increasingly disregarded by Uganda’s political leadership,” adding, “America’s rhetoric must now be met with action. For there to be no diplomatic or developmental consequence for the enactment of these laws would be to set a dangerous precedent for America’s foreign policy.”

What American action will actually look like will take some time to develop. “At this point, we’re looking to see what options are out there,” Ian Kloski, Coons’ communications director told ThinkProgress, taking stock of what can be done reasonably done through Congressional means versus the executive branch stepping in. Complicating matters further is that cutting off aid to Uganda in its current form is less likely to hurt the government than Ugandan citizens. Currently, Uganda receives a little under $500 million in foreign assistance per year from the United States, the vast majority of which went towards public health efforts.