How to stop Uganda’s anti-gay bill

In the past, I’ve begged my government to increase its support to military efforts in northern Uganda. It hasn’t helped. Now, I think we have a chance to do something good with that money: cut it off, and don’t give it back until Uganda’s anti-gay bill is dead.

I’ve been keeping shamefully silent on Ugandan MP David Bahati’s proposed anti-homosexuality bill, which would not only provide harsher penalties for gay and lesbian sex but would also criminalize blogging about homosexuality:

5. Promotion of homosexuality
(1) Any person who…

(e)Uses electronic devices which include internet, films, mobile phone and
(f) Who acts as an accomplice or attempts to legitimize or in any way abets homosexuality and related practices

Commits an offense and on conviction is liable to a fine of five thousand currency points or imprisonment of at least five years or both.

(Others have done far better in drawing attention: the bill’s been well-covered by Global Voices, Foreign Policy, Africa’s LGBT bloggers, and Uganda’s own Daily Monitor.)

Demonstrator at August 2007 anti-gay rally in Kampala
Demonstrator at August 2007 anti-gay rally in Kampala. Photo by Rebekah Heacock.

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic posted a link to an article by James Kirchick, who argues that the US should withhold HIV/AIDS support funding to Uganda unless the bill is withdrawn:

From 2004 through 2008, Uganda received a total of $1.2 billion in PEPFAR money, and this year it is receiving $285 million more. Clearly, the United States has a great deal of leverage over the Ugandan government, and the American taxpayer should not be expected to fund a regime that targets a vulnerable minority for attack — an attack that will only render the vast amount of money that we have donated moot.

Irresponsible and reprehensible behavior on the part of Ugandan officials should lead to a serious re-evaluation of U.S. policy and an ultimatum for the Ugandan government: It must desist in its promotion of deadly homophobia or say goodbye to the hundreds of millions of dollars it has received due to the generosity and goodwill of the American people.

Kirchick makes some good points in his article: the Ugandan government consistently blames the gay population for the spread of HIV but is intent on making it impossible for men who have sex with men to receive much-needed HIV-related education, counseling and health care without the fear of jail time. Withholding PEPFAR funding would spark a popular outcry, forcing the government to change its mind.

Still, I’m not convinced. Kirchick acknowledges that protests by human rights groups so far “have only made the government more defiant.” As sad as it is, I think anti-gay sentiment is so deeply embedded in the current administration and so often blamed on Western influence that withholding US aid may have the same effect. I see Bahati digging in his heels, claiming America wants to further corrupt Ugandan society by not only supporting homosexuality but by helping spread HIV, and I see the majority of the country agreeing with him, even as more Ugandans die of AIDS-related illnesses.

Instead of cutting off critical support for Ugandans living with HIV, I think the US should start withholding military aid. I’ve written before about how poorly executed and ineffective Uganda’s attempts to defeat the Lord’s Resistance Army have been. Cutting military aid won’t make this any worse, and popular opinion of the government’s efforts in this area is so low already that I don’t think citizens will buy an argument that blames the United States. I also believe the government is more likely to respond to a loss in military support than they would be to a loss in HIV aid.

In the past, I’ve begged my government to increase its support to military efforts in northern Uganda. It hasn’t helped. Now, I think we have a chance to do something good with that money: cut it off, and don’t give it back until the Bahati Bill is dead.