Despite international uproar over a severe Ugandan anti-gay law, little attention has been given to U.S. evangelicals reportedly pulling strings behind the scenes.
WASHINGTON — This week’s decision by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to sign a law dramatically stepping up penalties for homosexuality has sparked a notably sharp, immediate and even substantive response from governments across the globe, but little official attention has yet been paid to the role in this process reportedly played by parts of the U.S. evangelical community.
Analysts point to a strengthening campaign by U.S.-based Christian organizations to support and even foster anti-gay legislation in multiple countries, particularly in the developing world. Not only do some of these countries remain relatively more socially conservative, but many are also seeing strong growth in public adherence to fundamentalist strains of Christianity. In addition, such campaigns are able to tap into deeply felt anti-colonial suspicions that some suggest are susceptible to conflations between homosexuality and encroaching Western culture.
“Museveni has kept his promise to ‘declare war’ on LGBTQ persons,” Rev. Kapya Kaoma, a former Anglican priest from Zambia and current senior researcher with Political Research Associates, a watchdog group, said Monday. “By signing the law, Museveni has given in to the whispers and urges he has been getting from U.S. evangelicals for decades. It is no accident that nearly identical laws and talking points have surfaced in Uganda, Nigeria, Russia and other countries.”
According to research by Kaoma, U.S. evangelical influence on anti-LGBT political mobilization overseas has been particularly prominent in Africa, picking up substantial momentum since the late 1990s. Yet influential inroads have also been seen elsewhere, including in Central America and Russia, the latter of which recently passed its own anti-gay legislation — prompting a U.S. pastor to publicly take credit.
“There is no longer any excuse for Americans … to sit back and passively watch the systematic destruction of their brothers and sisters in Africa,” Victor Mukasa, co-founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a network of advocacy groups, said this week. “Now is the time to step forward and work with the LGBTQ activists on the ground to demand fair human rights for all.”
Officials in Washington have yet to publicly discuss any connection between U.S. evangelicals and the anti-gay laws abroad, and the U.S. Justice Department has not indicated any interest in pursuing any of the alleged cases, though there would be options for it to do so. Nonetheless, broader U.S. condemnation of the new Ugandan law has been quick and could have significant implications.
On Monday, the White House called the new law “abhorrent,” while Secretary of State John Kerry compared the policy to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of blacks in Apartheid South Africa. He also warned that the U.S. government was “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.”
The United States is one of Uganda’s top bilateral donors, and the U.S. review could jeopardize the $460 million that Congress has earmarked for the country this year. Uganda’s other top bilateral donor, Canada, is undertaking a similar review, a move announced by other countries, as well. Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have already announced aid freezes, while the World Bank on Friday announced it would be halting a loan of some $90 million.
While such responses are notable for their swiftness, it is not clear that halting aid is the best way to express international opprobrium. As with much of the U.S. funding, the World Bank loan was aimed at bolstering programs to counter HIV/AIDS. The prospect of cutting off this money, even temporarily, is thus leading to widespread concerns over where exactly the impact of such a signal would be felt.
Campaign of persecution
For now, Ugandan rights groups are focused on assessing and dealing with the immediate fallout from the law.
“The passage of this poorly drafted law has been complicated by inflammatory, misleading and often contradictory public statements made by politicians,” Hassan Shire, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, told MintPress News in a statement. “President Museveni, as head of state, must quell the hysteria incited by this law, firmly and publicly denounce any vigilante attacks, and take all necessary steps to protect all of his citizens.”
Shire noted that a new coalition of 51 organizations is now preparing to petition the Constitutional Court of Uganda to challenge the new law.
The text of the final legislation has yet to be publicized, but it reportedly criminalizes a broad range of homosexual acts and gay “propaganda,” resulting in a 14-year sentence for a first offense and life imprisonment thereafter. Although instantly one of the harshest anti-gay laws anywhere in the world, the Ugandan legislation is actually a toned-down version of the original proposal, which would have included the death penalty.
That proposal, which had been floating around for the past four years before receiving a positive vote in the Ugandan legislature in December, was originally put forward by a member of the Parliament of Uganda named David Bahati. Bahati has said he was motivated in part by a newfound stridency on the part of Western diplomatic efforts, particularly from the United States and the United Kingdom, to try to strong-arm African governments into safeguarding gay rights.
Bahati has told the media that he first struck on the idea after a 2008 meeting with a powerful U.S. advocacy group called the Fellowship, a well-connected religious and political network based near Washington, D.C. Bahati said the group subsequently offered technical support in formulating the legislation, though the Fellowship has since said it took no official position on the proposal.
The following year, in 2009, a U.S. pastor named Scott Lively addressed members of the Ugandan Parliament, calling homosexuality an “evil institution” attempting to “defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.
This was in line with a long-standing campaign on the part of Lively, the head of a church called Abiding Truth Ministries, who had been active in Uganda since 2002. He has also toured dozens of cities in Russia espousing beliefs that many – including Lively himself – believe laid the basis for the recent anti-gay laws passed by Moscow.
In 2012, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the advocacy network, sued Lively in a U.S. court for “the decade-long campaign he has waged, in agreement and coordination with his Ugandan counterparts, to persecute persons on the basis of their gender and/or sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The prosecution contends that Lively directly contributed to the persecution of the Ugandan LGBT community, defined in international law as the severe deprivation of fundamental rights based on group identity. In August, a judge rejected Lively’s request that the case be dismissed, noting that systematic persecution constitutes a crime against humanity.
“Lively is very clear. In order to defeat what he calls the evil gay movement, you’ve got to silence and suppress advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights,” Pam Spees, the lawyer suing Lively on behalf of SMUG and a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group, told MintPress News.
“Lively will say this is an effort to silence him, but in fact this is not about his speech – it’s not about incitement. This is about someone who actively works in coordination with others to deprive a group of people of their fundamental rights because of their identity. His speech is only evidence of what he’s doing.”
“An immediate right-erasing effect”
The LGBT community was persecuted in Uganda before Bahati’s proposal became law, Spees said, but the situation has significantly worsened since the Ugandan Parliament passed the bill.
“We had already seen incidents of rights violations, with meetings invaded, arrests and government interference, but now we’re expecting far more of that,” Spees noted.
“Since December we’ve seen a wave of arrests and street harassments – the situation is getting very scary. We had always hoped that the bill would never come into force as an outgrowth of that larger persecution, but now that it has become law it is having an immediate right-erasing effect.”
The case, Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Lively, is being tried under the Alien Torts Statute, a unique law that allows foreigners to bring cases against U.S. citizens and corporations for abuses committed overseas. The case is currently in its discovery period, during which the two sides swap evidence, a phase that is expected to last for the coming year.
In the days since the Ugandan law’s passage, Lively has distanced himself from its harsher details.
“While I respect the right of sovereign nations to legislate sexual morality according to their own cultural standards, I believe the Ugandan anti-homosexuality law takes the wrong approach in dealing with simple homosexuality,” he wrote on his blog on Tuesday.
“I believe the Russian approach of banning homosexual propaganda to children as a preventive measure is a better model for other nations of the world looking avoid the moral degeneracy that has occurred in the U.S. and E.U. due to so-called ‘gay rights.’”
Currently, the Lively case is the only one of its kind going forward, despite evidence of similar involvement by other U.S. evangelicals. Political Research Associates, for instance, keeps tabs on a dozen groups and individuals it calls “key players in the exportation of homophobia and sexism to Africa.”
“We do know there’s been a flow of anti-gay extremism from the United States into other places,” Spees said. “But we don’t have the evidence of how deeply many of these other processes have gone. With Lively, on the other hand, he’s been very explicit, so we know who he’s worked with and when.”
There does remain a notable opportunity for the prosecution of extraterritorial crimes under the U.S. federal system. In 2010, the Justice Department set up a new office, the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, tasked specifically with pursuing justice for a broad spectrum of human rights violations. These and others crimes under its mandate typically take place abroad.
Despite the recent roar of disapproval from the U.S. government, however, Spees said the Justice Department has not yet indicated any interest in becoming involved in the Lively case.