The US Response to Uganda’s Anti-LGBT Law – Threat or Opportunity for Regional Security Efforts

A few weeks ago officials from the National Security Council and Ambassador Susan Rice held meetings with leading Ugandan LGBT activist Frank Mugisha to discuss the US government’s response to President Museveni’s signing of his country’s now infamous Anti-Homosexuality Law. The meetings took place in the context of President Obama’s pledge that the law will indeed “complicate” US-relations with Uganda, and Secretary Kerry’s announcement that the administration is conducting “an internal review of our relationship” with the Ugandan government “to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programs, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values.”

In meetings with Frank Mugisha and others administration officials confirmed that the “assistance programs” currently under review include security assistance currently provided to the Ugandan military and police, in addition to the $400+ million annual development and humanitarian programs. As several European states have announced cuts or redirection of assistance programs affected by the law, and the World Bank has postponed a $90 million loan to Uganda’s health sector, the US has yet to officially announce any outcome of the “internal review” of its relationship with Uganda.

While those familiar the Anti-Homosexuality Law are well-aware of the grave affront it presents to civil and political rights in Uganda, little has been written as to how the law – and more concretely, the Obama administration’s response to the law – will also have serious, long-term implications for peace and security efforts throughout central and East Africa. To be clear, the human rights implications for Ugandans and credible fears that similar legislation may spread to other countries are both more than sufficient reasons to elicit a firm, even punitive, response by the US and other governments. With this post, I hope to make the additional case – one that has received considerably less attention in the media and policy circles – that strong, concrete action in response to the Anti-Homosexuality Law is additionally critical to protect long-term investment in regional peace and security.

Uganda’s Role in Regional Peace and Security

To understand why, it is first important to recognize the increased regional and international reliance on Uganda over the years in the protection of peace and security throughout central and East Africa. In summary: Ugandan troops were the first to enter Somalia under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in 2007 and still provide over 60% of the mission’s military personnel. The Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) are similarly carrying the bulk of the load within African Union’s Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army (RCI-LRA) in central Africa. Additional Ugandan troops may soon be on their way to the Central African Republic in support of a potential peacekeeping mission. Over the course of the last year Uganda also played host to the peace talks between M23 rebels and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and for a brief stint earlier this year, Ugandan troops were deployed in South Sudan amidst its recent internal conflict. For better or worse, there has hardly been a regional conflict in recent memory where Uganda has not played a significant or key role.

Since the 1990s, the US has spent significant resources to build the capacity of the UPDF and other Ugandan security forces. Currently the US provides support and training for the UPDF in the LRA mission, and has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the AMISON mission over the years. Even the FBI has had a significant – and at times controversial – presence in the country over the years.

Simultaneous Series of Rollbacks on Civil and Political Rights in Uganda

However, in this time of increasing international reliance on Uganda as a regional security powerbroker, Ugandans have experienced a series of rollbacks of civil and political rights at home – of which the Anti-Homosexuality Law is only the latest.

Over the course of the last five years the Ugandan media has faced a range of threats, including the temporary shut down and government occupation of the Daily Monitor in 2013 and the four Luganda radio stations pulled off the air without legal recourse in 2009. NGOs, especially those critical of the government, have faced an increasingly hostile environment in Uganda. The Minister of Internal Affairs and others have threatened to deregister NGOs for being “partisan” or “political” or for working on a range of sensitive issues, which includes corruption, oil, governance, land rights, and LGBT rights. A preliminary draft of a new restrictive NGO bill is also currently circulating that essentially treats human rights organizations as a threat to national security.

Last year, Uganda passed the Public Order Management Act requiring police permission for public demonstrations, while opposition leaders Kizza Besigye and Eria Lukwago are routinely denied the right to assembly and told all their activities threaten national security interests.  There has yet to be any meaningful or credible investigations into the killings of protestors in 2009 and 2011 totaling roughly 50 people – many killed by police who shot them in the back. There are also serious and longstanding concerns for the lack of accountability for high-level corruption and intimidation of prosecutors working on cases involving the political elite.

You get the picture.

The United States’ Response to the Anti-Homosexuality Law

In the face of relative silence on this long list of serious civil and political rights concerns in Uganda, the US has taken a strong and public stand – at least in rhetoric – against the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Law. As a result of the “internal review” of its relationship with Uganda announced by Secretary Kerry, the US could take any number of concrete actions. Among the many options on the table, Ugandan activists and international advocates have asked for a temporary recall of the US Ambassador for consultations; visa bans for those deemed responsible for persecution or incitement of LGBT people; targeted aid cuts to homophobic groups and government ministries; and investment in public health measures that directly defy the law’s ban on “aiding and abetting” homosexuality.

While the severity of these actions – as well as their timeline and level of publicity – are currently being debated within the administration, some have argued that security considerations dictate a soft approach to Museveni in order to maintain Washington’s “warm” – albeit now “complicated” – relationship with its key strategic security partners in Kampala.

I would argue the opposite.

Amidst the demonstrated shrinking civic space in Uganda and the increasing reality of yet another term for Museveni – who has already ruled longer (28 years) than all previous leaders combined since the country’s independence – conditions could continue to devolve into Mugabe-esque lordship over Uganda and, by extension, central and East Africa.

Last month, as Museveni stood in military fatigues declaring war on the homosexual lobby in front of the cheering parliamentary caucus of his ruling party – the National Resistance Movement (NRM) – he sounded more like the nonagenarian dictator of Zimbabwe than a “key US strategic partner.” When signing the bill into law Museveni went even further, laying on thick anti-western rhetoric, and has since made repeated overtures toward Russia and China. Recently Museveni’s spokesperson even publicly circulated a Kremlin statement criticizing the US over the unfolding situation in Ukraine.

If left unchecked, Uganda’s domestic trajectory does not bode well for a region in need of a good-faith partner in peace and security efforts. With increased domestic turmoil in Ethiopia and Kenya, a democratic Uganda will become increasingly crucial to regional stability. The more Museveni mirrors Mugabe in rhetoric and action, the less reliable he will become. Museveni’s strangle hold on civic space at home and tight control of the military may facilitate short-term regional security partnerships. However as Uganda becomes more repressive it also becomes more unstable, and the leadership void that Museveni will ultimately leave behind becomes larger. The administration is currently facing similar repercussions in Egypt as US-influence has dipped dramatically despite the millions of dollars spent over many years in support of Mubarak and his supporters.

Continuing to bolster the UPDF’s capabilities and Uganda’s role as the de facto regional security czar, while simultaneously ignoring its slide into a repressive society may be an effective, albeit myopic, security strategy in the short term, but will prove counter-productive over the long term. In fact, Washington got a taste of what it might be like to confront a rogue-Uganda with robust interventionist leanings earlier this year when Museveni – without consulting Uganda’s parliament – deployed troops to South Sudan who participated in active combat operations defending Museveni’s longtime ally, President Salva Kiir. The deployment temporarily faltered peace talks, and demonstrated Museveni’s proclivity to defend his own interests in maintaining the status quo over allowing a negotiated political settlement. Questions still remain over reports of Uganda’s possible use of cluster bombs in South Sudan.

Thus, the US should also see its internal review in the wake of the Anti-Homosexuality Law as an opportunity to recalibrate its approach so that its stated policy goals to “strengthen democratic institutions” and “advance peace and security” are no longer competing, but mutually reinforcing aspects of its partnership with Uganda. While the heinousness of Uganda’s discriminatory law demands a strong response from Washington to protect the rights of LGBT people in Uganda and dissuade the populist anti-LGBT inclinations of legislators from Kenya to Congo, the review should also take into account the long record of unresolved rights abuses in Uganda and its security partnership.

In line with the comprehensive response advocated for by Ugandans, security assistance must continue to be on the table and up for review until Uganda can prove it can be a trusted partner domestically and regionally over the long term. Ultimately, weak follow-through now in the wake of such strong US rhetoric in response to the Anti-Homosexuality Law risks green-lighting a creeping autocracy in Uganda, which far from furthering regional security interests, could in fact place them in extreme peril. 

About the Author(s)

Wade McMullen

Staff Attorney for International Strategic Litigation Unit at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) Follow him on Twitter at (@wademc).