White House defends its hard stance against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

With Uganda’s controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act being challenged in court, Biden-Harris administration officials are vowing to continue holding the African nation accountable, even as the United States simultaneously works to reestablish ties on the continent after years of dormant engagement. 

Uganda’s law, which penalizes homosexual acts, including the death penalty for so-called “aggravated homosexuality,” has received considerable condemnation from the U.S. and Europe since being signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in May.

The law requires the public, including health professionals, to report individuals suspected of engaging in same-sex relations. The law even requires that landlords evict those who identify or are suspected to be LGBTQ or face years in prison. 

Human rights and LGBT+ rights activist Peter Tatchell (r) accompanies campaigners calling for Uganda to be sanctioned for its anti-LGBT+ laws during the Pride in London parade on 1 July 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

“The president is always concerned [about] any type of human rights violation, any type of legislation or actions that’s going to certainly go after [underrepresented] communities,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told theGrio during a press briefing last week.  

Since being signed into law, the Biden-Harris administration has moved to hold Uganda accountable. Those actions include enacting visa restrictions for current or former Ugandan officials, reducing government-to-government funding programs through the Department of Defense and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and ending Uganda’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act beginning on Jan. 1, 2024, among other actions. 

While advocates believe Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is a violation of human and civil rights, some have expressed concern that restricting AGOA funding will hurt its citizens and the country’s entrepreneurs.

“I view AGOA as being targeted to the people of the country, helping women, men, entrepreneurs, get their products here,” Dorothy M. Davis, an Africa diplomacy expert who has consulted U.S. and international agencies, previously told theGrio. 

“AGOA is really for these entrepreneurs, and how are they going to feel about the U.S. basically taking this program away from them at this moment?”

During a recent interview with theGrio, John Kirby, the strategic coordinator for the White House National Security Council, said the Biden-Harris administration does not want to “hurt average citizens.” 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre looks on as Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on December 19, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

However, he said it’s important that the U.S. ensures its international “investments” are aligned with President Joe Biden’s principles of upholding human and civil rights.

“We have an obligation to make sure that investments we make, the spending that we pursue, is in keeping with our basic foreign policy [and] other principles and values that we’re trying to demonstrate all around the world, including in Africa,” Kirby said.

“There has to be a measure of accountability …. so that they can see that it isn’t just a bumper sticker we’re slapping on a problem,” said the retired Navy admiral, adding, “That we really mean it when we say that more can be done to protect the rights of your citizens.”

Kirby said there is a “real commercial, research, scientific need” for AGOA, a decades-long program intended to increase commercial trade in sub-Saharan Africa. Restricting that access, he argued, is no different than U.S. policy on providing military training or security assistance to foreign governments. 

He explained, “There’s an expectation that if you’re going to benefit from military [assistance]…that you’re going to sign up to understand that it has to be used in accordance with the law of armed conflict and with a fundamental adherence to civil rights and human rights.”

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The Biden-Harris administration is navigating a delicate dance in the region as it works to up its diplomatic engagement in Africa following years of inactivity during the administration of former President Donald Trump, who infamously called African nations “shithole” countries. 

During those years, the U.S.’s world competitors China and Russia expanded their military and economic footprints on the continent.

Biden hosted 49 African leaders during last year’s U.S.-African Leaders Summit and announced billion-dollar investments in partnerships with African nations to advance food security, climate resilience, infrastructure, and expand digital access. The president also established the Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement to make good on his commitments and enhance dialogue between U.S. officials and the African Diaspora.

Kirby told theGrio that its hardened stance on Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ law does not mitigate the administration’s commitment to being a partner to African nations. In fact, he argued it’s par for the course.

Julius Malema and Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters picket against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill at the Uganda High Commission on April 04, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Frennie Shivambu/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

“The way you better advance relationships with countries that you want to improve is to be candid and forthright about civil and human rights — that’s what friends do,” he argued. “Sometimes that means having some difficult conversations, but it doesn’t mean you shy away from it.”

Kirby said Biden has “never backed away” from raising his concerns about human or civil rights violations when meeting with foreign leaders.

As theGrio exclusively reported after last year’s Africa summit, Biden-Harris officials Museveni, Uganda’s president, on his anti-LGBTQ record during a bilateral meeting in Washington. This was months before Museveni, who has remained defiant against international condemnation, ultimately signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law.

Kirby acknowledged there’s an “issue of accountability” in Uganda but emphasized U.S. sanctions and actions come from a place of wanting to “improve the relationship because we want to move things forward, particularly on the continent.”

“It matters to us … [and] to the American people,” he added. 

Jean-Pierre, the nation’s first Black woman and first LGBTQ person to serve as White House press secretary, said Biden and administration officials will continue to speak out “forcefully” against Uganda and any other nation seeking to violate the human rights of their LGBTQ populations.  

“The president has always been very clear, has had those conversations with leaders … and he doesn’t hold back,” she said.

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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The Biden-Harris administration is vowing to hold Uganda accountable for its controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act, which penalizes homosexual acts, including the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” The administration has taken actions such as enacting visa restrictions, reducing funding programs, and ending Uganda’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. However, some advocate concerns that restricting AGOA funding will hurt Ugandan citizens and entrepreneurs. The administration emphasizes the importance of aligning investments with human and civil rights principles, while also working to reestablish ties on the continent after years of disengagement under the previous administration. The administration’s stance on Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ law does not diminish its commitment to being a partner to African nations, and it will continue speaking out forcefully against Uganda and other nations violating the human rights of LGBTQ populations. The administration is focused on improving the relationship with Uganda and other African countries while addressing human and civil rights violations.

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