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February 20, 2014

Rights Group: US Should Pull Ambassador Over Uganda Anti-Gay Bill

by Hilary Heuler

Human Rights Watch has called on the United States to recall its ambassador to Uganda if an anti-homosexuality bill is signed into law. The group says the U.S. should send a strong signal to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who vowed last week to sign the bill.  

“I don’t think the U.S. statement so far has been strong enough," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy director for Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "While donors have voiced concerns, I’m not sure that that has actually translated into a really serious understanding in Uganda of the impact of the bill and what that will mean for relationships. We think that it’s very important that the U.S. and others send a very strong message that there will be consequences for signing this law.”

The bill, passed by the Ugandan parliament in December, could result in homosexuals being jailed for life. It also would outlaw “promotion” of homosexuality, as well as failure to report a gay person to the police.

There was no immediate response from the Obama administration to the HRW statement.

U.S. President Barack Obama said this week, however, that he was "deeply disappointed" in the Ugandan leader's plans to move forward with the anti-gay bill, adding it would complicate relations between Washington and Kampala.

"We believe that people everywhere should be treated equally, with dignity and respect, and that they should have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential, no matter who they are or whom they love," Obama said in a statement.

The Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity has described donor criticism of the bill as “blackmail”, saying aid should not be linked to the behavior of another country.

Lefkow argues that the law could directly impact donor-funded activities, though, making it harder for civil society and health care programs to operate. She said major donors like the United States have the responsibility to review these programs, clearly state what effect the new law would have, and assure that their money is not used to persecute people.

“We’re not calling for development aid to be cut, but we are calling for a review of the different ways that this law, if it’s signed, could impact on assistance in Uganda," she said. "For example, the U.S. provides a lot of assistance for health programing in Uganda, for HIV/AIDS programing, and the law could have very detrimental impacts on groups who are trying to work to improve health in Uganda.”

Ugandan human rights groups are preparing to challenge the bill in court if it is signed, arguing that it is unconstitutional.