President Obama threatened Sunday that U.S. relations with Uganda could be on the rocks as President Yoweri Museveni was poised to sign a bill that hands down a sentence of life in prison for many same-sex acts.
Originally dubbed the “kill the gays bill” for its death penalty provisions, the legislation was passed in the Ugandan parliament in December with the capital punishment reduced to life imprisonment.
Also receiving prison time under the bill would be those who don’t report gays to the government or any organizations or individuals that support gay rights. Ugandans can also be sentenced for attempted homosexual acts or same-sex activity committed outside the country.
A government spokesman tweeted Friday that Museveni would sign the bill after studying it since its passage.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice hopped on the phone Saturday night to try to convince Museveni to not sign the bill. “People everywhere deserve freedom, justice, and equality. No one should be discriminated against for who they are or whom they love,” Rice tweeted.
Obama followed with a special statement on the bill, something he doesn’t frequently do on foreign policy matters.
“As a country and a people, the United States has consistently stood for the protection of fundamental freedoms and universal human rights. 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.
“That is why I am so deeply disappointed that Uganda will shortly enact legislation that would criminalize homosexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, once law, will be more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda. It will be a step backward for all Ugandans and reflect poorly on Uganda’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its people. It also will mark a serious setback for all those around the world who share a commitment to freedom, justice and equal rights,” he continued.
Same-sex relationships have been illegal in Uganda since the colonial era, currently punishable by up to 14 years behind bars.
“As we have conveyed to President Museveni, enacting this legislation will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda,” Obama said. “At a time when, tragically, we are seeing an increase in reports of violence and harassment targeting members of the LGBT community from Russia to Nigeria, I salute all those in Uganda and around the world who remain committed to respecting the human rights and fundamental human dignity of all persons.”
The U.S. has threatened in years past to cut aid to Uganda because of its anti-gay laws. In addition to being Uganda’s largest bilateral donor with hundreds of millions in assistance each year, the U.S. has increased its military partnership with the sub-Saharan nation particularly in the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony.
“It is disheartening that parliament has passed a bill that will prevent civil society from even discussing human rights, including the right to health, for LGBT people,” said Hassan Shire Sheikh, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. “This bill sets a dangerous precedent by stifling dissent. If today it is those who support the rights of LGBT people, who will it be tomorrow?”