by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has promised the US State Department to block an anti-Gay bill pending in his country's parliament.
According to State Department spokesperson Jon Tollefson, Museveni twice promised Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson that he would prevent passage of the bill, or veto it if it did pass.
Museveni's assurances came first in a face-to-face meeting with Carson on October 24, soon after news of the proposed measure broke in the US, and again in a phone conversation on December 4.
Reports of these conversations first surfaced in DC Agenda, the successor to the Washington Blade newspaper, on December 21, and then on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show on December 22.
Also on December 22, State Department spokesperson Noel Clay confirmed to SGN that the conversations had taken place, but he declined to discuss the specifics of the talks.
"We've raised this several times with the Ugandan government," Clay said. "I haven't read the [DC Agenda] article, so I can't say if it's accurate or not."
Assistant Secretary Carson reportedly briefed about 20 NGOs - including the HRC, the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch - on Museveni's promises to him on December 18.
The briefing was not public, but attendee Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, disclosed Carson's statements to DC Agenda.
"Secretary Carson made it clear that on two occasions, President Museveni has said he would stop the bill from going forward and he said that he's continuing to write to him and sending messages that the US expects him to honor his word," Bromley said.
The State Department's Tollefson has confirmed that "[Pres. Museveni] understood the concerns and said that he would do what he could to make sure the bill was not passed. He would not sign the bill. & He made a commitment to the secretary that he would work to make sure it wasn't signed into law."
"So that being said," Tollefson continued, "the assistant secretary is expecting the president to live up to that commitment&."
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but the proposed anti-Gay legislation would institute the death penalty for "repeat offender" Gays and those who have sex while HIV-positive. It also requires Ugandans to inform on others suspected of being Gay.
Additionally, the bill would criminalize the formation of LGBT organizations and the publication or broadcast of pro-Gay materials in Uganda.
LGBT activists estimate there are some 500,000 Gay people in Uganda out of a population of about 31 million.
When news of the impending legislation broke in the US, the State Department characterized it as "a significant step backwards for human rights in Uganda."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the bill in two major speeches, on the occasion of World AIDS Day on December 1, and again at Georgetown University on December 14.
On December 11, the White House issued a statement saying that "[T]he president strongly opposes efforts, such as the draft law pending in Uganda, that would criminalize homosexuality and move against the tide of history."
The State Department would not explicitly discuss the consequences for Uganda if Museveni failed to deliver on his promises, however.
The State Department's Noel Clay told SGN "If adopted [the bill] would be a significant step backwards for human rights in Uganda and it would undermine our joint efforts to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS."
Uganda is currently one of 15 "focus countries" which are eligible for priority funding under the PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) program. Uganda receives some $287 million in PEPFAR funding for AIDS prevention and treatment.
Asked whether threats to cut PEPFAR funds to Uganda might be used as a deterrent to the proposed legislation, Tollefson said that the question came up during the December 18 briefing, but US officials are reluctant to pursue that option.
"Public funds to start retroviral treatment is not a one-day commitment; it's a lifetime commitment, and we haven't had that discussion and we don't want to have that discussion," Tollefson said. "And, of course, no one would want to see that happen, so it's not something that we want to consider."
Other countries have not been so reluctant to threaten Uganda. Sweden, for example, has said it would withdraw the $50 million of aid it gives to Uganda each year if the measure becomes law.
BBC News has reported that at a Commonwealth meeting in November, several leaders warned Museveni to consider the dangers the proposed law could pose to Uganda's international standing.
However, BBC also quoted Ugandan parliament member David Bahati, the sponsor of the bill and a member of Museveni's National Resistance Movement, as saying, "Here, we don't recognize homosexuality as a right."
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