By Kerry Eleveld
On the eve of World AIDS Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday 30 November made the strongest statement yet by an administration official that the United States will not tolerate efforts to criminalize homosexuality among countries that receive U.S. funding to combat HIV/AIDS.
“Obviously, our efforts are hampered whenever discrimination or marginalization of certain populations results in less effective outreach and treatment. So we will work not only to ensure access for all who need it but also to combat discrimination more broadly,” she said during a press conference in which officials also announced that the XIX International AIDS Conference, set for 2012, will be held in United States — the first time the conference has been held here since 1990. “We have to stand against any efforts to marginalize and criminalize and penalize members of the LGBT community worldwide.”
Specifically at issue is pending legislation in Uganda that would extend the punishment for engaging in gay sex to life imprisonment and introduce the death penalty for those who do so repeatedly or while HIV-positive — acts termed "aggravated homosexuality” within the bill.
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said he was pleased to see Secretary Clinton take a firm stand against antigay bigotry.
“The United States must make it absolutely clear to Uganda that the passage of the bill, which includes a death penalty provision and criminalizes those who fail to report suspected homosexuals to the authorities, would substantially impact our bilateral relationship and our health investments in that country,” he said.
The United States recently pledged to provide Uganda with nearly $250 million in development assistance, mainly to promote health, agriculture, and business initiatives. The grant was announced when the assistant secretary of State for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, met with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in late October.
Clinton’s comments came on the heels of an interview with Ambassador Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, that concerned many HIV/AIDS activists.
“My role is to be supportive and helpful to the patients who need these services. It is not to tell a country how to put forward their legislation,” Goosby said of Uganda last week during a Newsweek interview.
Many HIV/AIDS activists felt that Goosby’s comments signaled a certain tone-deafness by the Obama administration to the Ugandan issue. But one person who consults regularly with the Department of State said the agency has been heavily engaged with Ugandan officials regarding the fate of the legislation.
“They have been working for several weeks behind the scenes at a senior level within the department to determine what the actual facts are and what the likelihood is of this bill becoming law,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The source said the diplomatic goal was to strike a forceful tone that stopped short of shaming President Museveni, who has yet to take an official stand on the legislation, which was introduced by a lawmaker in his own party, member of parliament David Bahati.
“They are trying to proceed in a way that gives them some private leverage but also acknowledges that Secretary Clinton has an obligation to speak out on human rights issues in her capacity as our top international diplomat,” said the source. “It's been a delicate effort with inconclusive results.”
Elly Tebasoboke Katabira, a native Ugandan and president-elect of the International AIDS Society, said that if President Museveni denounces the measure, it could ultimately kill the legislation.
“Remember, it was written by a person from his own party,” explained Katabira, “so that person would be very reluctant to push something that was not acceptable to the president.”
Katabira added that Clinton’s comments condemning homophobia were “extremely important” since attitudes in so many sub-Sahara African countries mirror those in Uganda.
“I wish what Secretary Clinton said could be made available to many leaders in our region, because then they would know that they don't have the support of other countries including the U.S.,” he said after the press conference.