Cutting Foreign Aid Won’t Defeat Anti-Gay Laws in Africa and Latin America


Commentary: Human rights courts and commissions are the best tools to diminish violence and strengthen LGBT rights.

MuseveniBOGOTA — Will cuts to foreign aid as a response to anti-gay laws help the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Africa? The conventional wisdom seems to say “yes.”

Recent legislation in Uganda, which imposes a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality” and criminalizes any promotion of homosexuality, has been rightly condemned as a violation of the fundamental equality and dignity of LGBT people.

In response, a number of Western countries, including Norway, Denmark and Sweden, have withdrawn foreign assistance, and the World Bank froze a $90 million loan to Uganda.

These actions, while understandable, are misguided.

Condemnation by foreign governments, including the United States, is an important symbolic measure and can help delegitimize anti-gay laws. Yet cuts in foreign assistance can have the unintended effect of emboldening homophobic rhetoric that links aid and LGBT rights to neocolonial intervention.

This would further endanger the lives of LGBT citizens in these countries.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act has received broad support among Ugandans. Its author has said that any costs in foreign aid are “worth it.”
RedpepperMeanwhile, activists report an increase in arrests and harassment of LGBT people, and a similar bill in Nigeria has led to a rash of mob violence against gays and lesbians.

Foreign governments and international donors seeking to help should, instead, increase financial and technical support for African LGBT rights organizations and human rights institutions.

LGBT activists in many African states face highly restrictive and dangerous conditions that limit their ability advocate for reforms. In many cases, these laws not only discriminate against LGBT individuals but also criminalize or severely restrict public dissent and association around LGBT issues.

The burgeoning African system of human rights courts and commissions should be strengthened to provide an important and necessary tool for enhancing LGBT rights and activism in the region.

The experience of LGBT rights activism in another developing region — Latin America — offers insight into the roles regional human rights bodies can play.

In the past several years, advances in gay rights in Latin America have outpaced those in the United States and some European nations. Argentina and Uruguay, for instance, have full marriage equality, while Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia offer some form of legal protection for same-sex couples and families.

Violence and inequality persist, but in many national debates around LGBT rights, the Inter-American human rights system has been an important resource for gay rights activists.

IachrIndividuals and nongovernmental organizations can appeal directly to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which investigates and offers recommendations to remedy cases of human rights abuse.

Consequently, the quasi-judicial commission has been an active forum for documenting and publicizing human rights abuses.

In the past five years, the commission has held 17 public hearings related to gay rights, same-sex unions, and homophobic violence in the Americas.

Since February 2012, it has issued 31 news releases drawing national and international media attention to the plight of LGBT communities in member countries and across the region.

The commission has also visited countries to highlight the negative conditions for LGBT people there. And, as of February 1, the commission has a permanent office with a mandate to monitor human rights abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights only hears cases referred by the commission or from petitions by national governments, but its rulings are legally binding.

Most notably, in a 2012 case against Chile, the court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected categories under the American Convention on Human Rights. As a result, no domestic laws may be promulgated that restrict individual rights on these grounds.

The ruling has not only shaped the ongoing debate in Chile around marriage equality and same-sex families, but has also set binding precedent for national judges in member states facing same-sex marriage litigation.

The African regional human rights system might play a similar role in augmenting the work of LBGT rights activists in the region. Following the lead of its Inter-American organization, the African Commission could take a more active role as a public forum to highlight violence against LGBT people and publicly shame governments that fail to protect them.

Moreover, the commission could coordinate more closely with the tapestry of sub-regional African courts, such as the East African Court of Justice, that are increasingly asserting their jurisdiction to hear cases involving human rights violations.

To be sure, regional human rights systems are no panacea for ending human rights abuses against LGBT people. The process can be frustratingly slow, often taking years to reach a ruling.

These institutions lack strong enforcement powers, and some leaders openly defy their judgments. The African system in particular has faced charges of inefficiency, while the nascent African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has struggled to become fully operational.

Regional human rights institutions can provide crucial publicity, legitimacy and legal precedent for LGBT rights activists in the face of stifling national laws.

A strengthened African regional human rights system can bypass critiques of foreign intervention and create external pressure on national governments that bolsters the work of local activists. The best lesson from LGBT activism in the Inter-American system is that the amplified voices of citizens are often the most persuasive.

Ari Shaw is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia researching the impact of international law on LGBT activism. Mauricio Albarracín is a lawyer with Colombia Diversa, a national LGBT rights organization based in Bogotá.


  1. Continuum says

    Talk is cheap especially in these de facto African dictatorships.

    Hitting these countries in the pocketbook is the only language that they really understand.

    Freezing their bank accounts and cutting off all aid is the only effective action.

  2. DavidAz says

    Africa is NOT South America. Last I heard South American countries were not enforcing Sharia laws and draconian christianist edicts. Many of the African “nations” are still locked into tribal & clan politics. There is scant tolerance for any human rights protections that have evolved outside this mindset. Should the West support African civil judicial reform? YES! But without financial and international sanctions for wanton discrimination against helpless African LGBT? NO!

  3. Jay says

    The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Of course, we should work through human rights courts and commissions, but we should also end foreign aid to these countries. Most of them are corrupt to the core and respond mostly to bribes. We also need to punish American evangelicals who go to Africa and promote human rights abuses.

  4. Hey Darlin' says

    It’s curious that some of these countries grow to supposedly hate the nations supplying them with necessary funds. When we hear comments from their leaders abhorring “western” ideals in their development, then there needs to be monitoring of the leadership of these countries and the funds sent to them. The citizens definitely need our help but are the leaders being held accountable for their ideology?

    Aside from knowingly funding human rights violations are we not fearful of funding the very leaders that could turn on us if they despise “western” ideology so much? Without monitoring, how are we also sure we aren’t funding them to oppress neighboring nations as they do their own citizens?

  5. Kieran says

    This doesn’t have to be an either or situation. The civilized world should be using all tools available to protest barbaric homophobic laws in Africa.

    By all means, try human rights courts and commissions, but the foreign aid must be cut off to send an immediate message.

  6. says

    Alekseev has several rulings against Russia in the ECHR. They are ignored. Now Russia is positioning itself to be the leader of the world in traditional values. They will veto any attempts to get gay rights codified in any international agreements. Nice thought, but it’s unlikely to work globally.

  7. Strict Scrutiny says

    I’m in agreement with everyone else here. The plight of LGBT folks in Uganda cannot get any worse — the anti-gay laws are being enforced vigorously, and suspects face hideous punishments. I don’t believe the west should retreat from its values and continue supporting these despotic regimes which commit such horrible abuses.

    DavidAZ said it perfectly — Africa is not South America and the comparison utterly fails.

  8. Dback says

    So we should keep sending African nations–even virulently homophobic ones which may be imprisoning, torturing, or killing people–money and aid because, well, they’re in Africa and need help without any “strings” attached? Not buying it–you’re a nation, you violate human rights, there are generally consequences, and that’s true in South America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, etc. (Well, we sometimes turn a blind eye towards countries with oil…)

  9. Dan Cobb says

    There is a seed in Russians and Africans… that if you get power, you immediately become triumphalist and you behave like a dictator.
    These are primitive PRIMITIVE areas of the world. Let them take the 1,000 years or so they need to civilize… then re-engage with them.

  10. Derrick from Philly says

    Any strategy Gay folks in the West take should be guided by the wishes of Gays in Africa.

    Don’t tell other Gay people what is good for them.

    @DAN COBB (Rick),

    your racism is primitive.

  11. Kev C says

    The reason for cutting aid is a legal and moral one. The donor states are refusing to fund criminal and immoral actions. It has nothing to do with punishing or forcing change. It has everything to do with doing the right thing.

  12. Randy says

    Whether aid cuts have an effect is entirely up to the offending countries.

    There’s nothing “misguided” about declining to involve OUR countries in vicious bigotry. It’s always the right thing to do (and should have happened MUCH sooner and more completely).

  13. Daniel S. says

    This is a monstrously stupid post. It begins with a straw man, i.e., that cutting foreign aid is expected – by itself – to “defeat” anti-gay laws. No one has ever suggested that this would be the case. The point is that cutting aid is one component of increasing the real-world cost to specific regimes that pursue anti-gay genocidal policies as a way of boosting their domestic standing. Cutting aid is also a moral necessity for the donor countries, so that they will not be subsidizing the governmental machinery in the recipient countries that is used to implement the anti-gay policies.

    Even more stupid is the argument that cutting aid is “misguided” because it will embolden homophobia and create an anti-colonialist backlash. Of course, there isn’t a shred of evidence offered to support this assertion. And the authors then endorse the use of public condemnation by the donor countries as a response. So cutting aid emboldens homophobia but public condemnation doesn’t?
    Why should that be? And what evidence is there to support any of these assertions?

    Finally, the authors insist that the “best” way to deal with “violence” is to use human rights courts. But the authors then admit that there is no effective court in Africa, where Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon are located. And even if there were such a court, it would not be empowered to strike down the anti-gay laws themselves; the most it could do is deal with claims relating to extra-legal violence. And no human rights court is equipped to deal with thousands of individual acts of violence; it is not a substitute domestic criminal court.

    This piece is so casually and breezily ignorant, so utterly insensitive to the problem, that it is amazing that it could be published here.

  14. JJ says

    It makes perfect sense to withhold aid from a country that is actively sabotaging its effectiveness. HIV prevention especially can’t work in countries that criminalize a segment of the population that needs it. We can’t afford these adventures in stupidity when there are others who need the money just as much and aren’t going to throw it away.

  15. chika raphael christian says

    you all can make all the noise you want, cutting aid will have no effect on africa, why not face saudi arabia, russia and india? You and your so called human rights activists and governments are cowards and hypocrites.

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