Wikileaks Cables Show US, Swedish Pressure Vs. Uganda Kill-the-Gays Bill

US State Department documents released by Wikileaks show how the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni responded to pressure from the US and Sweden in its handling of the proposed “kill-the-gays” legislation. | STATEHOUSE.GO.UG

Cables from the US Department of State that were recently published on Wikileaks suggest that the Ugandan government quickly capitulated to pressure from foreign governments and promised to let the “kill-the-gays” bill die in legislative committee.

“Asking his note takers to leave subsequent statements out of the Ministry's official record, [Ugandan State Minister for International Affairs Henry Okello Oryem] assured…[US Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero] that Cabinet is moving to quietly shelve the bill without agitating core members of the [National Resistance Movement] caucus,” a February 4, 2010 cable said in describing a January 29 meeting between the two diplomats. “He described the January 20 Cabinet meeting on the bill… as a ‘free for all’ that revealed the previously unknown positions of several Cabinet members. ‘Now we know who is who,’ said Oryem, ‘and how to deal with it. It will be worked out.’”

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, or the “kill-the-gays” bill as it came to be known, was introduced in the Ugandan National Assembly in October of 2009 by David Bahati, a member of the Assembly. Like Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, Bahati is a member of the National Resistance Movement party, which holds 263 seats in the 375-seat body. The legislation included harsh criminal penalties, including the death penalty, for homosexual acts.

The cables show that senior US diplomats repeatedly raised objections to the legislation with the Ugandan government. Sweden publicly threatened to cut off $50 million in aid if the bill became law and specifically informed the US of that warning.

“On December 3, a Swedish diplomat told [a US political officer] that Sweden will likely sever its assistance, stating that the bill would undercut Sweden’s HIV/ AIDS prevention strategy for Uganda,” read a December 8, 2009 cable. “The diplomat said the anti-homosexuality legislation constitutes a tipping point as Sweden is increasingly concerned about Uganda’s apparent unwillingness to seriously address health sector corruption.”

Jerry P. Lanier, then the US ambassador to Uganda, discussed the legislation with Sam Kutesa, Uganda’s foreign minister, on January 21, 2010.

“It appears that the Ugandan government is finally moving in the right direction –– albeit largely for the wrong reasons –– on the anti-homosexuality legislation and we believe that it is now important to limit our public statements on this issue to give Ugandan leaders some time to resolve this problem internally,” a January 28, 2010 cable on that meeting read.

While Bahati has been seen as the bill’s leading champion, a December 24, 2009 cable reveals that Nsaba Buturo, then the ethics minister in Museveni’s cabinet, was also a leading proponent.

“Bahati, Buturo, and particularly [Pastor Martin] Ssempa’s ability to channel popular anger over Uganda's socio-political failings into violent hatred of a previously unpopular but tolerated minority is chilling,” the cable read.

It was Buturo who raised the bill in the January 20, 2010 cabinet meeting that became a “free for all,” according to the January 28 cable.

“Kutesa confirmed local media reports that Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo raised the bill in Cabinet on January 20, and that some Cabinet members recommended scrapping the legislation while others advocated for a watered down version,” the State Department cable read. “Kutesa reported that Cabinet decided to form a sub-committee chaired by the Attorney General to review the bill and formulate a government position. Kutesa said he believes Cabinet will ultimately let the bill ‘die a natural death’ in Parliament.”

Other cables reveal more about other players. While a December 10, 2009 position paper from the Vatican that was read at the United Nations was interpreted by some in the gay community as commenting on the Ugandan bill when it opposed “all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation,” a December 16, 2009 cable suggests the Vatican’s position on the Uganda bill was unclear, at best.

That cable describes a meeting on that date between Miguel H. Diaz, the US ambassador to the Vatican, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s secretary for Relations with States. Diaz asked “the Vatican to weigh in with the Ugandan Episcopal Conference.”

Mamberti took note of the US concerns, “but did not commit to contacting the Ugandan bishops about it. He said, however, that he was certain the bishops would not remain silent for long on such an important moral issue,” the cable read.

A story this past June in the Daily Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper, reported that the Uganda Joint Christian Council, an ecumenical body that includes Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Church members, asked that the legislation be passed.

The December 24, 2009 cable suggests that the Anglican Church of Uganda may have played a larger role in promoting the legislation than previously known. The cable describes a meeting on December 15 between Bahati and unidentified US Embassy political officers that was held, at Bahati’s request, at the Anglican Church’s offices “where Bahati said he was reviewing the legislation with Anglican Church leaders,” the cable read.

Embassy staff reported that upon their arrival, “A passing glimpse of the Church conference room revealed Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi and his AmCit international relations assistant, Alison Barfoot.”

Orombi was the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda at the time. Reverend Canon Barfoot is an American (AmCit) conservative who assisted him, and she remains active in the church there.

Emails asking about the Bahati meeting that were sent to Orombi’s Facebook page did not get a response.

In an email, Barfoot wrote, “I have checked my notes, but I don’t have any information from that meeting or recall specifics. I’m not aware that any substantive conversation even took place.”

Contradicting the June report in the Daily Monitor, she continued, “The position of the Church of Uganda is well known. The Church of Uganda has been sympathetic to the concerns behind the bill, but did not support the bill.”