Warning that pending legislation in the East African country of Uganda threatens the welfare of homosexual persons there, the U.S. State Department on Friday condemned the bill.
“The proposed legislation is a violation of basic, fundamental human rights,” said Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who hosted a discussion on the subject on December 18 at the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The proposed legislation has been of particular concern to both churches and homosexual activists, with several of the latter groups calling on prominent American clergymen to vocally oppose the legislation.
About two dozen non-governmental organizations, including the Institute on Religion and Democracy, were represented at the discussion. Among them were peace groups such as RESOLVE Uganda and homosexual advocacy organizations, such as the Council on Global Equality and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
The proposed Ugandan legislation would further increase penalties under already existing anti-sodomy laws. It includes capital punishment for some offenses. Some churches, including the large Anglican Church of Uganda, have spoken out against the death penalty and life imprisonment provisions in the bill. However, Carson made clear that the State Department was fighting in favor of the decriminalization of adult consensual sexual activities.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Carson said. “We’re not talking about minor modifications to bad legislation.”
Carson, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Uganda from 1991-1994, recently met with Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni for three hours. During that time he specifically registered concern about the legislation.
According to the State Department official, Museveni explained that the legislation was not officially sponsored by his party, but that he would seek to modify or stop it. The legislation was introduced by a member of the ruling party, but as a private member’s resolution.
In addition to speaking with President Museveni about the bill, Carson said that the U.S. embassy in Kampala has disseminated California Pastor Rick Warren’s video message in which he encourages Ugandan pastors to oppose the legislation. Warren, an evangelical megachurch pastor, is well known in East Africa, having formed partnerships with African churches to fights AIDS and other diseases.
Some churches have also expressed concerns about a provision in the legislation that they say requires pastors to report homosexuals in their congregations. They regard this requirement as an infringement upon pastoral confidentiality.
Carson said that the Department of State sees the legislation as criminalization of sexual behavior and as a serious issue.
“We will continue to engage until we get an outcome that we feel is appropriate,” Carson said.
During the briefing, a representative from the African Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) voiced his concern that the proposed legislation was planting “an element of fear” in anyone who thought about speaking in opposition to it. Carson replied by reiterating that the State Department has encouraged President Museveni to speak out on the issue.
“We want him to be as forceful speaking out on this issue as with HIV/AIDS,” Carson said.