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After Uganda, a new global front for equalities?

1 March 2010

Below is an article from LCID member Steve Cockburn on Progress Online – see original post

As a petition is handed to the speaker of the Ugandan parliament today against an anti-gay bill what else can Britain do to stand up for LGBT rights across the globe?

Eight years ago I fell in love with a country that now threatens to imprison and even execute those that fall in love with another person.

In 2002 Uganda, a country emerging from a horrendous past, felt hopeful. It was the first African country to have slashed its HIV rate – an apparently invincible disease made beatable by good policy, social mobilisation and political will.

And since then, despite some serious political hiccups and an ongoing civil conflict, it has posted economic growth averaging seven per cent a year and made the eradication of extreme poverty look eminently doable.

Which makes the current battle over a proposed private member’s bill to imprison and even execute homosexuals all the more challenging, albeit sadly not rare.

In the struggle for the human rights of LGBT communities, Uganda is just one episode in a bigger story where 86 countries still criminalise consensual sexual relations between those of the same sex. 86 countries who criminalise love. Eight who make it punishable by death.

Obviously, these abuses matter first of all for the safety and dignity of those persecuted. The Gay Rights Uganda blog provides a distressing catalogue of offences, while a more personal blog by a gay Ugandan provides a more mundane, but just as powerful, human dimension.

But it matters for the broader cause of poverty reduction too. You won’t tackle an HIV epidemic by excluding the most vulnerable groups from accessing vital services. You won’t ensure good governance by failing to protect minorities from abuses of power. You won’t harness the potential of a population if you treat one tenth like they are sub-human.

But how do we go from moral outrage to effective action?

As individuals, we have options. We can stand alongside organisations in Uganda fighting for rights from within, where ultimately the long-term battle will be won. And we can support global campaigns, such as the petition launched by Avaaz, to shine a light on repression.

It can work. Already international pressure has led the bill to be reviewed, further pressure could have it shelved. Today, church leaders, human rights activists and HIV/AIDS service providers will present the Avaaz petition to key Ugandan legislators, signed by over 450,000 people across the world.

But relying on citizens’ campaigns alone won’t always be enough. So what can a progressive government do to protect the rights of those beyond its jurisdiction?

Theoretically, we should have tools. We have diplomatic and trading relationships with every one of the 86 countries in question, and most of these receive aid from the British taxpayer. Uganda itself gets £70 million a year.

But using these tools effectively and legitimately is far from easy. Private and public criticism from officials, world leaders and human rights bodies is important, but may lack teeth. Isolating countries from groups like the Commonwealth risks equating the cause of human rights with the dynamics of colonialism.

Withholding aid is an obvious and powerful option, and one that Sweden says it will use. Yet the problems are obvious too – it would be Uganda’s poor, not those preaching hate, who would suffer most. Redirecting aid outside national budgets is a less dangerous option, but still developmentally regressive. Supporting civil society groups financially and politically is a must.

The dilemmas are real and the apparent limits to one’s power are frustrating, but such a realisation has to become a clarion call for new thinking. If we want Labour to get real about its ethical foreign policy, we have to get serious about devising the means to achieve it.

I’m not quite sure what those tools will be, but I can imagine few more worthwhile projects than thinking up innovative ways to open up a new global front in the battle for equalities, and carve out a more progressive role for Britain in the world. And in the meantime, we need to stand by our friends in Uganda, and in the other 85 countries where to love is neither a joy nor a right, but a crime.

Support the Avaaz petition
Learn more about the Labour Campaign for International Development
Read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s ‘Programme for Promoting the Human Rights of LGBT People’

Steve Cockburn is an anti-poverty campaigner and member of the Labour Campaign for International Development.

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