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Anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Ghana and Uganda feel the heat from sanctions

Sanctions pressure may have led to the weakening of Uganda's anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and prompted Ghana to delay a similar law

A ruling this month by Uganda’s Constitutional Court to water down a tough anti-LGBTQ+ law may have stemmed from concern to avoid further international sanctions over the controversial legislation, rights activists and analysts say.

The court’s decision to strike out several of the law’s most contentious clauses came weeks after a similar law passed by Ghana appeared to have hit a roadblock amid Finance Ministry warnings it could derail $3.8 billion in international aid.

Steven Kabuye, a Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist, said the court’s April 3 ruling appeared aimed at appeasing international donors who had raised particular objections about the affected clauses on the grounds that they created barriers to health services such as HIV/AIDS care.

“Most of these donors came out openly and said they won’t fund the (health) sector unless it’s inclusive,” Kabuye told Context by phone from Canada, where he has been living since he was stabbed in a homophobic attack in Uganda earlier this year.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act was enacted in May 2023, imposing the death penalty for “serial offenders” and up to 20 years in prison for the “promotion of homosexuality” – be it publishing pro-LGBTQ+ material or providing financial support to LGBTQ+ rights groups.

The United States and the World Bank responded by imposing sanctions on the East African country.

But this month’s ruling struck down two of the law’s most controversial measures – the death penalty for anyone who transmits a terminal illness, such as HIV/AIDS, through gay sex, and a “duty to report” suspected homosexual acts to the police.

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Major HIV/AIDS donors including UNAIDS had warned that the “duty to report” clause could have required health professionals to report LGBTQ+ patients – putting progress on fighting the disease in “grave jeopardy”.

Uganda’s health sector is highly reliant on international funding. At the end of March, Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng told parliament 85% of healthcare funding came from foreign donors.

Asked about the suggestions that the court had been swayed by fears over the possible loss of such donors, a spokesperson for the Ugandan judiciary said “The decision (is) very clear, based on the law and objective principles of state policy”.

Critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni say judicial independence has significantly eroded during his long rule.

Uganda Human Rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo speaks to the press after the Constitutional Court upheld the anti-LGBTQ Law in Kampala, Uganda April 3, 2024. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

Uganda Human Rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo speaks to the press after the Constitutional Court upheld the anti-LGBTQ Law in Kampala, Uganda April 3, 2024. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

Sanctions backlash

Despite the watering down of the lawKabuye said the fact that many of its draconian measures remained in force showed sanctions – and the threat of more – had only been partially effective.

“The sanctions that have been put in place have not been enough to force Uganda to respect queer rights,” he said.

The possibility of similar international sanctions did not stop lawmakers in Ghana from passing a tough anti-LGBTQ+ bill in February.

But President Nana Akufo-Addo has not yet signed the legislation into law and said last month the West African country would not backslide on its human rights record.

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At the same time, the Finance Ministry said the bill could lead to a loss of $3.8 billion in World Bank financing over the next five to six years if it became law, derailing a $3 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Akufo-Addo has not spoken publicly about the bill’s potential economic impact, and a senior presidency official has said it should not be passed to the president for assent until two legal challenges against it are settled.

The risk of economic sanctions is probably what stopped Akufo-Addo from immediately signing the bill into law, said Patrick Asuming, an Accra-based economist and senior lecturer at the University of Ghana Business School.

“Usually, the threat of sanctions works more than the sanctions themselves,” Asuming said.

International sanctions on African countries are controversial, with critics saying they can backfire by hitting the poor and causing public anger over Western meddling in a nation’s affairs.

When the World Bank halted new funding to Uganda in August, Museveni responded in a defiant tone.

“It is … unfortunate that the World Bank and other actors dare to want to coerce us into abandoning our faith, culture, principles and sovereignty, using money. They really underestimate all Africans,” he said.

Robert Amoafo, advocacy manager at LGBTQ+ rights group Pan Africa ILGA said “direct sanctions on key advocates” of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation were likely to be more effective than broad-based sanctions.

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They can be a tool for prompting deeper consideration by lawmakers, he said.

“It will let people start reflecting (over) whether (what) we are going to do is good or not,” Amoafo said.

They could also push African countries to seek closer economic ties with countries that are less concerned about anti-LGBTQ+ legislationAsuming said.

The memo from Ghana’s Finance Ministry advising the country’s president not to sign the anti-LGBTQ+ bill into law also recommended “engagement with conservative countries, including the Arab countries and China” to secure additional financing.

“It is clear that China is becoming a huge partner for African countries and that has completely changed the balance of how we see Western sanctions,” Asuming said.

“Obviously, the Chinese do not really impose conditions on anti-LGBTQ+ laws.”

This story is part of a series supported by HIVOS’s Free To Be Me programme.

(Reporting by Pelumi Salako in Lagos and Sadiya Ansari in London; Editing by Helen Popper)

By PELUMI SALAKO and SADIYA ANSARI

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