Unintended Consequences

How clumsy foreign advocates unwittingly helped Uganda's anti-gay bill become law.

KAMPALA, Uganda — After a grueling four years, the struggle to stop the passage of Uganda's notorious anti-gay bill ended in defeat. On Monday, Feb. 24, the country's long-serving president, Yoweri Museveni, officially assented to the bill, signing it into law before a crowd of journalists and supporters in a ceremony at the presidential residence outside Kampala, the country's capital.

It wasn't supposed to end like this. Shortly after the bill was introduced back in 2009, Western activists and human rights groups sprang into action, supporting a beleaguered group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists within Uganda by pressuring their own governments in Washington, London, and elsewhere to speak out strongly and unequivocally against the bill's passage. And for a while, it seemed to be working. Shortly after the bill was tabled, Museveni was quoted as telling a group of parliamentarians (in his roundabout way) that he did not support the bill. "It's not just our internal politics.… It is a foreign-policy issue," he said, "and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles, but also takes into account our foreign-policy interests." Indeed, the fact that so many Western governments had cordial ties with the Ugandan government was an asset to those working to defeat the bill -- especially because Museveni has always had a keen interest in the world beyond Uganda's borders and Uganda's place within it.

Yet the United States and other Western governments never could quite seal the deal. In fact, international action surrounding the bill seemed to have spawned an equal and opposite reaction: turning the legislation and its attendant homophobia into symbols of national self-determination -- something that increasingly energized the populist bona fides of whichever politician or public figure happened to be championing the bill and its cause.

This reaction was certainly a driving force behind Parliament's decision to pass a modified version of the original bill this past December, despite the previously stated wishes of the president. In turn, it's likely the reaction was also behind the president's recent change of heart: Just prior to the signing of the bill on Monday, Museveni's spokesman said that the president "wants to sign it with the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda's independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation."

All this suggests a worrisome but underacknowledged truth: that in Uganda, international advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights ultimately became self-defeating. Certainly, many well-known voices in Kampala and elsewhere see this as being the case. As Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda posted on Facebook this week, "To prove his sovereignty, Museveni had to sign the Anti-Homosexuality bill into a law. The mere fact that Obama threatened Museveni publicly" -- referring to U.S. President Barack Obama's statement on Feb. 16 that the law would "complicate" U.S. relations with Uganda -- "is the very reason he chose to go ahead to sign the bill."

Now, with the law in place, advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights in Uganda will be severely constrained (though a consortium of constitutional and human rights lawyers are preparing to challenge the law in court). This new reality comes after years in which domestic LGBT rights supporters have been grateful for the international support they've received, but not always in agreement with the tone and substance of the foreign campaign to defeat the bill.

In many ways, then, Uganda offers a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of global LGBT activism. Although propelled by a worthy and welcome desire to defend LGBT people from discrimination, abuse, or worse, there is reason to worry that, if not more carefully considered, international advocacy might unintentionally create problems for the very communities it seeks to protect.


By now, much of the story of Uganda's odious Anti-Homosexuality Act is well known. In late 2009, a previously unknown first-term member of Parliament, David Bahati, introduced the legislation. The original draft contained a clause stipulating the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," a made-up designation that covered everything from statutory rape to any repeated sexual encounter between consenting same-sex adults. The bill drew immediate opprobrium from the United States and other Western countries; it was dubbed the "Kill the Gays" bill by Rachel Maddow and others, and some governments threatened to cut aid to Uganda if the legislation passed.

Yet the bill was always popular at home. Irregular polling means definitive statistics about public opinion of the bill were difficult to come by, but homophobia is widespread in Uganda. In 2012, Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Parliament, told the Associated Press that Ugandans were "demanding" the passage of the bill. "Who are we not to do what they have told us? These people should not be begging us," Kadaga said.

A number of factors made the bill appealing from the get-go. Religion, for instance, contributed mightily. For years, pastors in Uganda had been preaching that homosexuals are little more than pedophiles -- sexual "deviants" looking to abuse the country's children. Meanwhile, as documented by Jeff Sharlet in an eye-opening essay for Harper's in 2010, there were disturbing connections among American evangelicals, prominent conservative politicians in the United States, and some of the loudest champions of the anti-gay bill in Uganda, from the author of the bill to well-known clergymen like Pastor Martin Ssempa. An erstwhile friend of popular U.S. pastor Rick Warren, Ssempa had managed to steer tens of thousands of dollars in U.S. funds to his church in Uganda in order to promote abstinence-only sex education.

Needless to say, there were legitimate reasons that LGBT rights advocates in the United States and elsewhere were concerned about what was happening in Uganda, from the substance of the bill itself to the ways in which their fellow citizens, political representatives, and tax dollars may have been directly or indirectly implicated in supporting it. Yet it's also true that in the process of fighting the bill, foreign governments and activists arguably made a number of tactical errors. These errors contributed to the anti-Western populism that the bill soon began to thrive upon, while also placing domestic LGBT rights advocates in an uncomfortable position.

Take the issue of aid cuts, for instance. These were suggested at different times in recent years as consequences for Uganda if the bill were to become law, and cuts are currently under consideration again in the United States and throughout Western Europe because of this week's enactment. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, for example, have already vowed to stop $26 million in aid. Yet threats of cuts have never sat well in Uganda -- among both supporters and opponents of the bill. In 2011, for instance, John Nagenda, a presidential advisor who was one of the first public figures to offer an impassioned statement against the bill, recoiled at the notion. "Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state, and we are tired of being given these lectures by people," Nagenda told the BBC in 2011. He added that "this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying, 'You do this or I withdraw my aid' will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children."

Nagenda's comments point to the fact that Western leaders and activists' defense of LGBT rights in Uganda quickly became (and remain) pitted against claims about sovereignty and democracy -- the right of a government to make its own independent decisions about a country's laws. In response to early international criticism of the bill, for instance, Uganda's former minister of ethics and integrity, Nsaba Buturo, complained that "countries which are annoyed at our independence to enact our laws … should be helped to understand that the bill is going through the normal democratic process of debate." Kadaga, meanwhile, offered this retort to public criticism from John Baird, the foreign minister of Canada, during an Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Quebec in November 2012: "If homosexuality is a value for the people of Canada, they should not seek to force Uganda to embrace it. We are not a colony or a protectorate of Canada." 

These kinds of statements and the sentiments behind them have only fueled popular support for the bill. When an indignant Kadaga returned home from Canada, she was welcomed by hundreds of anti-gay activists at Uganda's main airport. Shortly thereafter, she promised to pass the bill as a "Christmas gift" to her fellow citizens. One year later, she did just that.

Activists within the LGBT community have also been troubled by aspects of international advocacy. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened Uganda (and any other country that received budget support from the United Kingdom) with aid cuts if it passed anti-gay laws. In response, LGBT rights defenders and organizations from across Africa -- including several in Uganda -- argued in an open letter that cuts would create "the real risk of a serious backlash against LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] people." (Similarly, Pepe Julian Onziema, a well-known Ugandan LGBT rights activist, said in an interview before the bill was signed, "To be honest with you, I really do not want aid cuts. I don't want to be blamed for all these things … poor maternal health, poor health generally" -- examples of things that aid money is meant to combat.)

The open letter also said that cuts would convey a troubling narrative: that "in a context of general human rights violations, where women are almost all vulnerable, or where health and food security are not guaranteed for anyone, singling out LGBTI issues emphasizes the idea that LGBTI rights are special rights and hierarchically more important than other rights."

Here, the signatories were talking about selectivity, or the problem that emerges when foreign governments -- often influenced by their constituencies -- engage in advocacy on behalf of one issue, while remaining publicly tepid about other issues with potentially life-or-death consequences. It's no secret that political space in Uganda has been closing over the past several years. Indeed, the Anti-Homosexuality Act is part of a larger pattern of stripping various groups of their human and civil rights. Yet whenever a violent crackdown on protesters occurs or a prominent politician is beaten up by security forces for running afoul of the ruling party, the standard foreign response is one of "concern." That's a far cry from the very loud, very public criticism meted out over the anti-gay bill -- criticism that has been most welcome from a moral perspective, but which has isolated the bill from a broader, troubling political context.

Unfortunately, whether it's the dilemma of democratic self-determination, the potential for backlash against LGBT people, or the problem of selectivity, it seems unlikely that meaningful introspection about what hasn't worked in international advocacy will occur in the West -- at least inside some governments and high-profile organizations. Take, for instance, a statement from Leslie Lefkow, the deputy director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, made soon after Museveni announced his decision to sign the bill into law. Responding to what she saw as a too-mild response from the White House, Lefkow said, "I don't think the U.S. statement so far has been strong enough. We think that it's very important that the U.S. and others send a very strong message that there will be consequences for signing this law."

It's not precisely clear what "consequences" Lefkow and others have in mind, though aid cuts likely top the list. But diplomatic shock-and-awe clearly hasn't worked in Uganda to date, and there's little reason to believe it will now.

To be sure, international human rights advocates and foreign governments should not disengage from the struggle to support and protect LGBT people in Uganda or elsewhere. But there is a demonstrated need for smarter tactics, better coordination between the global and domestic fronts, and recognition that the loudest, most visible shows of support can sometimes have unintended consequences.

On the day the bill was signed, Joe Oloka-Onyango, a scholar of constitutional and human rights law in Uganda and an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, agreed to an interview. He was reluctant to engage in too much Monday-morning quarterbacking. Yet when asked why Western advocates still appeared not to appreciate the ways in which their activism had affected the debate around the anti-gay bill, he offered a concise critique. "Human rights organizations are very traditional in the way in which they operate," he said, "which is in a kind of missionary fashion: 'We're here to save the world.' And sometimes, the world says, 'We don't want saving.'"

Photo: Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images


The $20 Million Case for Morocco

The kingdom is using an army of flacks to keep the illusion of peace and stability.

LAAYOUNE, Morocco — The peculiar form of Western Saharan hospitality, at least as practiced by the Moroccan government, is to watch visitors closely. Upon our arrival last winter to Laayoune, the capital of this disputed territory, as part of a delegation of six female journalists, the first gesture was two pairs of headlights behind us as we drove from the airport to our hotel. We'd been invited by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) to travel to Western Sahara to report on this often forgotten story.

Men in dark sunglasses and leather jackets were ready for our arrival at the hotel, posted on the corners across the street. As our group of six journalists and two IWMF staffers traveled around town in the days to come, the men stayed close, on motorbikes and in dark cars. These men, who looked like the security agents ubiquitous around the Middle East, usually pulled around a nearby corner as we rolled to a stop. When we looked their way, they made feeble attempts to duck around a corner or hide behind a car.

This kind of surveillance, we'd been warned, was standard for foreign visitors to Western Sahara. Even tourists report being followed and watched. We knew that journalists -- and anyone else who might meet with the local activists who seek independence from Morocco -- were subject to special scrutiny and sometimes expelled. Morocco claims Western Sahara as its own and has occupied the territory since 1976, when an indigenous independence movement led by the Algeria-funded Polisario Front began fighting Moroccan troops. Western Sahara is the only territory in Africa still on the United Nations' list of non-self-governing territories -- places that wait in limbo to be decolonized.

Today Western Sahara is one of the world's longest-running unresolved conflicts. Despite the ceasefire signed between Morocco and the Western Sahara liberation movement, called the Polisario, in 1991, the territory's status has to this day never been finally settled. With so many other conflicts today absorbing the international community's attention, the half-peace in Western Sahara means the issue has been relegated to the sidelines of international diplomacy.

As we experienced firsthand, Morocco does not just rely on anonymous security agents -- it also uses press flacks and de facto Washington lobbyists to burnish its image abroad. The day after we arrived, a representative of the Ministry of Communications in Rabat, Mohamed El Bour, showed up to orchestrate our meetings with local officials and focus our attention on Western Sahara's economic promise rather than its political strife. On our third day in Laayoune, he was joined by a woman in a dark suit, stilettos, and sunglasses.

She introduced herself as Fatima-Zohra Rachidi, also with the Ministry of Communications in Rabat. She was in Laayoune with another delegation and had been asked to join us at the last minute, she said in a flawless American accent. The line "I just happened to be here" was one we would also hear from many Rabat-based officials we encountered in Western Sahara, and one we came to doubt. "Let me know if you need anything," she added breezily.

Fatima remained with us the rest our time in Western Sahara, accompanying us to several of our meetings with officials and groups with close ties to the government. (She and the minders did not accompany us when we met opposition activists.) She was mostly quiet during meetings -- but was obviously listening closely, stepping in occasionally to re-translate a salient point about the government's position into English.

On our final day in the territory, as we sat in the departure lounge of the airport, we were summoned to the VIP lounge, where the Moroccan-appointed provincial governor lectured us about being fair in our coverage. And there was Fatima again: She stood among the local officials who flanked the governor, and, because she was there to help the government communicate, interrupted our translator to clarify a few points of the governor's monologue. When he was through, we asked for her card -- she had no more left, she said, but gave us a Gmail address with which to reach her in Rabat. 

We quickly discovered that Fatima was not only a government emissary, but an example of the close ties the kingdom maintains to Washington lobbying shops. After we left Western Sahara, we found Fatima's picture on the website of the Gabriel Company, a Washington lobbying firm headed by former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Edward Gabriel. On the Gabriel Company's website, she goes by the name Fatima-Zohra Kurtz.

The Gabriel Company has had the Moroccan government as a client since 2002, and during that time has been paid more than $3.7 million, according to records filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires foreign governments and the groups they hire to lobby on their behalf in the United States to file detailed reports of their lobbying activities with the Justice Department.

The Gabriel Company's fees are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the funds Morocco has lavished on lobbyists to stay on Washington's good side. Since 2007, the kingdom has employed nine U.S. lobbying firms, according to FARA records. Altogether, since 2007 the kingdom has spent roughly $20 million lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States on all issues, including Western Sahara. In 2009, it lobbied members of Congress, the executive branch and journalists more than any other Arab country -- more than twice as much as Egypt, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency.

Fatima accounted for the difference between what she told us was her surname, and what she goes by with the Gabriel Company, by saying she uses her maiden name, Rachidi, in Morocco and Kurtz, the name of her ex-husband, in the United States.

Whichever name she's using, her career provides a window into the interlocking network of nonprofits and lobbying firms that are tasked with boosting Morocco's image in Washington. In addition to what she called a consulting job with the Ministry of Communications and her vice presidency at the Gabriel Company, Fatima also works for other organizations funded by the kingdom. She heads the Moroccan American Cultural Center, which tries to build cultural ties between the United States and Morocco through events and is one of the three organizations under the umbrella of the Moroccan American Center. The Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), a registered Washington lobbying firm the Moroccan government relies on heavily, is another organization under the same umbrella. And while it's not listed on the website, a contract filed under FARA revealed that Fatima is also MACP's senior vice president for operations.

Morocco has paid more money to MACP than any other U.S. firm it has hired to influence lawmakers and journalists. According to filings made under FARA, the kingdom has paid more than $13.8 million to MACP since 2007 to contact journalists, congressmen, and State Department officials to advance Morocco's interests.

When contacted at the Gabriel Company office on K Street in Washington, Fatima vehemently denied that she has ever been a lobbyist for the two lobbying firms where she's an executive. She said that from 2003 to 2009, she was registered as a lobbyist with FARA, which requires people engaged in direct lobbying or "quasi political activities" on behalf of a foreign government to disclose the details of those activities. But she said she deregistered in 2009 at the advice of her lawyer, because she "did not participate in lobbying activities." But since U.S. law is vague about what qualifies as "quasi political activities," Fatima seems to operate in a legal gray area where what constitutes lobbying and what doesn't is hard to pinpoint.

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Since the start of the Arab Spring, Morocco has been keen to project an image of stability in a troubled region. As fellow North African countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have struggled to follow through on the promise of their revolutions, Morocco has pitched itself as a regional player able to offer the kind of security guarantees Europe and the United States are looking for.

According to FARA records, Western Sahara has consistently been a key topic in Morocco's lobbying of Washington. The kingdom's lobbyists have framed Morocco's struggle for control of the territory as another front in America's war on terror. In April 2013, MACP circulated an editorial by email arguing that the refugee camps in Algeria filled with Western Sahara citizens have "reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups," a development that should prompt "active diplomatic action from the United States."

A May 2012 PowerPoint presentation attached to the FARA records submitted by LeClairRyan, another Washington group lobbying for Morocco, warns darkly about the chaos that would follow Morocco's withdrawal from the territory.

"Morocco can never allow -- nor would any other country in its position allow -- [Western Sahara] to become an 'independent state,' because as such it would be incredibly weak, a failed state from Day One, and a magnet for terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking and other evils," the presentation warns.

Morocco's millions appear to have been effectively spent, as the United States has never pressured the kingdom to follow through on its pledge to hold a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. The 2014 appropriations bill recently passed by Congress mandates, for the first time, that some of the foreign aid to Morocco be used in Western Sahara. The bill specifically stipulates that the State Department develop a plan to "resolve the longstanding dispute over the Western Sahara, based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty." The MACP cheered this development in a press release.

The lack of public attention on Western Sahara may be one reason its lobbying is so successful: Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, who wrote a book about the conflict, said that because it is relatively unknown to the public, Moroccan lobbying can have a "disproportionate amount of influence" on attitudes in Washington.

"The reason [the U.S.-Moroccan alliance] hasn't been challenged, the reason it's not an issue, is because of the influence the lobby has on Congress," said Zunes.

Of course, the other side lobbies, too. Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Polisario and Western Sahara independence, also retains lobbyists in Washington -- but the funds it spends are dwarfed by Rabat. Between 2007 and 2013, Algeria spent roughly $2.4 million lobbying Capitol Hill, according to FARA -- or slightly more than 10 percent of the funds Morocco has spent. FARA records show that almost all meetings organized by Algiers-funded lobbyists are about Western Sahara. The Polisario hired Independent Diplomat to represent the group in Washington in 2008, and has paid it $42,433 since 2009.

Several congressional offices declined to talk about their meetings with lobbyists, and others did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

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So far, Morocco's image consultants seem to blur their association with U.S. lobbying firms. When we contacted Fatima in April, she said she saw no reason to mention her work at the Gabriel Company, the MACP, or MACC when we first met her because it was unrelated to her work in Western Sahara as a consultant for the Ministry of Communications. And though we found a contract she'd signed on behalf of MACP hiring the lobbying firm Western Hemisphere Strategies, headed by former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, to "positively affect relations between the United States and Morocco," she called her role purely administrative.

Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to government transparency, says anyone who attempts to shift the U.S. public debate on behalf of a foreign power should register as a lobbyist. "If you're trying to influence U.S. public opinion, and that would include talking to journalists, you're supposed to be registered [with FARA]," says Allison. "That includes if you're in a role presenting the Moroccan government's views, trying to create a favorable impression. The whole point of FARA is so that you can know who you're talking to, and there is no ambiguity. " (The Justice Department declined to comment on Fatima's unregistered status.)

However they get the job done, Morocco's lobbying efforts still appear capable of influencing American policy. The U.S. mission to the United Nations, for instance, recently proposed adding a human rights mandate to the U.N. mission in Western Sahara -- it is, after all, currently the only U.N. peacekeeping force without one. But the United States dropped the proposal after the government of Morocco and its allies lobbied against it -- and even canceled an annual joint military exercise for U.S. and Moroccan troops in Morocco. The U.S. then reverted to its longstanding position of posing no serious challenge to Morocco's position on Western Sahara.

That non-confrontational attitude looks set to continue. On Nov. 22, President Barack Obama received King Mohammed VI in the Oval Office -- and used the meeting to hug the kingdom even tighter. In a statement following the meeting, Obama and the king also reaffirmed their commitment to working together "to counter the threat of violent extremism in the region." The White House also praised Morocco's plan for the Western Sahara, which is widely rejected by Sahrawi activists, as "serious, realistic, and credible."

Meanwhile, as Morocco continues to spend millions on lobbyists and public relations efforts, the decades-long conflicts drags on with no end in sight.

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