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The Obama administration is facing criticism for failing to emphasize support for LGBT-rights during a historic gathering of African leaders in Washington this week.
Beginning Monday, nearly 50 African leaders convened for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the largest event an American president has ever held with African heads of state and government, but an emphasis on strengthening business ties persisted throughout the three-day conference.
“The future of Africa’s economy depends on tapping the full potential of its people. Respecting human rights and individual liberty is a fundamental building block of development and economic prosperity,” said Ty Cobb, director of Global Engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. “Thus far, we’ve seen little indication that the United States government and our nation’s corporate leadership seized the opportunity to underscore this critical message as it specifically relates to LGBT Africans.”
Indeed, heads of state from 32 of the 37 nations in Africa that criminalize LGBT relationships were invited to the summit, according to a report released by HRC and Human Rights First. Those leaders included Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who both signed anti-LGBT laws earlier this year and attended a state dinner at the White House Tuesday night where they were photographed with the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
Despite the presence of those leaders, support for LGBT-rights was only mentioned in passing during remarks delivered by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Some of the incredible cultures of some of our U.S. businesses that do a really good job promoting people and maintaining a meritocracy, and treating women equally, and treating people of different races and faiths and sexual orientations fairly and equally, and making sure that there are typical norms of how you deal with people in contracts and respect legal constraints — all those things I think can then take root in a country like Zimbabwe or any other country,” Obama said Tuesday during a U.S.-Africa business forum. “Hopefully, governments are encouraging that, not inhibiting that. They recognize that that’s how the world as a whole is increasingly moving in that direction.”
Speaking during a Monday forum on civil society, Kerry vowed that the U.S. would continue to call for support of LGBT-rights, declaring that respect for human rights is not just an American value, but a universal value and aspiration.
“We will continue to stand up and speak out for civil society organizations around the world and in Africa that face attacks, that push for less onerous regulations on their work, and that struggle with restrictions on what they can do, what they can say, where they can work, how they can obtain funding,” Kerry said. “And we will continue to stand up and speak for the rights of all persons with disabilities, and we will continue to stand up and speak out for LGBT activists who are working for the day when tolerance and understanding really do conquer hate. And we will do so because we know that countries are stronger and more stable when people are listened to and given shared power.”
Despite those remarks, LGBT-rights advocates say an opportunity was missed to speak directly about respect for human rights, particularly to leaders of countries with the some of the world’s worst records on LGBT rights, and to include those fighting for equality in discussions with those leaders.
“The Obama Administration has unequivocally demonstrated global leadership on the human rights of LGBT people, and the president will leave a legacy for his engagement with international civil society,” said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord in a statement. “That is why it is most disappointing that the White House chose to keep these issues literally on the margins in side events, and exclude civil society and human rights defenders from the same White House meetings corporate CEOs and investors were invited to.”
The summit comes less than a week after the Constitutional Court of Uganda overturned the African nation’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, ruling that the legislation was passed when parliament did not have a quorum. Some Ugandan leaders have announced they will again try to pass the legislation.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act further enhancing penalties against homosexuality, prompting international condemnation and criticism from Obama himself. Violators of the law faced a 14-year prison sentence for a second conviction, and up to life in prison for repeat offenses. A number of actions were taken against Uganda for enacting the legislation, including cuts in aid and restricting entry to the U.S. by Ugandan officials involved in anti-LGBT human rights abuses. A report published in June by Ugandan activists detailed an increase in violence against LGBT Ugandans as well as loses of property, homes and income.
Last month, the leaders of nineteen LGBT and human rights organizations signed a letter urging Obama to include civil society voices during meetings with African leaders, describing the summit as an “unprecedented opportunity.” The letter also stated the economic themes of the conference would provide an opportunity to emphasize how homophobia and transphobia hurts trade and investment in emerging markets. Nevertheless, advocates say an opportunity to speak to leaders who most need to hear such messages was missed.
“By not including leading African activists in today’s Presidential-level discussions about strengthening democracy, improving diplomacy, and boosting security, the White House is missing a momentous opportunity to raise the importance of protecting human rights to the overall joint goals of the leaders,” Gaylord continued. “While the organizers sought out these opportunities in robust side events dedicated to civil society and other issues of human rights, these events were not widely attended by the leaders who most need to hear these messages.”
Responding to those criticisms, Ned Price, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, emphasized the Obama administration’s commitment to LGBT rights abroad.
“The Obama Administration has long spoken out—including with our African partners—in support of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals,” Price said in a statement. “The Summit has provided an opportunity to continue these conversations.”