This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with additional support from the Puffin Foundation.
On March 24, just a month after Ugandan President Museveni signed a bill making homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison, Obama administration officials announced that they were increasing military aid to Uganda in its effort to quell rebel forces. Human rights groups criticized the move, arguing that the aid offered Museveni “legitimacy” after he supported a law that has been widely condemned for violating human rights. The same day, a State Department spokesperson quietly announced that the administration would also “demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda” by shifting $6.4 million in funding away from the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, whose actions, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said, “don’t reflect our values.” That may be the understatement of the year.
According to Ugandan AIDS activists, administration officials had been told a year and a half earlier that the Inter-Religious Council and other State Department grantees were actively promoting the antigay bill. In September 2012, several LGBT and AIDS advocates in Uganda were invited to a call with representatives from USAID, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of the US Global AIDS Coordinator and other US officials to discuss HIV service delivery to vulnerable communities. According to minutes taken by one of the participants and conversations with others on the call, the US officials were warned that several grantees and subcontractors through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, commonly referred to as PEPFAR, were visibly supporting the bill, undermining service delivery to men who have sex with men, or otherwise fomenting anti-gay activities. US officials asked the Ugandan activists to provide information on these actions by the US government’s so-called “implementing partners,” and told them that such evidence might lead to an investigation by US officials.
Clare Byarugaba and other Ugandan activists on the call submitted a detailed spreadsheet to State Department officials with the names of US grantees they suspected were engaged in anti-gay advocacy, including the Inter-Religious Council; several of the advocates said they had been pushing US officials to defund the group as far back as 2009.
The Inter-Religious Council, the recipient, under Obama, of a $30 million grant through PEPFAR, had taken out newspaper ads in February urging Museveni to sign the bill and calling “homosexuality and Lesbianism” “sinfulness that must be addressed at personal level [sic] through repentance.” The ad goes on to express “support for any effort against the spread and promotion of homosexuality and Lesbianism in Uganda” and call upon “all Ugandans to take appropriate measures to protect themselves, their families and children from this vice.”