US threatens sanctions on Uganda over new anti-gay law

Uganda's harsh anti-gay law threatens trade deals, investment, health funding and US travel for anyone involved in serious human rights abuses or corruption, the US President says.


US President Joe Biden threatened trade and travel sanctions on Uganda on Monday after the government signed one of the world’s toughest anti-LGBTQ bills into law.

In a powerful indictment, Biden slammed the law as “a tragic violation of universal human rights”, and a stain on the Uganda’s collective conscience, that threatens economic growth.

“I join with people around the world—including many in Uganda—in calling for its immediate repeal. No one should have to live in constant fear for their life or being subjected to violence and discrimination. It is wrong.”

The introduction of the draconian law has led to a surge in reports of violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, stoking existential fear among its members, the president warned.

“Innocent Ugandans now fear going to hospitals, clinics, or other establishments to receive life-saving medical care lest they be targeted by hateful reprisals. Some have been evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs.  And the prospect of graver threats—including lengthy prison sentences, violence, abuse—threatens any number of Ugandans who want nothing more than to live their lives in safety and freedom.”

Washington also issued a stinging rebuke to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government, calling the the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 “the latest development in an alarming trend of human rights abuses and corruption in Uganda.”

The law has triggered a re-evaluation of US engagement in the country, including President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other forms of assistance and investments, the statement said.

“My Administration will also incorporate the impacts of the law into our review of Uganda’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). And we are considering additional steps, including the application of sanctions and restriction of entry into the United States against anyone involved in serious human rights abuses or corruption.

AGOA provides eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the US market for over 1,800 products. The US government also funds a significant part of the country’s health budget, which is now also in jeopardy.

The US invests nearly $1 billion annually in Uganda’s people, business, institutions, and military to advance their common agenda, the White House statement added.

The new law, enacted on Monday, imposes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”,  defined as engaging in sexual relations with HIV-positive people, children or other vulnerable people of the same gender. 

Those found to have transmitted terminal illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS through gay sex, as well as “serial offenders” of gay sexual acts can also be sentenced to death under the new law.

The new law also stipulates a life-sentence for performing same-sex sexual acts, a 20-year sentence for “promoting” homosexuality, and up to 7 years in prison for an attempt to “commit the offense of homosexuality.”

Deadly intolerance

The bill won broad popular support in Uganda where gay sex was already illegal.

More than 30 African countries outlaw homosexuality, with Mauritania, Somalia, and some states in Nigeria all imposing the death sentence as the maximum penalty. Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia punish same-sex relations with life-imprisonment as the maximum penalty. Malawi, Gambia and Kenya also have stiff jail sentences for up to 14 years.

The US President joined a chorus of voices from around the globe, including activists within Uganda itself, in calling for the immediate repeal of the new law.

An unlikely coalition including political radicals such as Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and major US corporations like Microsoft, MasterCard, HSBC, Google, and Meta came together to protest the Anti-Homosexuality Bill before it was passed into law.

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Shoshana Kedem

Shoshana Kedem is the Head of Digital at African Business.