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A More Comprehensive International Response to Gay Rights Violations is Needed

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In the last few weeks, the concept of aid has had a pretty tough time. Before the turn of the year, it could be argued that few knew, or even cared, that India received around a quarter of billion pounds per year from Britain. But now, with the intervention of emotive French competition and a snub to British industry, the issue of aid has been politicized, sensationalised, and suddenly faces the desperate need to justify itself.

The case for continuing to give aid to India is a strong one. As far as Indian commentators want to paint a picture of neo-colonialism, the numbers of Indians living in poverty - one third of the world's poor, or 480m people (46 percent of its population) - justify David Cameron's argument that the international community has a 'moral obligation' to help. The bilateral funding of £280m looks to support a wider multilateral effort through specific schemes in targeted areas, recently announced by Secretary of State for Development Andrew Mitchell as the three poorest Indian states. This aid may indeed be a 'peanut' in India's wider development spending, as their finance minister described it, but at least it is there, and at least it is working towards ensuring that fewer people are denied the human right to food.

A more complex cause for concern is the heightening of institutional homophobia in Uganda. Although an anti-homosexuality bill was shelved last year, shortly after a major gay rights activist, David Kato, was murdered with a hammer, it has recently been reintroduced for consideration. Threats of death have been excluded, but draconian sentences for 'serial offenders', activists, and complicit family members and landlords remain. Then, in the last few days, the Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo has stormed an LGBTI meeting forcing a leading activist, Kasha Jacqueline, into hiding.

Lokodo's latest aggression will certainly be condemned in London and Washington. Since 2008 Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have fervently asserted that gay rights are human rights. Along with Cameron, they have also supported UN OHCHR's landmark 2011 report on homosexuality and violence, which called for the worldwide decriminalization of gay rights and the abolishment of death penalties. Following the reintroduction of the Ugandan bill, British and American leaders reiterated a threat to cut aid to states restricting gay rights.

The issue of how the distribution of aid fits with gay rights is both complicated and comprehensive. While the Ugandan government has stated that the bill does not have executive support, homosexuality is still illegal in Uganda. A recent UN declaration on the protection of gay rights found 19 dissenting votes against 23 ayes, and homosexuality remains illegal in more than seventy-five countries - predominantly in Africa and the Middle East. In these countries, many of which receive aid, homosexuality is not a human rights but a cultural issue: a form of sin which depraves the sanctity of the state, or something simply not accepted as normal by many people.

The first of two fundamental questions is how far Western governments can, should or will determine the levels of aid by what recipient countries perceive as their own cultural values. Some in Uganda have reacted tersely to these 'lectures'. A presidential adviser accused Cameron of an 'ex-colonial mentality' and suggested a preaching US could 'go to hell'; a diocese bishop similarly stated that if Britain wants to withhold aid for the suffering of Uganda's cultural norms, then so be it.

As it stands, gay rights are not universally enshrined as human rights. While Nelson Mandela ensured that gay rights were embedded in the normal rights of the South African constitution, this is not a replicated pattern. Without a globally-accepted convention on gay rights, lecturing countries on their freedom record is akin to criticizing the Indians for their space programme; it is merely critiquing choices of foreign governments.

Second, one must ask whether the exigency of aid transcends principles of perceived, rather than enshrined, human rights. Is it right to ignore violations of principles that democracy holds dear in order to help the poorest and oppressed? The answer has to be yes. As various LGBTI groups in Uganda and Africa have pointed out, withholding aid harms LGBTI people it would otherwise help, and such actions could also demonize homosexuality further within local communities.

If countries wish to justify their convictions, then, we need an international system which reflects and enforces the rights of gays without depriving the needy of aid. An immediate solution is for Britain and others to give a greater proportion of their bilateral aid directly to communities rather than central governments, thereby precluding financial support for regimes they wish to criticize. Andrew Mitchell has iterated that this will be a major trend of future development policy.

But a wider, longer-term solution has to be the reformulation of the global principles under which aid functions. As the pattern of aid shifts towards more south-south relationships, we need to ensure international conventions encompass a more comprehensive definition of human rights. A non-binding declaration on gay rights has already been passed, but it is now time for the United Nations to officially consider gay rights amongst other human rights. Such a move would have the support of the US, the EU, and leading African countries like Rwanda and South Africa. With a framework establishing gay rights as a human right, the cultural norm argument would be undermined.

There is, however, a caveat. And that is teeth. International bite to enforce these beliefs, to uphold the preservation and promotion of gay rights. It has been suggested that such an international framework could be supported by trade sanctions for non-compliance, but sanctions only work if countries are prepared to give up trade agreements for principles. And when we consider gay rights, one wonders whether Britain would be prepared to lecture and threaten Saudi Arabia as they have done Uganda - a country where the death sentence for homosexuals is real, rather than a footnote in a former bill.

In the current state of diplomatic affairs, Britain may complain about Uganda's gay rights record and threaten some reduction in aid. Yet to be truly serious on aid within a wider concern for human rights, Britain and the US must consider the long-term international method of response and manoeuvre. This is going to be far more difficult and important than absorbing 'peanut' barbs from the parliament in New Delhi.