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Quiet diplomacy faulted for Africa's anti-gay laws

BY ROBBIE COREY-BOULET AND RODNEY MUHUMUZA
ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAKAR, Senegal -- Last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni met in his office with a team of U.S.-based rights activists concerned about legislation that would impose life sentences for some homosexual acts. South African retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined them by phone, pointing out similarities between Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill and racist laws enforced under South Africa's former apartheid government.

Museveni made clear he had no plans to sign the bill, said Santiago Canton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, who attended the Jan. 18 meeting. "He specifically said this bill is a fascist bill," Canton recalled. "Those were the first words that came out of his mouth."

One month later, however, Museveni appears to have changed his mind, saying through a spokesman last week that he would sign the bill "to protect Ugandans from social deviants." Coming one month after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law his country's harsh anti-gay bill, which criminalizes same-sex marriage and activism, Museveni's new position highlights Western governments' apparent inability to temper governmental discrimination against gays in Africa.

The anti-gay bills are overwhelmingly supported by the general public in both Uganda and Nigeria, providing opportunities to win political points for two presidents eyeing re-election.

But international gay rights activists also blame donor countries, including the United States, which favor behind-the-scenes diplomacy intended to avoid a backlash that might come from more forceful engagement.

"Quiet diplomacy up to the final moment clearly has failed," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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