During the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, David Cameron said that countries that do not “adhere to proper human rights” risked losing their aid from the UK. Making specific reference to the persecution of homosexuals, he stated that “This is an issue where we are pushing for movement, we are prepared to put some money behind what we believe“.
This isn’t the first time the government has spoken out on this question – a few weeks earlier, the International Development secretary Andrew Mitchell, spoke along similar lines.
But is cutting aid the best way of promoting human rights? Many African LGBTI activists don’t think so, especially as far as gay rights are concerned. Various statements from activists made clear that they did not welcome the policy, stating that it would only add strength to those in Africa who argue that gay rights is a western concept. The dismissive response from the Ugandan government, which accused the UK of a bullying and colonialist attitude, suggest the activists have got it right. In any case, important as sexual rights are (and I believe they are very important), the suggestion that protecting them should be a condition for aid misunderstands the very purpose of aid. A lot of aid is given to improve health care and education, to provide security, and to reduce poverty, and all of these things also help to further human rights. Singling out civil and political rights, as Cameron does, shows that we’re still quite a long way from understanding civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as equally valuable, interdependent and indivisible – something that the human rights community has affirmed for some time.
Out of curiosity I asked DFID – on Twitter – what the policy actually was. They referred me to this page, which says “we only provide aid directly to governments once we are satisfied, based on robust assessments that… they share our own commitment to… respecting human rights… including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender [rights] and other international treaty obligations”.
This is more clear: the policy is not about any money going to a country, but about direct support to government. Nonetheless it is still quite rigid since it suggests that no country discriminating against LGBT people – or failing to protect their rights – will receive direct aid. This sets the bar pretty high: again, if countries need aid, one of the reasons is often that, economically speaking, they are struggling to fulfil international treaty obligations. Many direct aid recipients fail this test. I don’t necessarily think they should lose aid as a result but they should certainly not be supported in any area of policy that compromises any human rights, and donors such as DFID should, as activists have demanded, find ways of providing additional support (not via the government) to human rights organisations who are campaigning for change. It would be nice to see the UK government outlining a more nuanced policy reflecting all of these issues rather than resorting to the simplistic, unworkable soundbites we’ve been hearing.
In an additional twist, in the past week Minister for Africa Harry Bellingham, when confronted about the issue on a trip to the continent, said the UK would not be tying aid to gay rights, and went on to say the UK would “always be sensitive to local traditions”. So presumably, if homophobia or other human rights violations are traditional, they are OK? Is this the same as the cultural norms trap I discussed in my last post? Weren’t these things traditional in the UK not so long ago? Probably so, since most of the anti-sodomy laws that currently exist in Commonwealth countries were inherited from the British empire’s statute book anyway.
With thanks to @katesheill for pointing me to many of the quoted links & issues in this debate.