Last month, the United States announced new sanctions against Uganda in response to human rights violations, targeted discrimination, and draconian criminal penalties.  Specifically, on June 19, the Obama administration quietly revealed plans to cancel a U.S. military-sponsored exercise in Uganda, to prevent entry into the United States by certain Ugandan officials, and to discontinue or divert funds earmarked for certain aide programs involving the Ugandan Police Force, Ministry of Health, and National Public Health Institute.

These new U.S. sanctions, however, were not in response to military aggression, nuclear proliferation, or an unpopular political regime.  Instead, they were a reaction to the Ugandan government’s escalation of state-sanctioned abuse against its gay population through the recently enacted Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA).

Among its other provisions, the AHA outlaws the promotion of homosexuality, requires Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities, and threatens “repeat” homosexuals with life in prison.  When the Ugandan Parliament passed the AHA at the end of last year, President Obama called it “an affront and danger to the gay community in Uganda” and cautioned that it would “complicate our valued relationship with” the country.  Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, however, refused to heed President Obama’s warnings and, in February of this year, signed the AHA into law.

According to Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a non-governmental organization in Uganda, the “AHA has given permission to a culture of extreme and violent homophobia whereby both state and non-state actors are free to persecute Uganda’s LGBTI people with impunity.”  A SMUG report found that the passage of the AHA resulted in a marked increase in harassment and maltreatment of Uganda’s homosexual population, including assaults, lynching, mob violence, arson, blackmail, lost jobs, arrests, evictions, and suicides.  In response to the persecution, some Ugandans have fled the country, seeking asylum in neighboring nations.

That the United States has used sanctions to effectuate foreign policy abroad is not new.  Instead, what makes the Uganda sanctions unique is that restrictions were imposed against a foreign government for actions that – at least on first impression – pose no threat to U.S. national security.

In a recent speech at the White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the United States “will continue to beat back barriers and speak out on behalf of the rights” of gay men and women “the world over.”  Ms. Rice explained that “we do this both because it’s our moral obligation, and because it’s in our national interests . . . [N]ations that protect human rights are more stable, more peaceful, and more prosperous partners for the United States.”

With this action against Uganda, the United States has backed up Ms. Rice’s claim and sent the clear message that the United States views gay rights as a human rights issue.  In so doing, the Obama Administration has demonstrated its willingness to use sanctions and other economic tools to shun, isolate, and even punish any country that denies basic rights to homosexuals.