On Local Backlash to Foreign Human Rights Pressure

By Sarah Bush

A protester stands outside the Uganda High Commission in London. By Russell Shaw Higgs.
A protester stands outside the Uganda High Commission in London. By Russell Shaw Higgs.

This spring, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that criminalizes homosexuality. At the time, a number of commentators in the political science blogosphere provided insightful analysis into the potential international fallout of the law and how it reflects broader trends in the new “morality politics” in Africa. More recent conversations have focused on the likely consequences of donors’ aid cuts and other forms of sanctions, although Sweden has just resumed aid and other donors could do the same.

In this post, I want to talk about a different aspect of the news story: the potentially negative effects on local public opinion caused by international activists’ attempts to promote human rights.

When Museveni signed into law the anti-homosexuality bill, which he had initially seemed to oppose, he gave a speech filled with populist, nationalist rhetoric. Delivering his remarks from the presidential palace, he said, “Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country. I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose.” Where did that rhetoric come from?

According to Elizabeth Palchik Allen, writing at Foreign Policy, foreign LGBT activists played a direct, if unwitting, role in causing the law to be passed. In her assessment, “international action surrounding the bill seemed to have spawned an equal and opposite reaction: turning the legislation and its attendant homophobia into symbols of national self-determination – something that increasingly energized the populist bona fides of whichever politician or public figure happened to be championing the bill and its cause.” As Amanda Murdie noted, that interpretation is consistent with, among other things, Clifford Bob’s research on counter-movements on homosexuality at the United Nations.

Fears about the unintended negative consequences of activism around issues of human rights are not limited to the case of the anti-homosexuality law in Uganda. In the Arab world – a region where anti-American attitudes are pervasive – such fears commonly influence the strategies of both American policy makers and local activists. Indeed, worries about undue meddling by the United States and other outside powers have been one of the factors that have encouraged countries to restrict foreign non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) activities.

Yet the picture may not be entirely bleak. Amaney Jamal and I conducted a nationally representative survey in Jordan in order to explore some of these issues. In our survey, we included an experiment that randomly exposed some respondents to information about support for women’s political participation in Jordan on the part of a United States government-funded NGO. Keep in mind that Jordan is a country with high levels of anti-Americanism – only 14% of Jordanians held a favorable opinion of the United States in 2013 – and conservative attitudes about gender equality. We thought that the American endorsement of women’s political participation would have a negative effect on popular attitudes.

It didn’t, as we explain in an article that was recently published by International Studies Quarterly. Although it is always tricky to “prove” a null effect, we had a large sample and found that the null result did not depend on factors such as the beliefs respondents held about the United States. Instead, we found some evidence that domestic patterns of support and opposition to the Jordanian monarchy shaped citizens’ receptivity to the American policy endorsement. That finding is in line with research by Dan Corstange and Nikolay Marinov from Lebanon that found that statements by foreign actors with a partisan bent polarize domestic public opinion.

It remains to be seen whether the dynamics in those Middle Eastern countries extend to countries in Africa such as Uganda. It is surely the case that nationalist rhetoric like Museveni’s may hold populist appeal in many countries. But before we are too hard on human rights activists in the developing world, it may make sense think further about the conditions under which foreign pressure is likely to cause a local backlash – and specifically about how it plays into existing partisan dynamics overseas.

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