Does the promotion of LGBTI human rights cause the politicization of International Development Partnerships?


In the last decade, a number of European donors, including the EU, has framed their development policy within a human rights-based approach. Donors have also increasingly been willing to sanction their partners for non-compliance with human rights. Recently, the promotion of LGBTI human rights have been subsumed in several donors’ development policies. The EU, for instance, adopted in 2013 Guidelines to promote and protect the enjoyment of all human rights by LGBTI persons.

The EU’s expansive LGBTI rights frame has, however, been politicized, both within Europe and in beneficiary states. EU heads of delegations have been expelled from the Gambia and Tanzania because they criticized the treatment of LGBTI persons in these countries, and aid has been cut back as a result. In a recent article we shed light on why and how politicization of LGBTI human rights promotion occurs within donor states and in partner countries.

Our findings add nuance to the debate on human rights promotion by showing that it is primarily not the validity of a universal LGBTI human rights norm that is politicized, but rather the way in which this norm is applied in a conditional strategy that causes politicization.


Politicization in beneficiary states

In beneficiary states, contestation of LGBTI human rights promotion is based primarily on grounds that it challenges the principle of state sovereignty. The more human rights issues are stringently applied in a conditional strategy, the more such rights norms are exposed to politicization. Postcolonial studies have argued that universal justice and principles developed in the Global North constitute a form of neo-colonial intervention in the Global South. Such efforts may in turn result in an outright rejection of LGBTI human rights among some actors in the Global south, where LGBTI human rights promotion is perceived as the imposition of ‘homocolonialism’.

Adding to this literature, we find a more nuanced applicatory contestation in partner states. Human rights activists from the Global South contest the practice of aid conditionality but also insert themselves as change agents aiming to reshape the policies of international norm promoters. For instance, a coalition of civil society organisations in Uganda managed to influence several donors on how to shape their response to a harshly anti-LGBTI bill that was passed in 2014. While Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark adopted aid-cuts immediately, civil society’s influence on Swedish and UK authorities contributed to shaping their responses in a way that would cause less harm to the LGBTI population on the ground in Uganda.

At the same time, when local human rights activists increasingly cooperate with Northern states, they play into the homophobe pretext of the Ugandan government and their supporters, which politicize the LGBTI human rights norm based on the norm itself.


Politicization in donor states

In donor countries, politicization occurs through the application of the LGBTI human rights norm. Domestic civil society groups and parliaments tend to call for an accountability-driven approach towards development partners in order to show to their constituents and voters that they are actively ‘doing something’. EU diplomats, on the other hand, often argue for behind-the-scenes political dialogue with partner authorities. And some member states have historically conditioned interests that may lead them to be more stringent in specific cases at the same time as the EU aims at generalized LGBTI rights policy prescriptions

Our research also shows that there is a marked difference between the positions of domestic audiences in member states despite their similar degree of influence, and also that such pressure is much less visible at the EU level. This has resulted in the Council of the EU taking deliberate steps to depoliticize aspects of LGBTI human rights promotion in response to its contestation, aiming to respond with more context-sensitive solutions. This conciliatory approach has been contested by the European Parliament but the EP’s contestation was not as effective as in member states. Hence, policies are significantly more affected by political pressure from constituents ‘at home’ in the member states, which corresponds to domestic development and LGBTI rights policy priorities.

In sum, our case study of EU-Uganda relations finds that while the application of aid conditionality based upon LGBTI rights depoliticizes development aid within the EU as it makes it seem more accountable to domestic audiences, it politicizes aid externally because of the pressure exerted. In this case, our results indicate that that the promotion of human rights norms is contextual and not necessarily universal – unlike the claims themselves.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article ‘The politicization of LGBTI human rights norms in the EU-Uganda development partnership’



Johanne Døhlie Saltnes is post-doctoral researcher at ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo. Her research focuses on EU development policy, rights-based approaches to development and EU-Africa relations.

Twitter: @johannesaltnes



Markus Thiel is associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University, Miami and director of FIU’s Jean Monnet Center of Excellence. Dr. Thiel’s research interests are the political sociology of the EU and European (Union) Politics more generally, as well as Nationalism & Identity Politics.