Don’t Let Your Pride Get in the Way of Our Arms Sales, Jack!

Photograph Source: Tiomax80 – CC BY 2.0

At the end of May, just before Pride Month in the US began, Uganda enacted a law allowing for the death penalty for LGTBQ+ people. Uganda, already one of the 66 nations to criminalize LGTBQ+ people, became the 12th nation to set capital punishment for sexual and gender minorities. The US provides weapons and military assistance to 10 of those 12 countries, including Uganda.* Overall, the US provides weapons and military assistance to more than 85% of the nations that treat LGTBQ+ people as criminals. As the White HouseState Department and the Pentagon celebrated Pride Month, the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the US’ militarized foreign policy were exposed, a foreign policy that prioritizes the transactional needs of its overseas empire and weapons sales over human rights.

That the US says one thing and does another is no surprise. Two years ago, by cross-referencing the State Department-funded Freedom House’s list of “not free” nations with those nations receiving US arms sales and military assistance, I found that 74% of the countries listed by Freedom House received weapons, military aid and training from the Pentagon. Others, such as Stephen SemlerRich Whitney and David Swanson, have documented this relationship with dictators, military regimes, monarchies and autocracies. Of course, US partnerships with non-democratic and human rights-violating regimes were a foundation of the Cold War’s realpolitik policies.

US military support extends beyond non-democratic governments to countries perhaps defined as democracies, but that are, in reality, mass and systemic human rights violators. According to Front Line Defenders, of the 401 human rights workers murdered in 2022, 70% of them were killed in just five nations – Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines – all considered democracies and all recipients of US weapons and military assistance. Colombia, which accounted for 46% of human rights worker deaths in 2022, has received hundreds of millions of dollars of US military support annually, going back to the 1990s, even as Colombia’s human rights violations have been evident for decades.

review of the 66 nations that criminalize LGTBQ+ people shows 57 have received US weapons deliveries and military assistance in the last two years. This knowledge that 85% of the nations that oppress, jail and kill LGTBQ+ people have a military partnership with the US aligns systemically and historically with what we know about the reality of US foreign policy, despite insistent US assertions of a steadfast commitment to freedom, equality and human rights.

The Department of State proudly works to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world. We strongly oppose the “otherization” of LGBTQI+ persons to justify authoritarian power grabs and attacks on institutions of democracy globally. Democracies are stronger when they celebrate the full rights and value of all persons, without discrimination.

~ US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, June 1, 2023

Uganda joins Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen with the death penalty for its LGTBQ+ population. Of those countries, only Afghanistan and Iran do not receive US weapons or military assistance. If not for that Taliban victory in 2021, Iran would be the only nation with capital punishment for its LGTBQ+ people not on the Pentagon payroll. In the last two years, however, neighboring Pakistan was provided nearly $25 million in military assistance while accepting deliveries of hundreds of millions of dollars of US weapons.

Support for these anti-LGTBQ+ nations with the death penalty ranges from tens of millions to hundreds of billions of dollars. Mauritania, the smallest American vassal, received $1.5 million in weapons in the last two years. It is provided an annual $1 million stipend from the Pentagon and had 2,300 soldiers trained by American soldiers and contractors in 2021. Saudi Arabia, the largest US vassal, has hundreds of billions in weapons contracts with the US and sends its soldiers and airmen to the US to train. While Saudi Arabia doesn’t receive direct military assistance in the form other nations do, since 2015, the US has provided logistical, supply and intelligence support to allow the Saudis to wage their brutal and genocidal war in Yemen. That war keeps the internationally recognized government of Yemen in power – a government that has execution for LGTBQ+ people on its books.

Somalia, a country US troops have been in and out of my entire adult life, has a government protected by the US that authorizes the death penalty – to be fair, the insurgent al-Shabaab movement the Somali government is battling also threatens LGTBQ+ people with death. Nigeria, fighting a reactionary religious insurgency as well, has several states with the death penalty. Nigeria received more than $200 million in US weapons over the last two years and $58 million in military assistance over the previous five years. Last year, the Biden Administration authorized $1 billion in attack helicopters for Nigeria. Brunei, which I visited as a Marine during a port call in 2001, received more than $20 million in weapons over the last two years. Although not as much as the Saudis, the Qataris and UAE benefit from massive American weapons sales, including the most modern American F-35 and F-15 fighters. Qatar hosts the largest US air base in the Middle East, while UAE ports in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman are indispensable to US Navy operations.

Over the last two years, Uganda has received nearly $20 million in weapons from the US while taking in almost $85 million in military aid during the previous five years. Until 2019, the US trained several thousand Ugandan troops annually (data post-2019 may be incomplete or unreported). The US used thousands of Ugandan mercenaries and contractors in its wars; I clearly remember them in Iraq. Ugandan troops have been on the same side of the war as the US in Somalia for many years and have been integral. According to The Intercept and American University, the US has two bases in Uganda, one in Entebbe and one near Kampala. In compensation for participation in the US Global War on Terror and to support the larger US Africa Command mission, the US, through successive administrations, has deliberately ignored and failed to act on Uganda’s human rights abuses.

In 2014, in reaction to proposed anti-LGTBQ+ legislation in Uganda, President Obama announced cuts to economic and policing aid and canceled a planned military exercise. Regardless, in 2015, Uganda received $43.5 million in Pentagon aid and then $104 million in 2016. During those last two years in office, the Obama Administration also delivered $7 million worth of weapons and trained 7,000 Ugandan soldiers. Issues with Uganda and human rights continued, including the Ugandan military massacre of 160 civilians in 2016. According to the Congressional Research Service, Uganda received nearly $400 million in US military aid from 2011-2018 despite its well-known human rights violations.

President Biden pledged to cut off aid to countries that violate LGTBQ+ rights. His administration has warned Uganda about its human rights policies and laws, including in the immediate wake of Uganda’s enactment of the death penalty. However, in the month since the announcement of the death penalty, there have only been simple statements by the White House and the State Department and some nebulous visa restrictions.

The hypocrisy and dishonesty are galling. President Biden is famous for saying, “Show me where your money goes and I’ll show you your priorities.” The US’ priorities are empowering oppressive governments to preserve US hegemony, fortifying the Pentagon’s proxies and maximizing weapons sales. Fulfilling promises and commitments to protect human rights gets in the way of such things.

*Unless otherwise noted, data on arms sales, military assistance, and foreign training comes from the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor.


Matthew Hoh is a member of the advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans For Peace and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the Afghan War by the Obama Administration. He previously had been in Iraq with a State Department team and with the U.S. Marines. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy.