The Obama administration chastised one of its most favored world leaders Tuesday, expressing "surprise and concern" over reports that Liberia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning president was defending a law criminalizing gay acts.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's remarks come as the impoverished African country's legislature considers toughening homosexuality punishments to include jail time.
In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, Sirleaf was reported to have said, "We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve." On the law criminalizing homosexual acts, she said: "We like ourselves just the way we are."
Administration officials have lauded Sirleaf as Africa's first female leader, and Liberia has received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid since emerging from civil war last decade. But her comments are providing an early test of President Barack Obama's recent directive for officials to use foreign assistance and diplomacy to promote gay rights globally, even if the administration says it is not making foreign aid contingent on a nation's record.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. stood by its policy of aggressively promoting gay rights. But asked about Sirleaf's statements, just two months after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Liberia to attend Sirleaf's second inauguration, Nuland said the U.S. would be inquiring with Liberian officials to "find out whether the reporting is accurate and express some surprise and concern."
Nuland declined to specifically say how two bills on gays under consideration by Liberian lawmakers would affect U.S. assistance in the West African country, which was founded 165 years ago by freed American slaves. But she suggested that they could lead to a re-evaluation of certain programs.
The Obama administration has asked Congress for more than $211 million in aid for Liberia for 2012.
"I think if there were major pieces of legislation that discriminated against any group, we would have to take that into account in our relationship, and it would be a cause for concern," Nuland told reporters.
Sirleaf became an international symbol of women's empowerment when she became Africa's first elected female head of state in 2005, just two years after the end of the nation's disastrous 14-year civil war. Her popularity has continued to soar abroad, even as it plummeted at home due to endemic poverty and crippling unemployment. Days before last year's election, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, further underscoring the contrast between her image inside and outside Liberia.
For Sirleaf, carrying the mantle of gay rights wouldn't be a very popular position. In many places in Africa, homosexuality is about as taboo as incest and the cause of gay rights is largely seen as a form of Western cultural imperialism.
Nigeria's Senate has voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize gay marriage, gay advocacy groups and same-sex public displays of affection, with a possible 10 years in prison for those found guilty of organizing, operating or supporting gay clubs, organizations and meetings. In 2009, a Ugandan legislator introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians. The bill was reintroduced last month, though the author has said the capital punishment provision will be dropped.
Liberian law currently does not explicitly address homosexuality. "Voluntary sodomy" is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, but there have been no recent convictions, according to the most recent State Department human rights report.
But two new bills introduced into Liberia's legislature would make the country the latest on the African continent to punish homosexuality with possible jail time. One makes "same-sex sexual practices" a second-degree felony, punishable by up to five years imprisonment, while the other makes same-sex marriage a first-degree felony, with sentences ranging up to 10 years in prison.
Members of the underground gay and lesbian community say their security has worsened, and that they've recently been subjected to threats and violence.
Although Liberia's press secretary has stated flatly that the government "opposes gay rights," Sirleaf hadn't commented on the bills until this week.