Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Only three months after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is being criticized for remarks she made about gay acts at a time when the country is considering strengthening punishments for homosexuality.

In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, reportedly said, “We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve,” continuing “we like ourselves just the way we are.”

These statements caused an uproar in the Obama administration, since the United States has given Liberia hundreds of millions of dollars in aid since the end of its 14-year civil war in 2006 and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton travelled to Liberia in January to attend Sirleaf's second inauguration. An article in the Associated Press pointed out that President Barack Obama recently told officials to use foreign assistance and diplomacy to promote gay rights globally. The Obama administration has asked Congress for more than $211 million in aid for Liberia for 2012.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the U.S. would be speaking with Liberian officials to “find out whether the reporting is accurate and express some surprise and concern.” Nuland did not say how two bills on homosexuality under consideration by Liberian law-makers would affect U.S. assistance to Liberia, but she suggested that they could lead to a re-evaluation of certain programs.

“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,” Nuland added.

Sirleaf is in a tough position. On the one hand, the U.S. holds the purse strings to hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, butthis is dependent on Liberia living up to certain human rights standards, including gay rights. On the other hand, most Liberians - like most of Africa - believe homosexuality is taboo and a form of Western cultural imperialism. Sirleaf has to decide whether she wants to offend the U.S.’ sensibilities or her own peoples'.

The situation brewing in Liberia is reminiscent of Uganda in 2009, when a legislator there introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians.

In December, President Obama issued a policy encouraging countries to stop criminalizing homosexual activity, although he didn’t specify any consequences for those who didn’t oblige. Secretary of State Clinton then gave a speech in Geneva stating that “gay rights are human rights.”

(Photo © The Nobel Foundation 2011)

(Frontpage Photo © Erik F. Brandsborg)