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THE INDEX — December 16, 2009

International outrage continues to escalate over the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” currently being deliberated within the corridors of the Ugandan parliament. Among other things, the bill proposes the death penalty for what it calls “aggravated homosexuality” (or sexual assault), and stipulates prison time for adults who engage in consensual same-sex relationships. The bill also mandates jail sentences for individuals who knowingly fail to report to the Ugandan authorities someone believed to be gay or lesbian (something that would affect the work of journalists, health care providers, religious clergy, and the like). Over the past few weeks, the bill has received a great deal of local criticism within the Ugandan press and among civil society groups. This week, those groups got a promising jolt of support from the highest office in the United States. A recent press statement released by the White House said the “president strongly opposes efforts, such as the draft law pending in Uganda, that would criminalize homosexuality and move against the tide of history,” a sentiment echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a speech this Monday at Georgetown University. According to recent news reports abroad, the Ugandan government is starting to feel the pressure. The country’s minister of ethics and integrity, who originally endorsed the legislation, has now backtracked, saying that the Ugandan government has yet to take a final stance on the bill. This Wednesday, the government of Iran tested its first high-speed missile, a weapon capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. The missile launch (seen on video here) drew immediate and harsh condemnation from American and European governments, and strengthened the resolve of lawmakers in the United States to impose harsh fuel sanctions on the Iranian regime. (While Iran is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, it lacks the domestic refining capabilities necessary to meet the needs of its own consumption—thus making the nation highly dependent on petroleum imports and vulnerable to the economic impact of sanctions.) Today’s missile launch has also reinvigorated American and European discussions about the strategic importance of containing Iran’s drive for nuclear technology. According to U.S. National Security Spokesman Mike Hammer, “Such actions will increase the seriousness and resolve of the international community to hold Iran accountable for its continued defiance of its international obligations on its nuclear program." The Israeli government has yet to release a formal statement on the matter. Mahmoud Abbas will be the Palestinian president indefinitely after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) voted to extend his term and endorsed his refusal to negotiate with Israel unless it freezes settlement construction. The Palestinian Territories have been in a state of uncertainty since Abbas threatened to step down over the impasse with Israel and called off presidential and parliamentary elections, which were set for January. The extension will keep all members of parliament in office until elections are held for “the entire homeland”—meaning the West Bank (controlled by Fatah) and the Gaza Strip (controlled by Hamas). In addressing the PLO’s central council, which considers itself the sole representative of the Palestinian people, but is largely populated by Fatah supporters, Abbas criticized Hamas for its continued resistance to acceding to elections in Gaza. Hamas fired back at Abbas for being undemocratic as well, saying that the PLO vote was a “confiscation of democracy” and that its decisions were illegal. Abbas has also reportedly been urged to support Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief, as his eventual successor. “[Palestinian officials have] been meeting Abbas and telling him that [Dahlan] is the right choice,” a Palestinian source said. President Barack Obama sent a personal letter to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, after nuclear disarmament talks stalled once again. The president’s special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, delivered the letter, the details of which remain unclear. “The North Koreans have a choice: continued and further isolation or benefits for returning to the Six-Party Talks and dismantling their nuclear weapons program,” said a senior U.S. official, paraphrasing the the president's message. On Friday, North Korea hinted that it would resume talks with the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea following its year-long boycott, but it has yet to officially respond to the president’s letter. While sending a personal letter to Pyongyang is rare for a U.S. president, it is not without precedent: President George W. Bush sent one to Kim in December 2007 in an attempt to normalize relations with the isolated regime. As NATO presses Russia to increase its efforts in Afghanistan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said relations with NATO have reached a “new level” and noted that they should cooperate more closely to deter common threats. NATO Secretary General (and former Danish prime minister) Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is on a three-day visit to Russia, asked the Kremlin to increase military assistance to Afghanistan, including providing helicopters and pilot training for Afghan forces. So far, however, he has been unable to secure a pledge from Russian officials. “I do believe that it's essential for Russia that we succeed in Afghanistan," said Rasmussen after meeting President Medvedev in the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said President Medvedev would consider the request, and noted that Russia was "interested in the normalization of relations" with NATO. Relations between the Cold War adversaries have historically been tense and reached a nadir in August 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but have steadily improved since.

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