Zambia Says U.S. Ambassador's Position 'No Longer Tenable' After He Criticized the Country's Gay Rights Record

Sanya Mansoor

After the U.S. Ambassador to Zambia criticized the country’s harsh record on gay rights, the Zambian government considered his position “no longer tenable,” — effectively requiring him to leave Zambia, according to the U.S. State Department.

The State Department said in a statement emailed to TIME that it was “dismayed by the Zambian government’s statement,” which they “consider to be the equivalent of a declaration that the Ambassador is Persona Non Grata.”

Ambassador Daniel Foote had said in November that he was “horrified” by a recent 15-year prison-sentence doled out to a gay couple, according to the Associated Press. (Zambia is one of several African countries that criminalizes same-sex sexual relations; legal terminology refers to the act as a crime “against the order of nature.”) The ambassador stressed that the couple’s relationship hurt no one, unlike the government’s corruption, according to the AP.

The agency did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation about whether Foote had been recalled from Zambia as a result of the government’s statement.

Earlier this month, Foote also issued a forceful public statement that called attention to Zambia’s record on gay rights and its impact on efforts to eradicate the country’s AIDS epidemic. “Discriminatory and homophobic laws, under the false flags of Christianity and culture, continue to kill innocent Zambians, many of whom were born with the virus,” Foote said.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu said on Sunday in a speech broadcast by state-owned television channel ZNBC that he had “complained officially to the American government” and was awaiting a response. He said about Foote: “We don’t want such people in our midst. We want him gone.”

Lungu later told Sky News on Monday, “we are saying no to homosexuality” and indicated that he was aware his stance could jeopardize U.S. aid to the country. “If that is how you are going to bring your aid, then I’m afraid the West can leave us alone in our poverty,” he said. But the president maintained his point of view, characterizing the ambassador’s comments as breaching the state’s sovereignty.

Foote took issue with the response he received for speaking out on the gay couple sentenced to prison. “I was shocked at the venom and hate directed at me and my country, largely in the name of ‘Christian’ values, by a small minority of Zambians,” he said.

The spokesperson for the state department also stressed the United States’ commitment to protecting gay rights in its statement. “The United States firmly opposes abuses against LGBTI persons,” the statement said. “Governments have an obligation to ensure that all people can freely enjoy the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled.”