Governments and human rights organisations around the world have expressed deep concerns following the Ugandan Parliament’s decision to pass an anti-LGBQ bill into law. The bill, described by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk as “the worst of its kind in the world,” criminalises not only same sex activity, but also identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, or even expressing support for LGBQ people.
The bill is yet to become law as it first needs to be approved by President Yoweri Museveni, but given his frequently expressed hostility towards LGBTQ+ people, it seems unlikely that he will hesitate to sign it into law.
Trans people are not directly targeted by the bill, but as they are often perceived as LGBQ, they will still be at risk. In the past, intersex people in the country have reported that they too have suffered human rights infringements due to homophobia.
In 2013, an international outcry followed the introduction of an Anti-Homosexuality Bill to Uganda’s Parliament. That bill, which would have made same sex sexual activity punishable by death, was eventually struck down by a domestic court, but the people behind it never stopped campaigning for similar legislation.
Under the new laws, people convicted of same sex sexual activity would face ten years in prison, while those convicted of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ (such as incidents involving minors, even if both parties are a similar age; or disabled people, even if they are recognised as mentally competent in other regards) could face the death penalty.
The laws would also criminalise journalists and media organisations for publishing or broadcasting material perceived as being supportive of LGBQ rights. Whilst this clashes with existing laws aimed at protecting media freedoms in the country, journalists are not confident that this would be sufficient to overturn such convictions.
Doctors and nurses could face penalties under the new laws for knowingly providing medical assistance to LGBQ people, and lawyers could be penalised for assisting them. Even family members would be required to turn in relatives whom they suspected were LGBQ.
International campaign places rights at risk
Fears recently expressed by Scottish people over the risk of the country going backwards on LGBQ rights can be more easily understood in light of an international movement against LGBQ rights. Florida has recently banned teachers from mentioning LGBTQ+ people in schools and is contemplating a bill which could see trans children forcibly removed from their families. Russia has banned all representation of LGBTQ+ people in arts and literature, and Hungary has banned education about LGBTQ+ issues. Israel’s governing coalition recently put forward a bill which would allow business owners to deny service to LGBTQ+ people on religious grounds.
This international movement is heavily funded by right wing US evangelicals, who have been highly active in Uganda over the past two decades. Abiding Truth Ministries’ Scott Lively addressed the Ugandan Parliament in 2009, where he claimed that homosexuality was a western ‘disease’ being spread to Africans. In fact, historians have repeatedly noted that there were almost no anti-gay laws in Africa until the colonial period, and that it is in fact homophobia which was imported from Europe.
This discourse has been framed as placing Christians and LGBTQ+ people at odds, but in fact many LGBTQ+ people are themselves Christian and many other Christian people support their rights – to the extent that Uganda’s Anglican Church split from the Anglican communion because the latter resisted anti-LGBTQ+ narratives. This January, the Pope also spoke out on the issue, saying “being homosexual isn’t a crime”.
Legislation condemned around the world
Following the passing of the new Ugandan laws, US White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described the Biden Administration as having “grave concerns” and said “The bill is one of the most extreme anti-LGBTQI+ laws in the world. Human rights are universal. No one should be attacked, imprisoned, or killed simply because of who they are or whom they love.” Meanwhile, German LGBTQI+ Equality Commissioner Sven Lehmann described the legislation as a “declaration of war on queer people”.
“The criminalisation of homosexuality is contrary to international human rights law” noted the European Union’s diplomatic service in a statement on Wednesday. “The EU is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances.”
Particular fears have been expressed on the impact the laws could have on efforts to fight HIV and AIDS in Uganda. In recent years, infection rates there have dropped faster than in any other country, but the disease still killed 17,000 people in 2021, and with many unable to afford anti-retroviral therapy, it is much more dangerous than in places like Scotland.
“The institutionalisation of discrimination and stigma will further push vulnerable communities away from life-saving health services. Research in sub-Saharan Africa shows that in countries which criminalize homosexuality HIV prevalence is five times higher among men who have sex with men than it is in countries without such laws.” said UNAIDS East and Southern Africa Director Anne Githuku-Shongwe. “By undermining public health, this law will be bad for everyone.”
Last year saw advocacy organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) shut down following a raid and accusations that it was involved in child abuse – a common slur targeted at LGBTQ+ people. SMUG has now moved its headquarters outside Uganda and is requesting donations from people keen to help vulnerable individuals who remain there.