By Andrew Ruiz

Executive Summary

The purpose of this policy brief is to address the current International Human Rights Law violations of the Ugandan government against the gay community in Uganda. These violations include illegal detainment of homosexuals and their exclusion from HIV/AIDS health services and education.  This brief concludes that each interested actor must begin to form a stronger and more cohesive transnational advocacy network that places pressure on the Ugandan government to end its violations against the gay community.  Outlined within the brief are specific policy recommendations for each actor to implement in order to successfully develop a transnational advocacy network that is essential for the

Statement of Issue/Problem

It is estimated that there are approximately 500,000 practicing homosexuals in Uganda.  This minority, amongst a population of 27 million, has been the epicenter of several International Human Rights Laws (IHRL) violations perpetrated by the Ugandan government.  There have been multiple documented cases in which the Ugandan government has violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it has been party to since 1995, Article 9 (3).  Article 9 (3) states that “anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge…. and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.”  The Ugandan constitution specifies this “reasonable [amount of] time” to be no later than forty-eight hours under Article 23 4(b).   These laws have been have ignored by the government and its police force in several recent cases.  The violations against Oundo George and Kiiza Brenda, two homosexuals and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights defenders, are amongst the first reported cases of IRHL violations against the Ugandan gay community.   George and Brenda were arrested in the village of Nabweru, Wakiso district, outside the capital city Kampala on September 10th, and according to our reports were held for more than forty-eight hours without being brought before a court.  Quite obviously the detainment of these individuals stands in direct opposition to the requirements and procedures of Article 9 (3) of the ICCPR and Article 23 4(b) of the Ugandan constitution. This incident only begins to shed light on the extent of the violations that are perpetrated against the Ugandan gay community.

It has become clear that the illegal imprisonment of several homosexuals does not convey the full range of violations against the gay community.   Exclusion from public HIV/AIDS health services and education, based on discrimination of sexual preference and gender identity, is evident in government policy and its makers. This exclusion is a violation of Article 26 of the ICCPR, which calls for equality and non discrimination for all, under the law.  Despite Uganda’s glorified claims at equality and freedom from discrimination outlined in its constitution, the LGBT community’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS has been blatantly ignored by policy makers in Uganda . The recent comments made by Kihumuro Apuul, the Chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission, explicitly shows the exclusion of homosexuals from HIV/AIDS health services and education.  At an HIV/AIDS Implementers Meeting in Kampala, [Apuul] declared that “gays are one of the drivers of HIV in Uganda, but because of meager resources we cannot direct our programs at them at this time.” This statement is simply not supported by facts, as Uganda receives much aid from the United States for its HIV/AIDS prevention work as well as support from other United Nations member states. Rather his exclusion of the gay community in public policy has been supported by deep and long running prejudices.

The prejudices concerning sexuality that have been used to legitimize the violations against the gay community, ranging from illegal detainments to exclusion from HIV/AIDS health care and prevention, will be explored in order to address the current policies of interested actors and recommendations for further action.  I will briefly examine how colonial religious institutions and health concerns have played crucial roles in creating a false idea of African sexuality that has pervaded Ugandan policies.  In light of the colonial historical context and unsuccessful policies pursued by interested actors, I conclude that there are necessary changes in policy that must be implemented by each actor.  It is imperative that the interested actors create and sustain a transnational advocacy network through my policy recommendations, in order to bring an end to the violations against the Ugandan gay community.

History of LGBT Discrimination

Uganda, alongside Africa as a whole, has experienced numerous influences from the colonial-era that have shaped modern African thinking.  Certainly, the perception and prejudice of homosexuality has not escaped colonial influence.  An entire thesis could be written on this subject so I will refrain from expounding on different theories on the roots of Ugandan homophobia.  Instead, I will focus on a theory that I believe ties the current violations against homosexuals in Uganda to a history of colonial influence.  Marc Epprecht, author of Heterosexual Africa?, argues that understanding “how a falsely constrained notion of African sexuality was constructed” will help to deconstruct it as well.  The notion he is referring to and that I believe has legitimized Uganda’s human rights violations, is the persistent “stereotype of an exclusively heterosexual African sexuality”.  In other words, Epprecht argues that there exists a widely held belief that heterosexuality is the natural sexuality of Africans and that  homosexuality is therefore a foreign concept and a perverse one at that.   This perception of African sexuality leads to a view that homosexuality does not fit within an African society and therefore must be fought against “for the good of the society”, according to Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini.   This fight is the reason why homosexuals have been illegally detained and excluded from HIV/AIDS health services and education.

In order to deconstruct this fight and its motivations, let us begin to unfold how such a pervasive view of African sexuality began. The assumed heterosexuality  of Africans was evident in the work of colonial missionaries. This was most clear in the silence that prevailed concerning homosexual relationships within correspondence to their church supporters  Eppcrecht argues that the lack of obvious homosexual relationships could have been a ray of hope for missionaries desiring to align African sexuality with their own idea of civilized sexuality. In other words, secretive homosexual relations could be pushed under the rug in order qualm any unnatural behavior and contain its spread. This colonial age desire to contain homosexuality has much in common with the illegal practices of the Ugandan police today, as they arrest and detain homosexuals in an effort to keep their sexuality from spreading. But silence and containment were not the only ways that colonial missionaries enforced the idea of a heterosexual Africa, nor is it the only way that Uganda policy makers violate the rights of homosexuals.

Missionaries as well as Christian doctors also used the spread and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases to reinforce their construction of African sexuality.  Disease had become “a rhetorical crowbar” to redefine customary African practices including sexual acts.    Doctors claimed that infections indicated a “natural proclivity of Africans’ to unconstrained heterosexual activity.” These claims reinforced the assumption of a heterosexual African sexuality, and leave no room for the possibility that homosexual acts were spreading infections as well.   It is certainly clear that there existed a bias within the medical community that drove the treatment and understanding of sexually transmitted infections.  People engaging in homosexual acts were simply ignored and pushed under the assumed heterosexual identity created by colonial missionaries This bares a striking resemblance to the treatment of homosexuals in modern day Uganda, as they now seek medical care and education for their newly visible community and its health issues.

For various reasons, the colonial medical and missionary institutions drew serious conclusions on African sexuality that deemed homosexual acts as a rare and unnatural phenomena which posed little to no threat at all to public health.  These conclusions continue to thwart the recognition of the gay community by the Ugandan government as people entitled to the same rights as all Ugandans, including the rights to equality and freedom, protection from illegal detainment, and access to public health education and services.   With this in mind, a critique of current and past policies will ensue, as well as recommendations for further policies and action of involved actors in order that the gay community of Uganda begin to be receive the rights that it has been denied.

Critique of Existing Policy Options

There have been several interested actors, including the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, that have made attempts to end the violations in topic, with the hope of influencing policy change in Uganda.  Each actors’ individual policies and strategies have several advantages and disadvantages that need to be critiqued in order to find ways to better influence Uganda policy-makers in upholding International Human Rights Laws to end the violations.

Let us first begin by examining the policies put forth by two international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  With the rising number of cases of illegal detainment of homosexual Ugandan’s and their human rights defenders, both INGOs have pursued a strategy of publicly condemning the Ugandan governments actions and recommending policy changes.  Human Rights Watch has pursued such action through letter writing campaigns directed to Ugandan officials.  The letter written to Ugandan officials in August 2007 follows a common pattern of stating and denouncing specific violations as well as providing a framework on why and how the government should change its policy.  For example, the government is urged to “respect the provisions on equality and freedom from discrimination enshrined in its constitution (article 21(1)-(2)) and to comply with its international obligations as set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits discrimination in its articles 2 and 26).”  These recommendations are extremely helpful in showing the Ugandan government that its policies are not accepted in the eyes of the many powerful actors within the global community.

Pursuing letter writing campaigns is a good step to address Ugandan policies and violations, but there are limitations to the power of such campaigns. Letters lack any enforcement capabilities and only represent the ideals of actors.  State sovereignty clearly takes precedent over an INGO’s desire to see human rights laws enforced.  This disadvantage should be put into perspective, though by noting that although letters lack enforcement capabilities, they can play an important role in uniting the power of a transnational advocacy network.  According to Debra L. DeLaet, author of the Global Struggle for Human Rights, a TAN’s “political support for human rights can lead to pressure on states to implement human rights norms internally.” Letters add to the political support and power of a TAN in that they give legitimacy to domestic groups claiming that the state is violating their rights.  For that reason it is imperative that INGO’s, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, recognize their influence and continue to put pressure on Uganda’s government as they denounce and publicly condemn violations.

My represented organization, Amnesty, thanks supporters for sending appeals to the Ugandan government regarding the arrest of LGBT rights activists, but by no longer asking for more appeals to be sent they have taken a step in the wrong direction.  This inaction takes the pressure on the Ugandan government off the broader issue of the general treatment of and violations against the gay community as a whole, including their exclusion in HIV/AIDS aids education programs. They have missed an opportunity to continue calling for appeals addressing the full range of IHRL violations perpetrated against the gay community. I appeal to my colleagues at Amnesty International to pay attention to this misstep in policy and to heed my policy recommendations outlined in the following section of this policy brief.

Other actors besides INGOs have put forth policies in attempt to end the violations in topic.  Specifically, I want to examine a United Nations policy outlined in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health .  This report was intended to “examine how Sweden, especially the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), contributes to the realization of the right to the highest attainable standard of health in Uganda.”  In its recommendations to the international community as a whole, the report makes only one reference to making an effort to provide specific attention to sexual minorities.  There is a lack of encouragement for Sweden, as well as other UN member states, to pressure Uganda through political and economic leverage to focus on sexual minorities within policy frameworks. This is clearly a barrier to moving Uganda in the right direction as Uganda will continue to receive aid from Sweden, as well as other UN member states, without any pressure to change its policies in health education as well as illegal detainment of homosexuals. There is, however, a very important advantage to Sweden’s role and hand in Uganda’s policies to implement the right to health.  The UN recommends in its report that “[s]ida should…..extend training and capacity-building on human rights to Ugandan health policymakers and other health development partners in Uganda. ” This gives Sweden a chance to educate Uganda’s policy-makers on how vital it is to recognize the health needs of the gay community in order to continue in the fight against HIV/AIDS   It also presents an opportunity to enforce IHRL through the threat of losing foreign assistance in improving Uganda’s  public health. Therefore, using international aid as economic leverage can play a strategic role in pressuring and moving the Ugandan government toward a better respect of International Human Rights laws and better treatment of the gay community.  Let us progress and explore such roles that interested actors can and should pursue in order to engage in the transnational advocacy network that is building in order to end the violations in topic.

Policy Recommendations and Challenges of Implementation

Because this human rights problem has only recently come to public attention, there has been a lack of unified mobilization within the international community and domestic groups.  My policy recommendations addresses this problem and provide interested actors specific courses of action to take. My policies are also designed to meet the immediate needs of the gay community as well as long term recommendations that I believe are necessary to sustain a change in Uganda’s policies and society’s perception of the gay community.  In this framework each policy fits to form unified action amongst INGOs, domestic groups, and other states, in order to create a powerful TAN.  The long term recommendations described in this policy brief are modeled after the research and conclusions of Dr. Dela Attipoe. These recommendations include; increasing public education to remove social barriers driving homosexual practices underground,  educating the public on all forms of sexuality, reframing national policies to include gays as a vulnerable group and homosexuality as a potential mode of HIV transmission, and increased mobilization of resources to support NGOs working with gays.

To begin, let us focus on the policy recommendations for INGO.  I strongly recommend that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as any other interested INGO, begin to take steps at working hand in hand with Uganda’s domestic groups.  To accomplish this I recommend that all interested INGO actors begin mobilizing resources to support these specific domestic groups; Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and Ice Breakers.  Both domestic groups have shown strong desire to organize but need more resources and legitimacy to sustain campaigns against violations.  On a practical level, INGOs can see that progress will come from such collaboration as in the case of South Africa.  Epprecht cites the alliance between gay rights and AIDS activists as well as other social activists in South Africa that began to form powerful domestic NGOs, including the Treatment Action Campaign and the AIDS Law Project.  Most importantly, these groups made progress in the early 90s that secured “access to low- or no-cost antiretroviral drugs, promot[ed] research, [and] improv[ed] access to dignified health care.”  There are very tangible benefits, like those experienced in South Africa, that can be produced by unity amongst NGOs.

Through collaboration, I recommend that interested INGOs, specifically Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, begin to implement an education campaign, that provides training for health workers on how to properly manage homosexual related health conditions, beginning in populated cities moving out to smaller towns and villages.  In conjunction with this education program, a nation-wide study should be instituted in order to understand the impact that underground homosexuality is having on the spread of HIV/AIDS in Uganda, similar to the study conducted by Attipoe.  With this data, proper health promotion/education materials can be produced without the bias of current sexual health eduction curriculum that ignores the real impact of homosexual acts on the transmission of HIV/AIDS.  I strongly recommend that these policies of multilateral NGO cooperation be taken into serious consideration in order to overcome the stigmatization of homosexuality and assumed African heterosexuality, there in ending violations against the gay community.

As domestic and international NGOs work together on the ground, it is imperative that there is increased action taken by interested states.  I strongly recommend that the United States government consider reconsider its role in indirectly aiding the Ugandan government’s homophobic policies through its PEPFAR funding, and reexamine how it can could appropriately use the money as leverage to pursue changes in Ugandans’ policies.  Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch LGBT Rights program, alleges that President Museveni had received three million dollars from the U.S. government in order to promote abstinence and faithfulness programs. Long also addresses the funding of two faith-based organizations, run by Martin Ssempa, that have been known to condemn the use of condoms and has even set fire to them.  Ssempa also voiced his opinion to news outlets that “homosexuals should absolutely not be included in Uganda’s HIV/AIDS framework. It is a crime, and when you are trying to stamp out a crime you don’t include it in your programmes.” An organization that publicly condemns and burns condoms, claiming that they do not protect from HIV/AIDS should not be eligible to receive money from the U.S. government, according to Ambassador Randall L. Tobias, former U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.  Because it is constitutionally illegal for couples of the same sex to marry, abstinence-until-marriage policies, by definition, deny the sexualities of the LGBT community.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that the United States government, specifically the Congressional Caucus on Uganda, cut off all funding to organizations that promote discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity as well as those that promote abstinence-only policies in a manner that condemns the use of condoms all together.  I also recommend that the PEPFAR funds be redirected to organizations, such as SMUG and Ice Breakers, that are willing to address the health concerns of sexual minorities.  With funds from PEPFAR these fairly new domestic groups will be able to increase their awareness programs and begin treating the health issues of their own community.  This shift in funding and U.S. policy could potentially cause a backlash from the Ugandan government.  This is why it is imperative that the U.S. use PEPFAR funding as a means to encourage a shift in Ugandan policy as well.  With increased funding to $283.6 million in the FY 2008 being given to Uganda, the U.S. has a strong hand in Uganda’s overall health and therefore the ability to threaten decreased funding as long as violations continue.

I strongly urge that each interested actor addressed in this policy brief heed my recommendations in order to create and sustain a strong transnational advocacy network that will work to end the violations against the Ugandan gay community.  Every individual action taken by the interested actors will play a vital role in collaboration and joint effort to bring congruency in the fight against Uganda’s violations against the gay community through their homophobic policies.  It is absolutely necessary that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International begin to work hand in hand with domestic groups on the ground such as SMUG and Ice Breakers.  At the same time it is also just as important that the U.S. and Sweden begin to use their leverage in Uganda’s public health to pressure the government to change their policies and end the violations of illegal detainment and exclusion from HIV/AIDS health services and education.  The U.S. will also play a key role in aiding the domestic and international NGOs in their struggle to fund proper health education and services.  The joint effort that I recommend will escape the past of individualized and separated activism.  It is time that Uganda hears and listens to a unified voice shouting loud from all over the world, against its wrongful policies and egregious violations against its own gay community.  Please, lend your voice to this call and help put an end to these violations.


  1. Dear Andrew,

    I must applause your attempt to defend LGBT rights in Uganda. I agree with you – we should assume Uganda is a free country especially after 1995. But I must say it is so unkind of you to display pictures of a young girls – I guess is waiting for treatment at a health center, and an old woman with her children one seemingly paralysed. Are these people in the pictures gay or potential beneficiaries from gay benovolence of alms giving? It is a shame that you and those who claim to be LGBT and homosexuals do not appear in picture on the website but these helpless individuals. You may consider re-doing this action as some of them are personally known to us.

  2. Hi Sami! Just saw your comment. I am not sure what image you are referring to, as I did not pick any images to be displayed on the website. I am sorry if that offended you.

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