LGBT RIGHTS IN UGANDA: ADDRESSING A RETROGRESSIVE LAW

By Viet Tran
Contributing Writer

On August 1, the Constitutional Court of Uganda struck down a retrogressive anti-gay law that imposed a sentence of life imprisonment and criminalizes any form of sexual relations or the promotion of such relations. In a courtroom in Kampala, Uganda, five judges announced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill invalid because it had been passed during a parliamentary session that lacked quorum. Even though this is a small victory for the LGBT community in Uganda, the courts nullified the legislation in a manner that would allow a similar discriminating measure to be undertaken or for Parliament to pass the bill again.

Uganda did not always harbor this anti-gay sentiment. Under colonial law, homosexuality was illegal, but it wasn’t a political issue; rarely if ever, was someone arrested or prosecuted because people usually turned a blind eye to it. However, that atmosphere shifted completely in 2009 when American Christian evangelicals entered Ugandan communities, preaching of a ‘gay movement’ that claimed homosexuality was targeting Ugandan children in an attempt to destroy traditional values. The conservative visitors addressed the Ugandan Parliament with a compelling narrative that further fueled the doubt many Africans already have of the post-colonial west; they also stressed the importance of parental guidance in Uganda, which, with nearly 50 percent of its population under 14 years old, is the world’s most youthful nation. The movement gained even more momentum in February 2014, when President Museveni signed the bill into law. In response, many activists declared that, “President Museveni has legally murdered Ugandan gays.”

An Analysis of the Current Situation

As a response to the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the United States imposed several sanctions on Uganda. Cuts have been made to aid, funding, such as that for the construction of a health institute, stopped and even a scheduled military exercise was dropped. But will these economic sanctions be effective in stopping such discriminatory legislation or will they produce even more issues for Ugandan population? The implementation of international sanctions throughout history raises questions about their effectiveness. Dr. Kim Nossal from Queen’s University states that sanctions are legal instruments which are used to enforce law. However, Nossal suggests that these “legal instruments” merely reveal the imbalances of power in the contemporary world order. Repeatedly, the actions of the United Nations (UN) demonstrate a perpetual harm to the impoverished and the innocent, in a futile attempt to discipline their leaders. 



If we look back in history, there are various case studies depicting the ineffective use of international sanctions. The case in Libya highlights how imposed sanctions created medical complications for the civilian population. The air embargo blocked the evacuation of a large chronically ill population, and affected the delivery of medical supplies that were often damaged in transit or unable to reach Libya on time to be useful. Another example illustrating the inequities of sanctions is the 1990 embargo in Iraq. The economic sanction resulted in extreme food shortages, creating an unstable and unsustainable infrastructure that Iraq continues to struggle with to this day.



An Alternative Medium

Is there a more efficient way to address human rights violations in Uganda? I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. called “Freedom of Expression and LGBTI Rights in Africa.” Panelist Richard Lusimbo of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) was an honored guest and I recall his words suggesting the need to raise greater awareness; he said that “our actions are strong in Uganda, but what about our brothers and sisters in Nigeria – before you know they may be passing this discriminating legislation.” Furthermore, I had the privilege of speaking with Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, grandson of the last monarch of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie, who said that in order to tackle human rights issues, we need an “educated populace.” In both of these statements, implied is the need for more awareness, efficient communication and the institution of effective modes of education that can bring the said awareness to communities. There is a need to promote intelligent discourse and to create avenues to understand that LGBT rights are human rights.

When Ugandan politicians and members of Parliament sponsored the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, the roots of the legislation were sermons made by American Christian evangelists; they spoke of a “gay agenda” that threatened the core family values to which a majority of Ugandans strongly adhere. Clearly, the initiative to create this bill stemmed from a “discredited education” that socialized homosexuality as unacceptable. Instead of imposing international sanctions, an alternative, sustainable and progressive resolution could be the creation of liaisons who are able to provide spaces of open dialogue and representation to re-educate communities and re-socialize the dissented norm of homosexuality in Uganda.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act of 2014 to Congress in June with the hope of creating a LGBT State Department representative position; the position is meant to help coordinate LGBT policies for all bureaus of the U.S. State Department and in international programs of other federal agencies. The legislation currently has 24 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate and is supported by over 10 prominent human and civil rights NGOs.

Following the vote in favor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill earlier this year, Uganda’s LGBT and HIV activists mobilized to prevent mass discrimination and protect HIV service provisions throughout Uganda. However, UN Special Envoy Speciosa Wandira-Kazibe did not utilize her platform as a UN representative to address the condemnations occurring in Africa. With one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in the world and the infections occurring the most among MSMs (men who have sex with men), the lack of representation for this community emphasizes the necessity for a more competent and outspoken envoy. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay publicly stated that anti-gay legislation was a violation of a “host of fundamental human rights” that “will have a negative impact on efforts to prevent transmission and provide treatment for people living with HIV.” In one instance, when Wandira-Kazibwe was asked to address a prominent Ugandan seeking asylum – she asserted her inability to take action because there lay no proof that gay Ugandan activists were actually being persecuted. Wandira-Kazibwe’s failure to represent not only the HIV/AIDS community and its activists, but also the greater population of Africa, demonstrates her tacit compliance with Museveni’s anti-gay legislation. A recommendation for her termination would be appropriate seeing as she has failed to uphold the credibility and impartiality of the position, and lacks the ability to both promote greater awareness of the issue and protect the rights of her large African constituency.

We live in a generation where media pervades and education is the foundation to understanding one another. While the current invalidation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda provides a moment of relief, we have to understand that the animosity towards homosexuals is instilled within the nation’s people. Instead of imposing economic sanctions to repudiate the legislative discrimination, the United States can take a more sustainable approach by creating a foundation to educate the people on these issues. It must be internalized in social and international norms that LGBT rights are indeed human rights, not just to us or the people of Uganda, but to the rest of the world as well.

Photo by Viet Tran

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