On 21 March, Uganda’s parliament passed sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. It imposes extreme new penalties for same-sex relationships. Parliamentary speaker Annet Anita Among stated that the “bill passed in record time”.
Legislators amended significant portions of the original draft law, with all but one speaking against the bill. Homosexuality is already illegal in the conservative East African nation. As such, it was not immediately clear what new penalties had been agreed upon.
Life in prison, or death
MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo spoke to Agence France-Presse (AFP) about the bill. Odoi-Oywelowo belongs to president Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party, and spoke against the bill. He said that under the final version of the legislation, offenders would face life imprisonment or even the death penalty for “aggravated” offences.
The bill will go to president Museveni next. Crucially, he can choose to use his veto or sign it into law. The president has consistently signalled he does not view the issue as a priority. He added that he would prefer to maintain good relations with Western donors and investors.
Nevertheless, the legislation has broad public support in Uganda. The reaction from civil society has been muted after years of the erosion of civic space under Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In recent months, conspiracy theories accusing shadowy international forces of promoting homosexuality have gained traction on social media in Uganda.
Homophobic rhetoric also laced discussion of the bill in parliament. For instance, lawmakers conflated child sexual abuse with consensual activity between adults.
Museveni last week referred to gay people as “these deviants”:
Homosexuals are deviations from normal. Why? Is it by nature or nurture? We need to answer these questions.
We need a medical opinion on that. We shall discuss it thoroughly.
Analysts and foreign diplomats interpreted this latter maneuver as a delaying tactic. For example, Kristof Titeca – an expert on East African affairs at the University of Antwerp – told AFP:
Museveni has historically taken into account the damage of the bill to Uganda’s geopolitics, particularly in terms of relations with the West, and in terms of donor funding.
His suggestion to ask for a medical opinion can be understood in this context: a way to put off what is a deeply contentious political issue.
Arrests in Uganda
On 18 March, Uganda’s attorney general Kiryowa Kiwanuka told the parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill that existing colonial-era laws “adequately provided for an offence”.
Meanwhile, police said they had arrested six men on Friday 17 March for “practising homosexuality” in the southern lakeside town of Jinja. Then, another six men were arrested on the same charge on Sunday 19 March.
Uganda is notorious for intolerance of homosexuality. It was first criminalised under colonial-era laws. However, since its independence from Britain in 1962 there has never been a conviction for consensual same-sex activity.
In 2014, Ugandan lawmakers passed a bill that called for life in prison for people caught having gay sex. The legislation sparked international condemnation. Some Western nations froze or redirected millions of dollars of government aid in response. Later, a court struck down the law on a technicality.
Britain’s Africa minister Andrew Mitchell said he was “deeply disappointed” with the passage of the bill. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak’s special envoy on LGBTQ+ rights, Nicholas Herbert, warned that it risked increasing the “discrimination and persecution of people across Uganda”. Herbert added on Twitter:
While many countries, including a number on the African continent, are moving towards decriminalisation this is a deeply troubling step in the opposite direction.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined calls for the government to reconsider the legislation. On Twitter, he said that it would:
undermine fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The White House on Wednesday warned Uganda of possible economic “repercussions” if a law imposing severe new restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights takes effect. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said:
We would have to take a look at whether or not there might be repercussions that we would have to take, perhaps in an economic way, should this law actually get passed and enacted.
Kirby said implementation of the law remains a “big if,” but said Washington is “watching this real closely.” He added that financial repercussions:
would be really unfortunate because so much of the economic assistance that we provide is health assistance.
Amnesty International stated that the new law is “a grave assault” on LGBTQ+ people. Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, said:
This ambiguous, vaguely worded law even criminalizes those who ‘promote’ homosexuality or ‘attempt to commit the offence of homosexuality’. In reality, this deeply repressive legislation will institutionalize discrimination, hatred, and prejudice against LGBTI people, including those who are perceived to be LGBTI and block the legitimate work of civil society, public health professionals, and community leaders.
It went on:
Instead of criminalizing LGBTI people, Uganda should protect them by enacting laws and policies that align with the principles of equality and non-discrimination enshrined not only in Uganda’s Constitution, but also the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Furthermore, UN high commissioner for human rights Volker Turk also urged Museveni not to promulgate the bill into law:
The passing of this discriminatory bill -– probably among the worst of its kind in the world –- is a deeply troubling development,” he said in a statement.
If signed into law by the president, it will render lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Uganda criminals simply for existing, for being who they are. It could provide carte blanche for the systematic violation of nearly all of their human rights and serve to incite people against each other.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Javiramk16, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, resized to 770×403
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse