Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

11 October 2007

Uganda: Rising Homophobia Threatens HIV Prevention

press release

New York — As Ugandan officials and the Ugandan media intensify attacks on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, the US government should condemn these threats, and clarify that it does not support using its HIV/AIDS funding to promote homophobia, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to US officials

"When the US funds abstinence-only programs in Uganda, it tells people that LGBT people's sexualities are dangerous and must be denied," said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "Supporting prejudice with cash is an approach with deadly consequences for all."

An August 16 press conference by a coalition of LGBT groups in Uganda that launched a campaign called "Let Us Live in Peace," has led to a month-long backlash in the country. Most recently, on September 9, the tabloid paper Red Pepper published a list of first names, workplaces and other identifying information of 39 alleged homosexuals, all men. Headlined "Homo Terror," the article promised to "name and shame top gays in the city."

Previously, Pastor Martin Ssempa, a prominent campaigner against both condom usage and homosexuality, had listed Ugandan LGBT rights activists by name on a website,posting pictures and contact information and calling them "homosexual promoters." Ssempa was the key organizer of an August 21 rally in Kampala, at which hundreds of demonstrators demanded government actions to punish LGBT people, calling homosexual conduct "a criminal act against the laws of nature."

According to the US State Department, Ssempa's Makerere Community Church received US funding as a 2004 sub-partner of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This $15 billion program, heavily promoted by the Bush administration, earmarks one-third of spending on prevention of sexual transmission of HIV for "abstinence and fidelity programs," some of which are based on so-called abstinence-only curricula developed in the United States. In a March 2005 report, Human Rights Watch documented how abstinence-only programs in Uganda suppress lifesaving information about condoms and safer sex, and convey that LGBT people's sexualities are immoral and that there is no "safer" way for them to have sex.

The US Congress Committee on International Relations, chaired at the time by Congressman Henry J. Hyde, brought Ssempa to testify in 2005 as an expert in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, and as a Special Representative to the First Lady of Uganda's Task Force on AIDS. Ssempa has also acted as representative and adviser of the office of First Lady Janet Museveni, another PEPFAR grantee.

"US politicians and pocketbooks underwrite hatred in Uganda," Long said. "The US has no business lending an aura of respectability to policies that undermine human rights and public health."

Meanwhile, Ugandan officials continued to threaten new persecution of LGBT people. On August 21, Radio One in Uganda announced that Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhindi had called for criminal prosecutions of lesbians and gays in Uganda. In an interview with the Ugandan newspaper Sunday Vision, Buturo said they were "considering changing the laws so that promotion [of homosexual conduct] itself becomes a crime" and to have "catalogues of people we think are involved in perpetuating the vice of homosexuality." He added, "homosexuality is totally unhealthy." Ugandan law punishes homosexual conduct with imprisonment up to life.

The government has censored attempts by LGBT people to speak in their own behalf. In late August, the Uganda Broadcasting Council - a state censorship board - suspended Gaetano Kaggwa, the presenter of Capital FM radio station, for interviewing a lesbian activist on air. The council alleged a violation of "minimum broadcasting standards" because the sexual-rights activist allegedly used "unacceptable language."

In October 2004 the Broadcasting Council had fined a radio station 1.8 million shillings (more than US$1000) for hosting a lesbian and two gay men on a talk show, where they protested against discrimination and called for repeal of sodomy laws. At the time newspaper pointed out that the council "is now in effect saying that ... [a]nyone arguing on FM radios that society should develop a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality is committing an offence."

Meanwhile, the Red Pepper threatened to name more lesbians and gays. In 2006, the paper had published a similar list with 45 names. Several men were threatened as a result. In 2002, the tabloid ran banner headlines and photographs about an alleged wedding between two women. Kampala police promptly arrested the women in question. Although they were freed when an attorney intervened, they were jailed again and held for several days, allegedly for their own safety, after a mob threatened them. A Ugandan pastor who had counseled them was later forced to leave the country.

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