29 January 2010

Uganda: Continent's Govts Watch Anti-Gay Bill Debate

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For years, Uganda’s population has endured human rights violations at the hands of both government agents and rebel groups. Ugandans have been subjected to harassment, unjust imprisonment and censorship, as well as politically and ethnically-motivated killings.

The regimes of both Milton Obote and Idi Amin plunged the country into a state of perpetual fear. More recently, Ugandans in the north of the country have endured rapes, killings and kidnappings by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Against this backdrop, a bill was introduced in September that would institutionalize discrimination against those who are, or who are thought to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). The draft of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced by Parliamentarian David Bahati, a Ugandan politician with ties to anti-gay activists from the United States who were recently in Uganda to discuss the "threat" posed by homosexuality. It is believed that the discussion between these anti-gay American activists and elements within the Ugandan government regarding the threat of homosexuality may have brought Uganda’s simmering homophobia to its current boiling point.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill criminalizes any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex as well as the “promotion” of homosexuality, imposing a seven-year prison sentence for anyone providing protection or assistance to LGBT individuals. This measure would drastically threaten the valuable work of human rights activists, organizations and public health professionals operating in Uganda. The bill imposes a life sentence for engaging in “homosexual activity” and a death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality,” which would include sexual activity by LGBT people who are “serial offenders” and those who are HIV-positive.

The passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill could have ripple effects for the LGBT community globally. Ugandans living abroad, under the proposed bill, could face extradition and imprisonment if charged with being homosexual or in aiding homosexuals in Uganda. In various African countries, including Malawi and Nigeria, LGBT activists are in the midst of their own struggles over anti-gay legislation.

Governments in Africa and beyond are observing the debate in Uganda’s Parliament and the international reactions to the proposed legislation. If the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda is allowed to pass it could act as a catalyst for the introduction of new and more restrictive anti-gay legislation in other countries. Uganda’s proposed legislation could also translate into the sanctioning of anti-gay violence elsewhere and the silencing of LGBT activists in countries with poor human rights records.

Uganda is a country that has been traumatized by violence, witch-hunts and extrajudicial executions. In recent years, the harassment of Uganda’s LGBT community has increased, including the arrests of members of the LGBT community and the closure of radio stations that held debates on homosexuality in Uganda. The proposed bill would likely lead to intensified violence and harassment toward anyone thought to be homosexual.

The proposed bill purports to “nullify” international treaties that guarantee the human rights of LGBT people. The bill will also restrict LGBT individuals from accessing social and health services. In the past, Uganda has received international attention for its reduction of HIV/Aids rates. The bill threatens to undo this by calling for the fining and imprisoning of those who fail to report, within 24 hours, knowledge of anyone violating the law by engaging in homosexuality.

LGBT individuals seeking testing and treatment would, therefore, face persecution and would be unlikely to seek screening or care. As Uganda battles the HIV/Aids epidemic, cutting off a segment of the population from treatment could lead not only to growing rates of HIV infection, but also to an increase in Aids-related deaths.

Western governments and activists globally are calling for the proposed legislation to be withdrawn. In the United States, Congress is calling on President Obama to urge President Yoweri Museveni to stop the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have also publicly called on the Ugandan Parliament to withdraw the bill and repeal existing anti-gay legislation.

Uganda has only recently come through a period of tremendous violence and indiscriminate executions. The passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill could take the country backward to a time when individuals were singled out for political and social reasons for random arrest and execution.

It is therefore crucial that the bill be withdrawn, and that existing anti-gay laws that have fueled an escalation in violent attacks against and harassment of LGBT people in Uganda be reviewed. Threats to the human rights of some are ultimately threats to the human rights of all. The fundamental and inalienable rights of all Ugandans must be protected.

Msia Kibona Clark is the Uganda country specialist for Amnesty International USA and an assistant professor of Pan African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

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