The Observer (Kampala)

3 July 2012

Uganda: Govt Is Using Gay Issue to Fight NGOs - Ssewanyana

interview

Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) is one of the NGOs that now face a threat of closure after Ethics and Integrity Minister Rev Simon Lokodo accused them of promoting homosexuality. PATIENCE AKUMU spoke to FHRI executive director, LIVINGSTONE SSEWANYANA, on why NGOs cannot stay away from gay rights. Ssewanyana maps the way forward for 'blacklisted' NGOs and explains why he believes this is more than a fight against homosexuality.

Are FHRI and other NGOs that Minister Lokodo named promoting homosexuality?

We are involved in minority rights issues. We are saying that all minorities, including homosexuals, deserve respect. Uganda has an obligation to preserve the rights of every citizen. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on all grounds -- as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICPR). Uganda signed the ICPR without any reservations. This means that it must respect all its provisions.

Perhaps government is furious because you are recruiting people into homosexuality.

We are not recruiting. We do not actively encourage people to become homosexuals.

But how can you promote a right to what is already illegal under the Penal Code Act?

The Penal code needs a lot of reform. It is our duty [as civil society] to campaign for reform. We are involved in other reforms, like the campaign to restore [presidential] term limits. The law generally needs to be reformed to promote non-discrimination.

The Constitution prohibits same-sex relationships, yet at the same time says that there shall not be discrimination based on colour, race, sex, religion or other factors. Such contradiction requires reform. The Constitution contains other contradictions. For example, it provides for the death penalty under Article 22, and then prohibits torture and inhuman degrading treatment under Article 44. We work to reform several areas of the law.

But for now, the law upholds the death penalty and prohibits homosexuality. Shouldn't you respect that?

We acknowledge that that is the law, but we are also saying that this law is in conflict with the Constitution. We are saying minorities deserve respect and must be defended. This is different from encouraging people from getting involved in same-sex relationships. Our duty is to defend all rights.

If NGOs are so confident that homosexuals have rights, why haven't they approached the Constitutional Court to iron out the contradictions and declare criminalising homosexuality unconstitutional?

We cannot do everything at the same time. Currently, we are challenging the death penalty, the offence of terrorism and pushing for electoral reforms. We have to take one step at a time.

Or perhaps you too realise that Uganda is not ready to embrace homosexuals. Is that why there is so much activism, but no NGO has taken this big step?

Right now, most NGOs are focusing on the Anti-Homosexuality bill and seeing that it is not passed. If it is passed, then definitely the only solution will be to go to the Constitutional Court. We cannot challenge a law unless it is passed.

Why don't you, in the meantime, challenge S.145 of the Penal Code for criminalising homosexuality?

The Penal Code is currently before the Law Reform Commission. They are studying it to see which aspect needs to be reviewed. We think the Penal Code is not a good area for petition right now.

One would think the two High Court decisions upholding the rights of homosexual people would give NGOs more confidence. Are you afraid of Minister Lokodo?

The courts, like us, have looked at it through the perspective of the right not to be discriminated against -- not through the homosexuality perspective. The issue of homosexuality was not directly brought before court. NGOs should go ahead and defend rights in spite of political threats. We are ready to challenge [threats] before Parliament, before the citizens and, if need be, before the Constitutional Court.

The Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, has stated that homosexuals will never be accepted in Uganda. With the Anti-Homosexuality bill set to be debated in the House she heads, are you really not fighting a losing battle?

Kadaga, like any other person, is entitled to her views. The Anti-Homosexuality bill needs to come before the House and be debated, and all views and opinions heard. The difficult part would be for her to decide whether she wants to promote discrimination. She has to uphold the Constitution and the ICCPR.

These have non-discrimination clauses. It will do well to remember that Uganda signed the ICCPR without reservations.

Is there a legitimate reason for government to deregister NGOs? Surely, these arguments must hold some water.

I do not think there is a legitimate reason for government to deregister NGOs. The larger issue is whether Ugandans are entitled to freedom of expression, association and assembly. It's about whether whoever wants to participate in governance issues must be registered. This issue of registration is contested. This is a broader democratic governance issue.

Are you saying this is a general attack on NGOs?

Of course, of course! I do not think it is fair for government to say that because NGOs are involved in advocating for minority rights, they should be closed. NGOs must not be partisan, but they must, by all means, be political -- there is nothing in this country that is non-political.

If you want better food, better water, if you are fighting disease; all this is political. Besides, NGOs comprise individual citizens of Uganda. They have a right to monitor how their country is governed.

What place does the people's culture and religion have in the fight for the rights of minorities?

Culture, religion, morality, values; this is the turning point of the current debate on human rights [not just homosexuals' rights]. Societies have different value systems and religion has an important role to play. Christianity, for example, does not promote persecution. I don't know of any religion that does.

African culture promotes tolerance and is welcoming. It is a question of individual attitudes. People have argued that the African child cannot learn unless she or he is caned. Is this true?

The Bible says, "Spare the rod and spoil the child", but the government has outlawed corporal punishment in schools. Culture and religion preach that a woman has no value, but is this true? We have to interpret culture and religion positively. Besides, the Constitution provides that any culture or religion that contradicts it is void.

At the 1993 Vienna conference on human rights, states embraced the universality of rights. Anyone interpreting rights in the cultural relativist view with the intention of undermining them will not carry the day.

Would you still defend the rights of gay people if your own child was gay?

You know, we faced the same question when campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. Would I feel differently if it was my own relative murdered? In this struggle for human rights, we should be guided by reason rather than emotion.

If the question of emotion is not left out of the debate, then the entire human rights question will be defeated.

Again, we are not campaigning for homosexuality, but for minority rights. We are not advocating for people to get killed, or for women to become belligerent when we defend their rights; we are only defending human dignity and human rights because the Constitution says so.

Won't NGOs cower under so much pressure?

NGOs should do the right thing. If they are fighting for rights, then they must defend rights. We must educate people on the issue [homosexuality]. We should realise that some people are short, others tall, and others fat . . . Any government worth its value will respect the rights of all citizens.

The Ugandan government should get its priorities right. Ugandans want better service delivery, better quality life; we need a better economy. Pitted against these, homosexuality is a non-issue. But government is assessing non-issues and using them to deny people their rights. We should now focus on term limits, because their absence is causing political instability.

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