Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill just won’t go away.
Last spring, an egregious proposal by a member of the ruling party to impose harsh penalties, including death, for homosexual acts was shelved for a second time when Uganda’s parliament recessed without debating it. This week, parliament moved to revive the measure.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda. The law would increase the maximum penalties, providing up to life imprisonment for homosexual acts and execution for so-called aggravated homosexuality -- repeated homosexual behavior, homosexual acts with a minor or a disabled person, and homosexual acts by anyone who is HIV-positive.
The original bill also made it punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment to fail to report homosexual behavior to authorities within 24 hours. In the last parliamentary session, a committee recommended scratching that provision, which would compromise health workers involved in AIDS control efforts. It’s not clear this time around whether the bill will go through the committee process anew; in any case, committee views are not binding.
The bill enjoys considerable support in Uganda, where homosexuality is widely abhorred, and may well pass if it comes to a parliamentary vote. President Yoweri Museveni would probably veto it, knowing that passage would alienate Uganda’s Western allies, on whom the country relies for development assistance.
For now, the circus around the draft law suits Museveni, who has been in power for 25 years. Domestically, it whips up support for his party, the National Resistance Movement. Internationally, it attracts opprobrium but also distracts critics from other Ugandan scandals for which Museveni bears more direct responsibility: the arrest of opposition figures, police brutality, corruption.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s gay population lives in fear. In January, prominent activist David Kato was killed after a newspaper published his photo, along with those of others it said were homosexuals, under the banner “Hang Them.” In addition to encouraging such violence, the current climate undercuts efforts to combat AIDS, discouraging gay men from seeking HIV prevention information and testing, and encouraging them to escape detection by also seeking relationships with women.
Museveni could put a stop to the drama around the bill, if he wanted to. This weekend Australia is hosting a summit meeting of heads of government of the Commonwealth, the countries of the former British Empire, of which Uganda is part. It is an opportunity for other members such as the U.K. and Canada to lean on him to stop playing politics with human rights.
Having successfully encouraged the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a study of discrimination and violence against gay people worldwide, South Africa, another Commonwealth member, might want to add that gay rights is not just a Western cause. India, which decriminalized homosexual conduct in 2009, could second that.
The U.S., which not only provides close to $500 million in aid to Uganda annually but increasingly is cooperating with it militarily, can also press Museveni on the other human rights issues in its file.
Many East Africans argue that homosexuality is alien to their society -- a Western import -- and that it’s no one’s business how they deal with a cultural issue. It’s a spurious argument. Even if it weren’t, this isn’t just a matter of human rights. Uganda’s actions reinforce one of the main drivers of the AIDS pandemic, which knows no national boundaries in Africa or elsewhere. That is everyone’s business.
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