Less than one month ago, on December 20, 2013, the Ugandan Parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill that, if signed by President Yoweri Museveni, will mean not only a critical step back in the protection of human rights for members of the LGBT community in Uganda, but also one for the country’s public health.
As an effort to protect “the traditional family” in Uganda from “Western lifestyle risks,” the bill was originally introduced back in 2009 by Parliament Member David Bahati. Among the punitive measures called for by the bill against the LGBT population was the death penalty for anyone determined guilty of “aggravated homosexuality,” which included “serial offenders” (anyone found to have had same-sex sexual relations more than once) and HIV-positive individuals having sex with an individual of the same sex, even when consensual and protected. While the text of the bill passed by the Ugandan Parliament last month has not yet been made available, it is said that the death penalty provision has been eliminated from the text. And yet, the current version imposes life sentences for “any form of penetration or sexual stimulation of a person of the same sex” and for “aggravated homosexuality.” It also “proposes years in prison for anyone who counsels or reaches out to homosexuals.” The measures would also not be limited to Ugandans. Foreigners would also be subject to it.
What was considered a dead bill following the international response back in 2009 and 2010, has come back with full force and apparently presented itself before the Parliament “with no advance warning.” The mere resurfacing and passage of the bill despite international pressure to do otherwise reflects the level of aversion and social discrimination faced by the LGBT population in Uganda. According to Human Rights Watch, government officials threaten and harass the LGBT community on a regular basis. LGBT activists are “regularly detained, blackmailed and harassed.” A government-owned New Vision newspaper that in 2005 called authorities to “crack down on homosexuality.” The article ordered: “The police should visit the holes mentioned in the press, spy on the perverts, arrest and prosecute them. Relevant government departments must outlaw or restrict websites, magazines, newspapers and television channels promoting immorality – including homosexuality, lesbianism, pornography, etc.”
The bill is an extension of the already existing anti-sodomy law (dating back to British colonial rule and adopted in the post-colonial era) under Section 145 of the Uganda Penal Code Act, which imposes a life sentence on violators. The law criminalizes sexual acts “against the order of nature.” However, the bill not only bolsters the Ugandan government’s condemnation on same-sex sexual conduct and same-sex marriages, but also goes a step further by criminalizing homosexuality in general under one comprehensive legislation.
Just as the human rights of many individuals would be clearly and severely affected through the implementation of this bill, public health in the country would also be critically threatened. By targeting men having sex with men (MSM)—a group at high risk of contracting HIV— and by particularly targeting those living with HIV, the signing of the bill into law would undermine public health efforts to prevent and control the spread of HIV in the country. If passed, the bill will drive MSM underground and deter them from seeking prevention, treatment, and care services for fear of prosecution. The fear of persecution will lead individuals to hide whatever characteristics make them targetable for prosecution. And as anyone familiar with the history of HIV/AIDS understands, one of the greatest lessons learned is the direct and adverse effect of discrimination on the ability to control the spread of HIV within the targeted population. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Anand Grover, has underscored that “where sex between men is not criminalized and where both stigma and discrimination have been eased, men who have sex with men are more likely to pursue HIV prevention, care, support and treatment services.” Therefore, those interested in facilitating prevention and treatment of HIV would face greater obstacles once the bill is passed, resulting in higher rates of HIV/AIDS.
Presently, Uganda is one of two countries in the region with a rising rate of AIDS. In 2008, UNAIDS identified Uganda as a country that had successfully carried out programs reducing stigma and discrimination against HIV. That same year, the U.S. government recognized Uganda’s response to HIV/AIDS as “a model for the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Uganda was able to reduce HIV adult prevalence in its population from approximately 13 percent to 6 percent between 1990 and 2007. In 1986, Uganda was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement an HIV/AIDS control program, known as the “STD/AIDS Control Program.”
In only a few days (30 days following the passing of the bill in Parliament), President Museveni must decide whether to sign the bill into law or veto it—and thus determine whether his country will take a step backward in both protecting the human rights of its people and in the long and treacherous journey in which it embarked decades ago to save the lives of many of its people from one of the greatest threats to humanity.
On January 17, 2013, President Museveni expressed that he would not sign the bill, as there are “better ways to cure the ‘abnormality.'” However, Museveni’s reasoning is worrying, as it still reflects fundamental misunderstandings about sexual orientation and public health, a disregard for human dignity, and a culture of violence. Museveni’s letter to the Parliament states: “You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people.” He also frames homosexuality as an illness—that “lesbianism” is caused by “a lack of sex with men” and that young people are at the risk of “disgusting behavior.” This, of course, reinforces the current discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community.
Whether his response was influenced by international pressure, Museveni is said to be negotiating with Parliamentary members since even with Museveni refusing to sign the bill, Parliament could pass it with a two-thirds vote.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.