Uganda’s parliament passed one of the world’s strictest anti-homosexuality laws, which if signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, would sentence anyone found guilty of same-sex relations to life imprisonment.
The situation for LGBTQ+ individuals in Uganda has been dire for many years, with rampant discrimination, persecution and violence being commonplace. On March 21, 2023, things took a turn for worse when Uganda’s parliament passed one of the world’s strictest anti-homosexuality laws, which if signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, would sentence anyone found guilty of same-sex relations to life imprisonment. The bill also imposes the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality” defined as sexual relations with someone below the age of 14 or above the age of 75, and for offenders.
Additionally, individuals found guilty of “promoting” homosexuality could spend 20 years in prison, and friends, family, and neighbors are required by law to report anyone they suspect is gay to the police or suffer a six-month jail term. Landlords are also forbidden from renting to LGBTQ+ people. Journalists and media outlets would also be prosecuted for publishing or broadcasting content relating to LGBTQ+ issues. In addition, any funding for LGBTQ+ activities would be outlawed too. President Yoweri Museveni has not yet signed the bill into law, but with all but two of the 389 lawmakers in favor of the legislation, it is unlikely that he will block it.
The passing of the law has already led to an increase in anxiety among the Ugandan LGBTQ+ community, with many making plans to flee the country. Some have even stopped visiting health facilities for fear of arrest and others have been evicted from their homes. Homophobia is entrenched in Uganda, and the law’s passing will likely lead to an increase in the number of violent assaults against LGBTQ+ individuals.
Uganda’s penal code, which is a relic of the colonial era, currently criminalizes acts deemed “against the order of nature”, including same-sex relations and sodomy but is barely enforced. An initial anti-homosexuality bill introduced back in 2009, after significant lobbying by American evangelicals, was signed into law five years later. The law was overturned by the constitutional court based on a technicality, only for members of parliament to threaten to bring it back in 2019.
Sadly, Uganda is not alone in its anti-LGBTQ+ stance; of the 64 countries that still criminalize same-sex relationships, at least 32 are in Africa. However, some countries, such as South Africa, have legalized same-sex marriage, and others, such as Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Seychelles, have recently decriminalized same-sex relationships.
The continent’s widespread homophobia is not just a denial of human rights and dignity, but it also leads to violence. LGBTQ+ people are detained and tortured in Egypt, and Rwandan authorities detained LGBTQ+ people ahead of the 2021 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, claiming they did not represent “Rwandan values”. Gay people are regularly arrested in Nigeria.
Last August, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an LGBTQ+ rights organization, was shut down by the state-run Uganda NGO Bureau, with accusations of it not being properly registered. At the time, SMUG warned that a new version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act would soon be introduced. In January, the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), which frequently works with the LGBTQ+ community, was among 22 organizations listed as being under investigation in a leaked report from the NGO Bureau, with recommendations for the government to “comprehensively criminalize” LGBTQ+ activities and investigate organizations “promoting” homosexuality.
As the bureaucratic clampdown increased, homophobic attacks and rhetoric shot up. Between January and February alone, SMUG registered 110 cases of violations nationwide against the LGBTQ+ community, including sexual violence, evictions, and forced public undressing. In March, Muslim leaders held a demonstration condemning homosexuality in the eastern city of Jinja, and a secondary teacher was arrested in the same city accused of encouraging her students to become lesbians.
On the domestic front, there is overwhelming support for the bill, with only a few dissenting voices still calling for reason. Meanwhile, foreign pressure has been ramping up on President Museveni to reject the bill. During her recent visit to Africa, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke out against the persecution of LGBTQ+ people and advocated for equal treatment for all.
However, she was careful not to address the issue of the anti-LGBTQ+ bill being considered by Ghana’s parliament, likely due to domestic political concerns. The Biden administration’s advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights may be viewed by some as an example of the United States lecturing Africa without listening. This poses a challenge for U.S. policymakers as they try to counter the influence of China and Russia on the continent. China and Russia have both taken conservative stances on LGBT rights, portraying homosexuality as a symbol of Western decline.
Corporate giants like Google have come out in support of the LGBTQ+ community and opposing the anti-LGBTQ+ bill, calling it “a concern for global businesses and investors operating or planning to invest” in the East African country.
The Looming Cultural Discord
Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has urged African leaders to oppose homosexuality and signaled his intention to sign into law the controversial anti-LGBTQ+ bill. Speaking on Sunday, Museveni labeled homosexuality as a “big threat and danger to the procreation of the human race.” He further suggested that Africa should lead the way in saving the world from what he deemed as “degeneration and decadence, which is very dangerous for humanity.”
Museveni’s statement followed a two-day inter-parliamentary conference held at the State House Entebbe, which focused on “family values and sovereignty”. Attended by MPs and delegates from 22 African countries, including Zambia, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, the conference called for the rejection of “the promotion of homosexuality”, and for African countries to draw up an African strategy to fight homosexuality.
The conference, promoted by the Ugandan parliament, the African Bar Association, and the Nigerian-based Foundation for African Cultural Heritage, was also attended by British MPs, though the Ugandan government could not name them. Attendees also had the option to participate online, via the US evangelical Christian organization Family Watch International, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has defined as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. Sharon Slater, the President of Family Watch, who also chairs the UN Family Rights Caucus lobby group, spoke at the conference.
Museveni praised the Ugandan MPs for passing the anti-gay bill and vowed: “never to allow the promotion and publicization of homosexuality in Uganda, stressing that it will never be tolerated.”
According to a Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist who attended the conference under a pseudonym via Zoom, the event called on Zambia, Tanzania, and Ghana to reject American influence and drew up an African strategy to combat homosexuality. The activist added that the conference also called on African countries to seriously fight corruption, be self-reliant and break free from Western support.
UN’s Stance and Appeal
In a statement issued on March 29, 2023, UN Human Rights experts condemned Uganda’s newly approved laws that impose the death penalty for same-sex intimacy. The experts note that the legislation is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The experts further highlighted that the harsh anti-LGBTQ+ laws, which were approved by a majority, would target, and jeopardize the rights of LGBTQ+ persons and those who support and defend their human rights.
The UN experts stated that the imposition of the death penalty for same-sex intimacy, including so-called “serial homosexuality” is an egregious violation of human rights. The legislation will exacerbate and legitimize continued stigmatization, violence, harassment, and discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons. The experts warned that LGBTQ+ persons will constantly live in fear and stress for their life and physical integrity for merely living according to their sexual orientation.
The experts noted that the latest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation comes after years of state-instigated and perpetuated discrimination against the community. They recalled the obligation of all of society – from politics to business, to civil society – to promote social inclusion and contribute to stopping human rights abuse. The UN experts have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the escalating risks to the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons in Uganda during the last fifteen years. In conclusion, the experts urged the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, to reject the proposed law and tread a new path towards respect for human rights and acceptance of differences.
However, it remains to be seen what will happen next, as the bill now sits on Museveni’s desk, and he has 30 days to sign it into law or send it back to parliament for revisions.