Anti-gay laws in Uganda

When the European Parliament meets in Strasbourg for one week every month, the last session which takes place on Thursday afternoon is always devoted to debates on human rights issues in different parts of the world.

Although most MEPs will have already left to get their transport connections to often far flung corners of Europe, this session is usually very purposeful in illuminating the suffering of different opposition groups, vulnerable individuals or minorities at the hands of brutal political or military regimes.

Often the human rights session will bring to attention situations in areas of the world with which many people in Europe would not be familiar. Such was the case last Thursday when one of the three issues debated was the vicious campaign of persecution of gay people in Uganda in the heart of Africa.

This came to a head one year ago when a member of the Ugandan Parliament from the ruling National Resistance Movement introduced a Private Members Bill aimed at brutally suppressing the rights and freedom of people who are gay to live their lives in peace and to be true to their identity. In David Bahati’s Anti Homosexuality Bill, the most extreme provision is to provide for the execution of anybody who is HIV positive found engaging in gay sexual relations or of anybody who engages with a disabled person or with a person who is under eighteen years of age.

Other categories of gay relations are punishable by periods in jail ranging from fifteen years to life. Bizarrely the Bill also provides for the extradition of any citizen of Uganda found to be involved in gay relationships in any other country in the world to face these penalties at home.

The Bahati Bill also aims to turn Uganda into a nation of squinting windows and informers. Any persons, including heterosexuals, who fail to report within twenty four hours the identities of everyone they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can be jailed for up to three years.

The publication of the Bahati Bill was accompanied by a vicious hate campaign against gay people. Encouraged by open support for the proposed law from Uganda’s President Museveni, a wave of homophobia swept the country. One newspaper called Red Pepper published a list of names of gay people under the headline ‘Top Homos in Uganda Named.’ Another paper published a list of names with photographs of people said to be gay and also gave their addresses under a headline which said ‘Hang Them, They Are After Our Kids’.

The depth of ignorance and maliciousness among the drivers of this campaign of hatred is revealed in the propagation of a monstrous myth outlined in the same paper, that the ‘homosexual community aims to recruit one million children’ and that parents ‘face heartbreak as homos raid schools.’

Supporters of Bahati’s Bill claim that the idea of rights for gay people is a cultural poison reflecting Western values and is ‘alien to African traditions’. Activists for gay rights in Uganda and other observers point to the cynicism and hypocrisy in this. They point out that an organisation of right wing Christian fundamentalists in the United States called The Family is heavily involved in influencing Ugandan politicians in both moral and economic issues. US journalist, Jeff Sharlett argues that The Family has strong influence with Museveni and Bahati and that in these dealings, ‘social issues, foreign affairs issues and free market fundamentalist issues all come together.’

Activists also point to the cynical role of the anti gay campaign in deflecting attention from the many real social and economic problems faced by Uganda, a third of whose thirty one million people live below the official poverty line. They also point to parliamentary elections in 2011 and the ruling party’s desire to create a distraction from its failures to meet the needs of millions of poor.

There are estimated to be about a half million gay people in Uganda. The recent campaign has caused great suffering, fear and insecurity among them, making it extremely difficult to express their identity in human relationships. Unfortunately their position is typical of that of gay communities in many parts of Africa where, according to the European Parliament Resolution debated on Thursday, thirty seven out of fifty three states apply homophobic laws including the death penalty in countries where sharia law applies.

Powerful organisations in Europe such as trade unions, Non Governmental Organisations committed to sustainable development and genuine partnership with civic society organisations in Africa and, of course, gay rights advocacy groups, should actively seek to express their solidarity with the vulnerable gay communities in Africa and elsewhere in the world such as in Iran which obscenely hanged gay teenagers in public some years ago. Such international opposition has been an important factor in stalling the Bahati Bill up to now.