Diplomatic moves needed to halt Uganda anti-gay Bill

Fri, Dec 14, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:Passage of the ‘Kill-the-Gays’ Bill will lead to mass arrests, imprisonment, and killing with impunity, writes KATHERINE ZAPPONE

I visited Kampala in April to attend an inter-parliamentary union conference, as one of many hundreds of public representatives. While there I spoke with a dead man.

Or he is likely to be soon if the current Anti-Homosexuality Bill is passed by the Ugandan parliament. The Bill is known as the “Kill the Gays” Bill and has been on the books since 2009. The speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, has described it as a “Christmas gift” to Ugandans for this year, as it is due to be voted on imminently.

Julian (not his real name) is a gay man, a lawyer and an advocate for human rights as they apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The risks he operates under are immense, entirely akin to those of a leading Ugandan LGBT activist, David Kato, who was murdered in January 2011.

Julian and I met at the conference hotel. He told me he was being watched by state security and I realised that I was being watched, too. He told me how his phone was tapped, and I shuddered at the thought of our phone conversations prior to meeting. For a moment I felt the fear, a feeling of utter exposure I will never forget.

However, I was leaving Uganda three days later, but he, of course, was not. He told me that when the Bill is passed there will be a “stampede of arrests” of LGBT people throughout the land. They will be incarcerated and may be killed with impunity. In a population of more than 30 million, there are at least half a million LGBT Ugandans and they are all at risk.

The Bill has some outrageous terms that build on the existing Penal Code 120 allowing for the punishment of homosexuality with 14 years’ imprisonment (the code itself is a remnant of British rule in Uganda).

The new Bill explicitly frames homosexuality as a threat to traditional society and family, and describes it as an offence, not an innate feature of a person. It seeks to impose lengthy imprisonment (life) on anyone found guilty. Under article 14, “a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for seven years”; does this include an LGBT person’s family members?

NGO staff affected

Among its provisions, under article 13(1) and (2), the Bill targets anyone who “promotes” homosexuality in any way with imprisonment up to seven years. This would apply, for example, to staff of an NGO such as Amnesty International or Trócaire should they assist an LGBT person who might be HIV-positive or who is being discriminated against on account of their sexual orientation.

Further, this will also apply to Ugandans who are living abroad, including those fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One wonders if the UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff, or Irish Embassy staff who offer protection to human rights defenders who are LGBT, would be subject to this law.

Of great relevance to Uganda’s friends and supporters, article 18 nullifies what it calls any “inconsistencies” or contradictions in international legal instruments – conventions, treaties, protocols and declarations – that Uganda has signed or ratified. Over the years on the world stage, these very instruments have been the sites where the human rights of LGBT people have been recognised and elaborated.

This Bill expressly states that language such as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” cannot be allowed to “legitimise” homosexuality. But, at the international level, it is this very language that embodies a recognition of the innate nature of us humans, and outlaws discrimination based upon it – everyone has a sexual orientation, be that lesbian, gay or straight, just as every human has a gender identity.

Crucially, if this Bill becomes law, the impact on non-governmental organisations working for human rights, women’s empowerment and HIV and Aids particularly will be profound. Civil society organisations are the backbone of democracy – through their concentration on specific issues, they mobilise and organise to hold a government to account, and they also provide support to vulnerable populations generally forgotten by government. Therefore, they are a threat to oppressive governments.

Clearly from a human rights perspective this Bill should not become law and all diplomatic efforts need to be focused on halting the passage this Bill.

When the state is the instigator of persecution and oppression of a particular population through its laws and policies, it is incumbent on that state’s friends and supporters to actively and urgently help find ways to terminate such abuse.

Sometimes the duty of friends is to say the hard thing and challenge their behaviour when it is harmful, and take action accordingly. We have the global collective logic of human rights through which to speak, a codification of decency and dignity learned from the atrocities of the second World War, lest we should ever forget what silence generates.

Redesign funding strategy

In the case of Uganda, which suffered so brutally under Idi Amin throughout the 1970s when hundreds of thousands were murdered, Irish Catholic missions and the Irish State have been an important contributor to that country’s transition into functionality and rule of law, and helped stem the tide of HIV throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Due to corrupt practices emanating from the prime minister’s office, Ireland has suspended all aid to Uganda (over €33 million each year) while we review our monitoring systems. Despite the theft of funds, we should not abandon Uganda now, but we should take the opportunity to redesign a significant portion of our funding strategy so that the resources go directly to civil society organisations, including LGBT ones.

I also suggest we consider initiating a strategic dialogue directly with civil society organisations in Uganda. Much like the approach described by Hillary Clinton at last week’s Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe meeting in Dublin, the front line we should focus on is building durable change grounded in Ugandan civil society.

When dead men talk, we have to listen. And we have to act.

Katherine Zappone is an Independent Senator and director of the Centre for Progressive Change

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