Although the decision was based largely on procedural failings, Friday’s welcome ruling by Uganda’s supreme court throwing out the country’s controversial recent anti-gay legislation is an important victory for international human rights campaigners. A panel of five judges ruled the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes some homosexual behaviour with life in prison, was invalid because it had been passed by parliament without a proper quorum. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon described the ruling as “a victory for the rule of law”
An appeal is still possible, and homosexuality remains a criminal offence under colonial-era law, while the nature of the nullification allows the Bill to be reintroduced by parliament. But it is to be hoped that the court’s decision will represent an honourable face-saving opportunity for President Yoweri Museveni to back away from a policy that has drawn international outcry and cuts in aid from several western governments. Uganda relies on aid to fund 20 per cent of its budget.
The new law prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” and provided life sentences for various same-sex acts, including touching in public or living in a same-sex marriage. It was challenged by 10 petitioners, including academics, journalists, MPs and human rights activists who claimed it violated the constitutional right to privacy and dignity, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Museveni has called gays “mercenaries” and has said they are more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases and stomach worms. The legislation, signed into law in February, originally included provisions for the death penalty and owed much to campaigning anti-gay US evangelical preachers visiting the country. It had broad support in religiously conservative Uganda, and had led to increased official and unofficial harassment of the gay community. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries in Africa.