Uganda’s parliament has passed a new anti-homosexuality Bill that will criminalise identifying as LGBT+, while punishing gay sex with life in prison and “aggravated homosexuality” with a death sentence.
The Bill – which also includes potential punishments for organisations or individuals funding LGBT+ rights work, and for journalists regarded as “promoting” homosexuality – was approved on Tuesday, with nearly full support by the almost 400 legislators who voted. It needs to be confirmed by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.
The East African country of roughly 48 million people has previously attempted to enact some of the harshest anti-homosexuality laws in the world, with activists saying that each effort provokes a new wave of abuse, discrimination, blackmail and violence against LGBT+ Ugandans. In 2014, a prior anti-homosexuality act was nullified by Uganda’s constitutional court.
Clare Byarugaba, an LGBT+ activist and the equality and non-discrimination co-ordinator for human rights organisation Chapter Four Uganda, called the new Bill “deeply troubling, deeply scary” and “an indicator that our legislators don’t have our interests at heart as the LGBTI community”.
Speaking on the phone from Kampala, Ms Byarugaba said it is “drumming up the worst level of legalised homophobia I’ve witnessed” since she started in activism.
“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The fact that parliament legislated to have criminal sanctions against me simply for identifying as a lesbian is really heartbreaking. It’s like they’re trying to strip us of our citizenship, to strip us of a semblance of peace.”
She said Uganda’s LGBT+ community is resilient and “rallying to do what we need to do next, which is to go to court because we believe that this Bill doesn’t pass any constitutional rights or human rights-based approaches.”
Like other activists, she also said the Ugandan government has a tendency to propose anti-homosexuality legislation “to divert attention from issues that are affecting each and every Ugandan”, which most recently include a series of corruption scandals.
While Ugandan legislators say they are acting to prevent sexual violence and to protect children, opponents say that this can be done without targeting the LGBT+ community specifically. “There’s no reason why parliament should legislate on consenting adults. It is really beyond the realms of legislation,” Ms Byarugaba said.
She said that while she is not advocating for any cuts by international donors to funding that would affect regular citizens, it is important that other countries don’t “turn their back” on LGBT+ Ugandans. “At this point I truly, truly believe that international partners, international governments should take a stand and demand that the rights of LGBT individuals be protected.”
On Wednesday, US Secretary for State Antony Blinken tweeted saying that he urged the Ugandan government to “strongly reconsider the implementation of this legislation.” The Bill “would undermine fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS”, he said.
The same day, president Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba tweeted saying: “I hear some foreign companies (I don’t know which ones) want to leave the country because we passed the anti-homosexual Bill. We are willing to help them pack their bags and leave our blessed country forever! Uganda is God’s country! We will actually thrive without them.”
Uganda is a key recipient of Irish Aid. A spokesperson for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said that Ireland “deeply regrets” the passing of the Bill.
“Over the years, Ireland, through our embassy in Kampala, has consistently raised concerns with the Ugandan government related to protecting the rights of LGBT+ people ... Ireland stands in solidarity with marginalised groups and works closely with civil society groups to promote human rights in Uganda.”
The “promotion and protection of the rights of LGBTI+ persons, who continue to suffer disproportionate levels of violence and face systematic discrimination in many countries, is a foreign policy priority for Ireland”.
Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, called for Mr Museveni to veto the legislation, which “amounts to a grave assault on LGBTI people and is contemptuous of the Ugandan constitution.”
He said it would “institutionalise discrimination, hatred, and prejudice against LGBTI people, including those who are perceived to be LGBTI, and block the legitimate work of civil society, public health professionals, and community leaders.”
Last month, the Ugandan government said that it would not renew a mandate for the United Nations Human Rights Office to operate in the country.
On Wednesday, UN Human Rights chief Volker Türk added his voice to calls for the anti-homosexuality Bill not to be enacted, saying it would punish people “for existing, for being who they are”. He also criticised the Bill for confusing consensual and non-consensual sexual relations, and said it would be “a massive distraction from taking the necessary action to end sexual violence”.