It's now not only illegal to be gay – it's illegal to advocate on gays' behalf.
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power protests in New York City against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. (Photo via Wikicommons)
On the 24th of February, the Ugandan government finally succeeded in ushering the long-debated Anti-Homosexuality Act into law, which has been dubbed the “Kill the Gays Bill” by a torrent of international critics for its early iterations’ inclusion of the death penalty for homosexuality. Though homosexuality has been illegal since Uganda’s first post-colonial Constitution was written, this new law ups the penalties for being gay, including life imprisonment for such "aggravated homosexuality" as recurring gay sex – and up to five to seven years for advocating on gays’ behalf.
Despite homosexuality’s illegality, Uganda is home to a minority of openly gay people, including prominent gay activists Clare Byarugaba and David Kato, who was murdered in 2011. When I was studying in Uganda back in 2004 I had a few openly gay acquaintances in the capital city, Kampala; in certain circles, it was possible to be openly, albeit relatively quietly, gay.
But now simply advocating for or providing services to a gay person can be interpreted as "promoting homosexuality", a crime with passage of the new law. Already, civil rights organisations are being punished for their advocacy on behalf of gays in Uganda. In two separate letters dated March and May of this year, the government suspended direct service activities of the Refugee Law Project, a Uganda-based pioneer in international migration law and refugee protection, based on allegations that the organisation was "promoting homosexuality" in refugee communities.
What, exactly, does the "promotion of homosexuality" look like? It’s a perplexing notion, and the law itself is troublingly vague. "As an organisation we already made clear our position that we don't even believe it's possible to promote homosexuality," says Dr Chris Dolan, the Refugee Law Project’s Executive Director – since homosexuality is not a choice. "Of course we believe it is possible to protect the rights of LGBTI people, and that that is our responsibility."
Though inhospitable to homosexuals, Uganda has long been a regional hub for the desperate, with 265,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in the country. Just look at a map of East Africa and you’ll see why: Uganda, which has been comparatively stable for the past several decades under the presidency of Yoweri Museveni, neighbours infamous conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burundi.
But it’s not just geography. Uganda has some of the more progressive and hospitable refugee laws compared to other countries in the Great Lakes Region. This is in part due to the work of the Refugee Law Project, which has served as a watchdog for mistreatment of forced migrants and an advocate for human rights issues, from sexual violence in conflict zones to transitional justice in war-ravaged northern Uganda to broadening the support for internally displaced people and refugees in urban areas. (Full disclosure: ten years ago, while studying abroad as a college student, I interned with the RLP for two months, but have had no contact with the organisation since.)
Now, all the Refugee Law Project’s direct work with refugees has been suspended, indefinitely, due to the allegations that they are not just defending, but promoting homosexuality. The allegations, according to the government, were made by an outside party, and officials have launched an investigation – for a period of time that remains indefinite. During the probe, the Refugee Law Project is not able to do any direct service work with refugees of any persuasion. “We’re being punished before the investigation is even complete,” says Dr Dolan.
LGBT refugees are some of the most vulnerable forced migrants – they are often fleeing their country because they have been persecuted for an unchangeable aspect of who they are into the arms of another country where they might very well be persecuted again. Starting around 2008, according to Dr Dolan, the Refugee Law Project started advocating for the rights of LGBT refugees (the organisation runs many simultaneous advocacy campaigns). In 2009, once the "Kill the Gays" bill was launched into action through creepy back room talks with prominent American Christians, the Refugee Law Project joined the Civil Society Coalition, a union of over 50 Ugandan human rights organisations advocating against the bill’s passage. This public advocacy made the Refugee Law Project a direct target once the law went through this February.
In mid-2012, years before the law had even passed, the Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, made a public announcement that he wanted to close down the Refugee Law Project and the Civil Society Coalition for their pro-gay advocacy. "In that sense, we were not surprised," says Dr Dolan.
On the 17th of March, the Refugee Law Project issued a statement on behalf of the Civil Society Coalition that began: "Dear Friends and Colleagues, and all who fear living in a society that has no room for minorities…" The letter announced the "historic petition" filed in Uganda’s Constitutional Court on the 11th of March against the law’s passage, and links to this video documenting the petition’s filing.
On the 14th of March – right between the petition’s filing and the organisation’s email blast – the Ugandan government sent its first letter to all Refugee Settlement Commanders ordering the operations of the Refugee Law Project suspended in the settlements. On the 20th of May they issued their subsequent letter suspending direct service activities in the capital.
Interestingly, these letters of suspension came not from the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity, but from the Minister of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees – the office that, presumably, would be more interested in overall refugee well-being than the relative fringe issue of homosexuality.
"We work with all refugees – we don't carve out the ones that are easy to work with," Dr Dolan tells me. "We work with everyone based on human rights and international law." Of the 3,000 registered clients of the Refugee Law Project, homosexuals actually make up a very small percentage, but as Dolan explains, "the whole refugee population that constitutes our clients is being punished by this suspension".
The suspension of the Refugee Law Project’s activities reflects the broad brush stroke of this law, and its potentially devastating impact on a subsection of the population. This suspension means that the organisation is not allowed to meet directly with any refugees, in the camps or in the towns and cities, to conduct interviews, legal aid, research, psychosocial support, therapy groups for victims of sexual violence – or any other direct activities.
In the past six months alone, a single office of the Refugee Law Project, the "Gender and Sexuality Project", has screened 1,237 refugees for experiences of sexual violence, "helped 87 clients who reported sexual violence to access Post-Exposure Prophylaxis within 72 hours of the incident" and connected 309 survivors to support groups. None of these activities are permitted to continue under the current suspension. (The organisation can still conduct academic research and advocacy, so long as no contact with refugees is involved.) Previously, the organisation would open up its offices weekly for local, unaffiliated refugee groups to use the space for community meetings – this service, too, has gone out the window.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 reads like the bluntest of satire: "(1) A person commits the offence of homosexuality if – (a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption; (b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate sexual organ of a person of the same sex; (c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality. (2) A person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for life."
"Attempt to Commit Homosexuality" is also criminalised, as is "Aiding and abetting homosexuality", "Conspiracy to engage in homosexuality" and, of course, "Promotion of homosexuality". The US government is troubled by the law and its enforcement, and has already announced aid cuts and other sanctions on Uganda if the Anti-Homosexuality Act is not overturned.
In a public statement issued on the 5th of June, the Refugee Law Project announced that the organisation "considers [the] allegations baseless and unlawful". Meanwhile, RLP is attempting to negotiate with the government (the nature of which, for obvious reasons, Dolan does not wish to comment on). In the agency’s public statement about the suspension, they say, "We respect the due process of law." But with a law like this, "due process" is part of the trouble: just this week, as Buzzfeed reports, a Ugandan high court ruled that it is in fact legal for the government to shut down activities of organisations deemed to be promoting homosexuality.
It’s safe to say that Uganda’s anti-gay witch hunt has officially begun.