In a dismaying setback for human rights in Africa, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signed an antigay bill into law on Monday that outlaws homosexuality and its “promotion,” and requires citizens to report homosexuals to the police.
Ofwono Opondo, a spokesman for the Ugandan government, tweeted early Monday morning that “propaganda for blackmail against anti-gay law by European & US media won't derail Pres Museveni signing,” noting a few hours later that Museveni had arrived in an “upbeat mood” to sign the anti-homosexuality law.
“Outsiders cannot dictate to us,” a defiant Museveni announced after the ceremony. “This is our country. I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose.”
While the bill is popular is Uganda, the international outcry against the law was immediate. Activists and leaders across the world have condemned the bill.
Gemma Houldey, a Uganda researcher at Amnesty International, called the new bill “an affront to the human rights of all Ugandans.”
“This legislation will institutionalize hatred and discrimination,” Houldey said in a statement. “Its passage into law signals a very grave episode in the nation’s history.”
When reached by phone, Houldey described the bill’s sudden passage as “a shock to everyone.” The bill had been tabled due to international pressure several times since its original formulation in 2009. “The fact that it got rushed so quickly this time around took everyone by surprise,” she said.
The legislation’s sudden passage might have had something to do with the run-up to elections in Uganda this fall. The bill had the support of most of Museveni’s party, which makes up more than two-thirds of the country’s National Assembly.
Local activists were appalled but uncowed. “It's very infuriating that consenting adults can be criminals for simply loving one another,” Kasha Jacqueline, a Kampala-based feminist and LGBT rights activist, told VICE News. "We are here to stay. No law can change who we are because we did not create ourselves."
The law allows those who engage in homosexual relations to be sentenced to life imprisonment; those convicted of attempting to “commit homosexuality,” as the law puts it, can receive seven years in prison. A seven-year sentence can also be given to anyone who is “aiding and abetting” homosexuality, and anyone who “keeps a house, room, set of rooms, or place of any kind for purposes of homosexuality.”
“Not only is it now a crime to be gay, lesbian, transgender, or intersex,” Houldey told VICE News, “it’s now a crime to provide accommodation to people from this community.”
Ugandan presidential spokesman Tamale Mirundi said President Obama’s criticism would strengthen support
As heinous as these provisions are, the vagueness of the ban on the “promotion of homosexuality” is especially disturbing. It eliminates freedom of expression, and could potentially be used to outlaw the work of human rights groups and health organizations that work with LGBT people.
Uganda is not alone, however. Homosexuality was already illegal in 38 African countries, with four of them imposing a death penalty. Uganda’s bill fell short of the death penalty due to threats from some donor countries to suspend international aid to the country.
President Barack Obama warned last week that the bill’s passage would “complicate our valued relationship with Uganda.”
Museveni replied in a statement that Ugandan scientists had determined that homosexuality is behavioral and not genetic. “I… encourage the US government to help us by working with our scientists to study whether, indeed, there are people who are born homosexual,” he said. “When that is proved, we can review this legislation.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, where same-sex marriage was legalized last December, dismissed Museveni’s scientific reasoning in a statement released on Sunday. “The history of people is littered with attempts to legislate against love or marriage across class, caste and race. But there is no scientific basis or genetic rationale for love,” he said.
“There is no scientific justification for prejudice and discrimination,” he added. “Nor is there any moral justification. Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, among others, attest to these facts.”
Ugandan civil rights activists have vowed to challenge the law in the country’s constitutional court and the East African Court of Justice.