Uganda’s constitutional court struck down the country’s notorious anti-gay law today — but it did so on technical grounds, not its substantive or legal merits.
After years of controversial support from evangelical pastors in the US, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law in February. Under the legislation, gay couples face potential life imprisonment. Earlier versions of the bill had called for the death penalty.
On Friday, however, a five-judge panel found the law “null and void” because there hadn't been a sufficient number of legislators in parliament at the time of its passage in December, a requirement known as quorum.
While the decision says nothing of the law’s human rights implications, and leaves the door open for its reinstatement, the ruling was met with cheers in the courtroom and plaudits from rights groups.
“Even though Uganda’s abominable Anti-Homosexuality Act was scrapped on the basis of a technicality, it is a significant victory for Ugandan activists who have campaigned against this law,” Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, told VICE News.
Prior to February, existing laws dating to the colonial period already made same sex relationships a crime, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The court’s decision leaves those statutes unchanged.
'Huge credit is due to the Ugandan activists who, in defiance of this law, continued to speak out and to provide support and services to the LGBT community.'
Since the legislation passed, the persecution of members of Uganda’s LGBT community has escalated. Charles Radcliffe, UN human rights adviser on sexual orientation and gender, told VICE News that his office had received multiple reports from local activists that anti-gay attacks, harassment, and official arrests had increased since February.
“Huge credit is due to the Ugandan activists who, in defiance of this law, continued to speak out and to provide support and services to the LGBT community,” Radcliffe added.
In May, a report by Sexual Minorities Uganda found at least a 750 percent rise in attacks, which it concluded could "only be explained by the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and the virulently homophobic atmosphere this has engendered in Uganda."
Museveni’s decision to not only sign the anti-gay bill but do so as a point of pride was met with outrage in the international community.
When the law was signed on February 24, a spokesperson said Museveni wanted “to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation.” Soon after, the World Bank postponed a $90 million loan, and the US and several European nations cut aid payments.
However, some observers were concerned that attention from foreign governments could serve to inflame animosity towards the LGBT community in the country, while ignoring widespread corruption, human rights violations, and Uganda’s increasingly reckless military forays in East Africa.
Uganda has been implicated in war crimes in the civil conflict in neighboring South Sudan, where its soldiers have fought for months on the side of government forces.The US, which relies heavily on the Ugandan military in East Africa, has had to walk a particularly taut line.
Despite cutting some aid, American officials continue to lean on Ugandan forces fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and al Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate that controls parts of Somalia. A month after he called the law “a step backwards,” President Obama in March approved the deployment of 150 American military personnel to Uganda to track the remnants of the LRA.
Today’s court decision leaves the Anti-Homosexuality Act in limbo, as Museveni and legislators weigh up if they want to weather another round of opprobrium by attempting to reinstate the law.
But the ruling also offers Museveni a political out, serving to diffuse international pressure while allowing him to maintain his widely popular anti-gay stance. Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, is considering running for reelection in 2016.
For Uganda’s gay community, the decision is encouraging, but their persecution is already deeply rooted in society. “Even with the Anti-Homosexuality Act gone, same sex relationships remain criminalized and stigma and discrimination — reinforced by widespread misinformation about gay people — remain serious problems,” said Radcliffe.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford