Uganda has taken a large step backward in the past month, with the introduction of an anti-homosexuality bill. This issue not only has stirred up controversy in international rings, but also poses the greatest threat to Uganda’s stability. As outlined in the draft bill, “aggravated homosexuality” would be punishable by death, with different tiers of punishment being allotted to homosexuals and even heterosexuals who fail to report homosexual activity.
According to the bill, a person commits “aggravated homosexuality” for people who engage in sexual acts with a person with disability, one who is below the age of 18, or when the offender is HIV-positive. This brings up tricky legalities — how does one define a disability? And what about consensual under-18 intercourse? The enforcement of this bill conjures up archaic images of the Salem witchcraft trials, back in 1692, where “improper character” was, in and of itself, a death sentence.
David Bahati, the MP who tabled the bill, provided several justifications supporting the proposed legislation. These included “safeguarding the traditional family,” “keeping Ugandan values safe and sound,” “protecting the divine role of man to procreate” and elaborated on how this bill will keep abusers and sodomisers away from children.
To affiliate abuse and sodomy solely with homosexuals is the discrimination that, Bahati insists, he is not partaking in. This bold move also undermines Uganda’s previous and forthcoming successes in development. While developmental work in Uganda may not solely focus on the LGBT* community, to work within a nation of such strict, far right-wing rules may become intimidating. If heterosexuals can be punished and imprisoned for failing to report homosexual activity, does this not seemingly discourage foreigners from getting involved in development initiatives at all?
As someone who has travelled Uganda extensively, I now see Uganda’s government in a very different light. I do not want to get caught up in a witch-hunt. Even with the contention of the issue, Ugandans and internationals across North America, Africa and Europe have voiced their concerns with the bill. LGBT* groups worldwide have unified in this, with a large number of blogs and letters being written to oppose the bill. And yet, there is the core group of those who support the bill, worldwide. Churches, conservative governments (not the Canadian one, though) and individuals have thrown their support behind the bill. Despite all of this, the largest test remains whether Ugandan President Museveni will pass the bill.
Given that anti-homosexuality campaigns have been appearing all over Uganda (in schools, newspapers, churches and within the general public), it seems likely that this radical and heinous bill will, in fact, be brought to life. Museveni also plays a large role in African affairs, having just hosted the African Union’s meeting. The chances for this legislation to spill into neighbouring countries around Uganda are worrying. These are precarious times for African politics and economics — how many will follow Bahati’s lead in hopes of securing their relations?
While this may seem like “just another issue” in “just another” developing nation, passing this bill could result in serious far-reaching consequences globally. Driving through the Ugandan capital of Kampala, one cannot help but notice all the USAID and other American-affiliated organization-sponsored billboards. The United States has found a partner in Uganda (and yes, oil was recently discovered there) and has funded and supported many of Uganda’s ventures. This newest bill has troublingly close ties to American pastors and to the U.S. government, forcing one to regard the sanctity of a human right, whether it is in Uganda or our closest neighbour. No matter where one stands politically, an encroaching death penalty based on affiliation cannot in any way be justified.
Katie Muirhead is currently pursuing a human rights and history double-major at the University of Winnipeg.