August 1, 2014

Uganda’s constitutional court took a positive step when it ruled today that the dreaded Anti-Homosexuality Act is unconstitutional. The judges ruled on procedure rather than substance – they said the lack of quorum in parliament on the day of the vote violated the legislative process.

It’s an important victory for Uganda’s human rights community, especially for the activists and lawyers who boldly denounced the law and argued the case, despite the personal toll.

But concerns over this law and the human rights situation in Uganda remain. With President Yoweri Museveni heading to Washington for the US-Africa summit next week, President Barack Obama’s administration has the perfect opportunity to send the message that the end of this odious law is not the end of the human rights conversation.

The law had cast a dark shadow since President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law in February. It increased the punishments for same-sex conduct, but also criminalized “promotion of homosexuality,” with no clear definition of what behavior or speech might constitute “promotion.” People were afraid to even talk about the rights of LGBTI people without fear of criminal sanction.

The government suspended some activities of one nongovernmental organization and police raided a health clinic and medical research facility in Kampala allegedly for conducting “unethical research” and “recruiting homosexuals.” People wondered whether programs advising how to protect oneself against HIV would run afoul of the law. Could human rights and advocacy work lead to jail time?

President Museveni has been in power for 28 years and maintains a tight grip on power. Aid has continued to flow despite large-scale corruption scandals. Military support, the most prized aid for Museveni, hasn’t been truly threatened since donors view the Ugandan army as a key ally despite allegations of its rights abuses.

But in this case, several key donors took a clear stance and moved beyond condemnatory statements. The US and the Dutch cut or diverted assistance. The US also issued visa sanctions against human rights abusers, including those who violate the rights of LGBTI people. The World Bank suspended a US$90 million loan to strengthen health care, arguing that discrimination is bad for economies.

This pressure may have contributed to the case’s swift scheduling before the constitutional court (usually petitioners wait years to have a hearing in Uganda). But today’s good news should not quell concern about Uganda’s human rights record. There are already signals that the government may appeal the ruling, and parliament could try to pass the law again, this time with the required quorum.

While it is very important that this law cannot be enforced and entrench further rights abuses and threats to activists, much work remains to be done. Today’s result means that the court did not have the opportunity to affirm the rights to freedom of expression, association and privacy that this law so clearly violated. And same-sex conduct remains a crime under Uganda’s colony-era sodomy law.

Those rights remain at risk in Uganda and there are serious concerns about where Uganda is heading. Intimidation of journalists has marked various episodes of Museveni’s long tenure. Opposition leaders have been placed under “preventive” house arrest when trying to attend demonstrations or address public gatherings. Police have responded to protests with intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and unnecessary lethal force. A public order law passed last year grants the police wide discretionary powers to obstruct demonstrations. The discriminatory HIV Prevention and Management Bill, currently sitting on the president’s desk for signature, criminalizes HIV transmission, allows mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners, and permits medical providers to disclose a patient’s HIV status to others.

With Museveni preparing to run in 2016 for another five-year term, there’s a high risk in the coming years of more repression of independent media, activists, and protests, amid public discontent over corruption and poor governance. Donors need to be alert and ready to react to these trends with the same vigor they showed toward the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Maria Burnett is a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who has long followed developments in Uganda.

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