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In voting for a constitutional amendment to criminalize marriage between persons of the same sex, Uganda’s parliament has struck a gratuitous blow for prejudice and against basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 5, by a vote of 111 to 17 with three abstentions, the Ugandan parliament approved a proposed constitutional amendment stating that “marriage is lawful only if entered into between a man and a woman,” and that “it is unlawful for same-sex couples to marry.” The amendment must still pass a third reading in parliament, which is expected later in the month. A parliamentary spokesman said that specific criminal penalties will be enacted later when the Ugandan penal code is revised.

“Uganda already imposes draconian prison sentences on people who engage in homosexual conduct,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “New criminal penalties against people who dare to marry can only have one purpose: to codify prejudice against same-sex couples.”

Same-sex sexual relations are criminalized in Uganda under a sodomy law inherited from British colonial rule. Punishments were substantially strengthened in 1990. Section 140 of the Penal Code criminalizes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Section 141 punishes “attempts” at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. Section 143 punishes acts of “gross indecency” with up to five years in prison. Both in Britain and Uganda, these terms were long understood to describe consensual homosexual conduct.

The proposed constitutional change follows months of state-promoted controversy about homosexuality in Uganda. In October, the country’s information minister, James Nsaba Buturo, ordered police to investigate and “take appropriate action against” a gay association allegedly organized at Uganda’s Makerere University. In February, the Media Council—a state censorship board—banned a staging of the play, “The Vagina Monologues,” by the U.S. author Eve Ensler, because it “promotes illegal acts of unnatural sexual acts, homosexuality and prostitution.”

State-sponsored media have called for stronger measures against homosexual conduct. On July 6, a writer in the government-owned New Vision urged the government to crack down on homosexuality, saying, “The police should visit the holes mentioned in the press, spy on the perverts, arrest and prosecute them. Relevant government departments must outlaw or restrict websites, magazines, newspapers and television channels promoting immorality—including homosexuality, lesbianism, pornography, etc.”

“Basic freedoms of expression, association and respect for private life are at stake in Uganda,” said Long. “Members of parliament should reject both this amendment and the campaign to stigmatize and silence people because of their sexual orientation.”

In 1994, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found, in the case of Toonen v. Australia, that discrimination based on sexual orientation is barred by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uganda is a party. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has held that arrests for consensual homosexual conduct are, by definition, human rights violations.

In March, a Human Rights Watch report on “abstinence-until-marriage” HIV-prevention programs in Uganda documented instances of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the country’s HIV/AIDS policy. The report found that abstinence-until-marriage programs were jeopardizing Uganda’s successful fight against HIV/AIDS by denying young people information about any method of HIV-prevention other than sexual abstinence until marriage. These programs intrinsically discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, since gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry in most jurisdictions.

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