While South Africans were celebrating Human Rights Day on March 21, Ugandan lawmakers passed a sweeping bill that tramples on the basic human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Ugandans. Under this bill, sexually active gay men and lesbians could face the death penalty. South Africa’s constitution and the protection it provides offer a beacon of hope in this situation. South Africa has the leadership, experience and regional influence to advocate against it and should do so urgently, before this bill is signed into law.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has 30 days since its passage through parliament to sign this bill into law or reject it. Ugandan lawmakers use the rhetoric of defending ‘traditional family values’ against foreign influence as justification for this odious law, yet the law targets ordinary Ugandans and casts basic human rights as foreign.
President Museveni has said that “Uganda will not embrace homosexuality and the West should stop seeking to impose its views.” This is a false dichotomy. A number of African countries, including Angola, Botswana, Gabon, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Seychelles have decriminalised same-sex relations in recent years. South Africa’s Constitution includes ‘sexual orientation’ as express grounds for protection. Cape Verde plays an active role in defending the rights of LGBT people on the international stage. And the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has condemned violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity and called for perpetrators to be brought to justice.
The Anti-Homosexuality bill expands on existing legislation in Uganda that already criminalised same-sex sexual activities with up to life in prison. Aside from the ‘serial offenders’ provision that stipulates the death penalty, a sweeping ‘promotion of homosexuality’ provision in the bill means that activists, or anyone who supports them, financially or otherwise, face 20 years in prison. Landlords who lease a room to a gay or lesbian couple could face 20 years in prison.
There is a total ban on disseminating any information, through any medium, on LGBT issues. And anyone who knows someone who is gay or lesbian is required to report them to the police or face six months in jail. This means, for instance, that family members and friends could be sentenced to jail for not reporting their loved ones to the authorities. Anyone who celebrated their same-sex relationship with an unofficial marriage ceremony could find themselves in jail for up to 10 years.
Cries for urgent international help
In the face of this draconian legislation, groups in Uganda have issued a call to the international community to expedite asylum applications for LGBT Ugandans. There is good reason to do so: During the past two years, Human Rights Watch has conducted research on the factors that push LGBT people to leave their countries of origin and seek sanctuary in South Africa, and their experiences when they get there. Already South Africa-based groups that assist refugees and asylum seekers are adapting to an unfolding crisis, with limited resources to cope with growing demand.
The South African Refugees Act (1998) expressly lists sexual orientation as grounds for protection. Over the past decade, South Africa has become a viable destination for people seeking refuge from persecution related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression on the continent.
Victor Chikalogwe, head of the Cape Town-based organisation Passop (People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty), says that they are used to dealing with a steady stream of LGBT asylum seekers fleeing intolerable conditions in their home countries. But they are now bracing for a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers from Uganda.
Within a week of the Anti-Homosexuality bill’s passage, Passop received 22 LGBT Ugandans who had fled to South Africa. Sixty-two others have appealed directly to Passop for help from within Uganda as they desperately prepare to flee. Many LGBT Ugandans who have contacted Passop see a brief window of opportunity to escape the country before the bill is signed into law, leaving everything behind in the hope of finding safe haven elsewhere.
One Ugandan seeking to flee the country sent Passop a message with a video showing lawmakers debating the bill. “Imagine these people, they don’t know the pain we are going through,” the sender wrote. And another, “For sure we are to die. And this is going to cause many of us to kill ourselves.”
Aside from the bill’s egregious provisions, the justification for the looming legislation conflates homosexuality with paedophilia and uses the protection of children as a rationale for the extreme legislation. Not only is this derogatory, but it is also a false premise. Uganda’s penal code (section 147) already criminalises sex with boys under 18 with 14 years in prison, with the possibility of corporal punishment, and the death penalty for anyone having unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under age 18 (section 129). (Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty and corporal punishment in all circumstances.)
LGBT organisations in Uganda are already under siege. Senior officials in Uganda and some church leaders have fueled a moral panic by falsely accusing LGBT groups of recruiting children in schools. Four groups, including Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug), have been banned, and another 22 are under investigation by the authorities. Desperately needed social and health services have been disrupted as a result. A spokesman for an organisation that runs a shelter for homeless LGBT youth who have been rejected by family and community, decried the closure of SMUG and the demise of the services they offered. He told Human Rights Watch that mental health services are urgently needed:
“Some of them think that because of being what they are — because of being gay or lesbian — that it is the end. Some of them feel like, ‘No, we can’t live because my mother sent me out of my place. I don’t have anywhere to go, so I have to just die.’ … They are mentally not okay.”
A previous version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2013) was passed a decade ago, and then annulled on procedural grounds by Uganda’s Constitutional Court. Passage of the act in 2013 was followed by an uptick in violence and abuse against LGBT people in Uganda. Under the new law, LGBT Ugandans face imprisonment or worse.
President Museveni should not sign this bill into law. And South African authorities should advocate against it — directly with the Ugandan authorities — on grounds that it is contrary to the values of South Africa, the region, and universal human rights. And the harm to Uganda will be considerable, especially for the loss of many Ugandans who will be left with few options but to flee their own country.