Movement on a draconian anti-gay bill in Uganda is raising concerns the legislation may be headed toward passage in the coming weeks, although it’s questionable whether the infamous death penalty provision remains in the bill.
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality in the United States, said the legislation — which has drawn the ire of the international community for its proposed incarceration of gay people and concerns it would institute the death penalty for homosexual acts — seems likely headed for a floor vote in the coming weeks before the legislature adjourns on Dec. 14.
“All indications are that it’s really going to come up for a vote this time,” Bromley said. “We hear from several sources that it won’t come up until at least mid-week next week and probably maybe even a little bit later, but everyone we’ve talked to is pretty concerned that it really is going to come for a vote before the parliament recesses for the holidays, so sometime before mid-December.”
Media reports indicated that the bill on Friday had passed the committee of jurisdiction in the Uganda parliament.
Frank Mugisha, an activist coordinating Sexual Minorities Uganda, issued a statement to supporters on Friday decrying the legislation just before the committee acted on it.
“The bill does little more than to entrench stigma and prejudice, which will polarize the Ugandan society further and undermine public health efforts to combat the spread of HIV,” Mugisha said. “It places a total ban on public discussion of an issue whose existence cannot be wished away. If the bill is adopted, it will make Uganda a pariah in the international community. We therefore urge the Ugandan Parliament to reject this bill in its entirety.”
Mugisha also called on sympathizers to protest before the Uganda foreign missions in various countries. Previously protests were held at the Ugandan Embassy in the United States last year and at the time of the bill’s introduction in 2009.
“When the bill was first introduced in 2009 we called upon our regional and international partners and allies for support in denouncing this bill in simultaneous demonstrations at Ugandan foreign missions in your respective countries,” Mugisha said. “We ask you once again to stand with us and do simultaneous peaceful demonstrations at Ugandan foreign missions in your respective countries.”
Bromley said Friday he’s unaware of any plans for upcoming protests before the Uganda Embassy in the United States, but expects to hear about such plans shortly.
Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda and punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but the proposed legislation would expand existing law to institute life imprisonment for those found guilty of homosexuality. The legislation also prohibits supporting LGBT rights and calls for the punishment of anyone who funds or sponsors them. According to Mugisha, parents and teachers would be fined if they don’t report gay children and students and landlords who rent to gay people would be punished with jail time.
The legislation — colloquially known in the United States as the “Kill the Gays” bill — became infamous in the international community since its introduction in 2009 for including a provision that would institute the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” Under an earlier version of the bill, that was defined as someone with HIV engaging in homosexual acts, having homosexual sex with a minor or repeated offense of homosexuality.
But it’s unclear whether this provision remains in the legislation. Early on Friday, BBC News Africa reported that a legislative committee had “endorsed” the legislation, but had dropped the death penalty provision. But, as Box Turtle Bulletin’s Jim Burroway points out, that language has been reportedly dropped from the legislation before and yet has returned to the bill.
Bromley said whether the death penalty language has in fact been dropped isn’t certain because the committee has yet release its report — and, in earlier iterations of the bill, the death penalty was apparently removed, but was worked in as a possible punishment for homosexuality in a less overt way.
“I heard before that they took the death penalty provision out, and it turns out that wasn’t in fact the case — or that the way did it, the wording was still ambiguous,” Bromley said. “My guess is — if they really bring this up for a vote, which it looks like they’re going to — given the international condemnation, they probably will take out the death penalty, but I just think it’s a little early to say definitively that they have taken it out until we see what they’re going to vote on.”
The legislation is apparently moving forward at this time — after being bottled up for years in committee — because Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga is pushing for action on the legislation.
According to another report in BBC News Africa, Kadaga felt her country’s sovereignty was insulted after Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird warned Uganda not to trample on human rights. Kadaga was quoted as saying, “If homosexuality is a value for the people of Canada they should not seek to force Uganda to embrace it. We are not a colony or a protectorate of Canada.”
Kadaga was quoted later in the piece as saying, “Ugandans want that law as a Christmas gift. They have asked for it and we’ll give them that gift.”
Activists urge condemnation of legislation
Gay activists in Uganda had urged world leaders in the international community to remain silent on the legislation, but amid fears that the legislation would move forward, at least one is changing his tune.
Geoffrey Ogwaro, co-coordinator of Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Uganda, sent an email to supporters urging world leaders — including President Obama — to speak out against the legislation.
“It is now with profound sadness that we give the clear for any form of international outcry against this determined move by parliament to pass this bill,” Oswogo said. “We urge you all now to go all out to condemn this move in any way you see as fitting including statements (we would be glad if President Obama and other world leaders issued stern statements condemning,)” Ogwaro said.
The Obama administration has already made its opposition known about the bill. In February 2010, President Obama called the legislation “odious” and the State Department has offered numerous statements reiterating its opposition to the bill. The White House and the State Department this week didn’t respond to a request to comment in time for this posting.
Nonetheless, Bromley expressed confidence that the Obama administration — as well as the U.S. embassy in Uganda — is being active in efforts to ensure the anti-gay legislation doesn’t become law.
“We’ve been in close contact with the State Department and the White House — and they’re both following it very closely,” Bromley said. “The embassy is intensely engaged on the ground and they’re still quietly negotiating with the government, but we’re very proud and very confident they really are taking this very seriously and putting the full force of diplomatic policy into this issue.”
Bromley said he expects additional high-level statements from the U.S. government next week as the situation in Uganda regarding a floor vote on the bill becomes more clear.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, joined in the calls for others to speak out against the anti-homosexuality, but said the condemnation should come from U.S. religious leaders — such as Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and voices from the Trinity Broadcasting Network — who have known ties to Uganda’s leaders.
“American faith leaders know that calling for the death penalty — or even calling for imprisonment of — an entire community is not in line with Christian values,” Griffin said. “American Christian faith leaders with ties to Uganda, like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes, must reach out to their influential Ugandan friends to ensure that the human rights of Ugandans are not put up to a vote.”
Should U.S. aid to Uganda be slashed?
One question is whether the United States should threaten to cut off foreign aid to Uganda if the legislature moves forward in passing the legislation. The country is known for being a beneficiary of the President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, a program aimed at providing drugs to people living with AIDS overseas.
U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi was quoted in a Uganda newspaper as saying the United States “has decided to continue giving aid to Uganda despite the ongoing numerous investigations into the misuse of foreign aid,” but that statement was in response to a corruption and not the anti-gay bill. Britain and Sweden are among the countries that have threatened to cut off foreign aid to the country as a result of the anti-gay bill.
In a blog posting on Friday, John Aravosis, calls into question the decision against withholding U.S. aid to Uganda, saying cuts to foreign aid would be a better solution to the nation’s “fiscal cliff” crisis as opposed to proposed cuts to Medicare or Social Security.
“The UK just suspended aid to Uganda five days ago over concerns about ‘misuse of funds,'” Aravosis writes. “Works for me. Call it what you want. Genocide. Misuse of funds. I don’t care. But the Brits have stopped giving their money to thugs and thieves. While U.S. Ambassador Scott DeLisi seems to be aiding and abetting them. Maybe we should cut his budget too.”
The Washington Blade reported in May 2011 that African LGBT activists who attended a panel on the issue at the World Bank opposed the idea of threatening to cut U.S. aid to Uganda as a means to prevent the bill for being passed because it may lead to backlash targeting the LGBT community instead of the bill.
Bromley said the decision over whether to cut aid to Uganda is “a really difficult call,” although he acknowledged the relationship between the United States and Uganda would change if the bill were passed into law.
“A threat to cut off aid also potentially endangers the LGBT community on the ground, who could suffer the consequences or be blamed for it,” Bromley said. “I think it’s clear that our current bilateral relationship would be severely impacted, and that certainly our massive investment in HIV/AIDS would be affected because certain programming would no longer be legal or even safe. I think there’s doubt that if it passes, it has to impact our broad relationship, including our funding relationship, but until we see what happens, it’s dangerous to call for an across the board cut to aid.”