March 14, 2016 at 3:32 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Ugandan president signs controversial NGO bill

Uganda, Yoweri Museveni

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed a controversial bill that critics contend would restrict the ability for non-governmental organizations to freely operate in his country. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed a controversial bill that seeks to regulate non-governmental organizations in his country.

Adrian Jjuuko, a Ugandan human rights lawyer, wrote on his Twitter page last month that Museveni signed the Non-Governmental Organizations Act of 2015 on Jan. 30. Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, confirmed this report in an email to the Washington Blade over the weekend.

“The law is yet another form of restrictions of freedom of NGOs,” said Mugisha. “This law will make my work very difficult and outlaw the organization I work for. It will undermine all the efforts we have been working for and further discriminate LGBT persons.”

Ugandan lawmakers approved the controversial bill last November ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the country.

The Non-Governmental Organizations Act of 2015 establishes “an administrative and regulatory framework within which organizations can conduct their affairs. The measure, among other things, would also ban an organization from carrying “out activities in any part of the country” without prior approval from local authorities.

“We are aware that President Museveni signed Uganda’s NGO Bill, which was passed by Parliament November 26,” Jeffrey Loree, spokesperson of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, told the Blade on Monday in a statement. “We previously urged authorities to consult with Uganda’s civil society regarding this bill. We remain concerned that provisions concerning ‘special obligations’ and activities ‘prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda’ could be used as a pretext to narrow the space in which civil society can operate.”

“We urge the government to ensure that the law is implemented in a manner that meets the bill’s stated goal to provide a conducive and an enabling environment for the NGO sector, while providing requisite accountability and oversight,” he added.

Jeffrey Smith, a Washington-based human rights expert, described the bill to the Blade as “part of a growing authoritarian contagion” in East African countries that began in Ethiopia in 2009.

Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi that year issued the Charities and Societies Proclamation that governs the way non-governmental organizations operate in his country. Smith and other critics contend this mandate restricts their operation and broader human rights.

“[It] has served as the ultimate blueprint for repression,” Smith told the Blade. “Other leaders in the region, and beyond, undoubtedly observed this strategy with interest, as the United States government in particular failed to mount any serious challenge or condemnation with consequences to these actions that blatantly defy international human rights laws and norms.”

U.S: ‘No indications’ NGO bill sought to target LGBT Ugandans

Museveni signed the bill less than a month before he was declared the winner of his country’s contested presidential election.

State Department spokesperson John Kirby in a statement he issued on March 11 reiterated the U.S. has “ongoing concerns with Uganda’s post-election environment.”

“The continued detention of opposition figures without legal justification, the ongoing harassment of opposition supporters, interference in legal challenges to the election results and the intimidation of Uganda’s media are unacceptable activities in a free and democratic society,” said Kirby. “Recently proposed legislation to enhance the powers of the government to restrict media is an attempt to further limit the country’s political space.”

Loree expanded upon these comments.

“The United States is closely monitoring the post-election human rights situation for all Ugandans, including members of the LGBTI community,” he told the Blade. “We place great importance on the protection and promotion of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons around the world.”

The Ugandan president in 2014 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.

The Obama administration later that year announced the U.S. had cut aid to the country and imposed a travel ban against officials responsible for anti-LGBT and other human rights abuses. Uganda’s Constitutional Court in August 2014 struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality.

Loree told the Blade there are “no indications” that the Non-Governmental Organization Act of 2015 “was designed to target the LGBTI community in Uganda.” Mugisha and Nicholas Opiyo of Chapter Four Uganda, another Ugandan advocacy group, said during a panel at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in D.C. last month that they remain concerned that Museveni will use the bill to continue his anti-LGBT crackdown.

The Ugandan government has yet to respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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