‘Among the worst of its kind in the world,’ was the damning indictment of the UN human rights chief about Uganda’s latest anti-gay law, passed by MPs on 21 March, which makes it a crime to identify as gay and makes ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by death.
The legislation, which also requires friends, family and neighbours to denounce people in same-sex relationships to the authorities, would ‘render lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Uganda criminals simply for existing’ and would give ‘carte blanche for the systematic violation of nearly all of their human rights’, said Volker Türk, UN high commissioner for human rights, in urging the president not to sign the bill into law.
‘Some families are reporting their own children to the police,’ an activist told the BBC. One Ugandan MP, Sarah Opendi, suggested that gay men should be castrated. As the bill went before parliament, there was an upsurge of violence against LGBTQ+ people: at least 110 homophobic incidents – including arrests, sexual violence, evictions and being stripped in public – were reported to the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda in February alone.
Homosexual acts were already illegal in Uganda but this bill introduces several new criminal offences. Uganda passed a previous anti-gay law in 2014 but the constitutional court struck it down on procedural grounds, amid outrage internationally. A similar bill was debated in 2009 and Uganda prohibited same-sex marriage in an amendment to its constitution in 2005.
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Ahead of the 2021 election, when President Yoweri Museveni, then aged 76, began his sixth term in office amid allegations of electoral violence and fraud, Anders Sjögren, of Uppsala University, noted: ‘In the past, Museveni has tried to appeal to the public with ideological and nationalistic posturing.’ Anti-gay denunciations and legislation have now become the ultimate distraction in Africa – what the Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby called the ‘dead cat strategy’.
But if targeting LGBTQ+ people plays well domestically, Museveni can be under no illusions about the cost internationally. The day after Ugandan MPs passed the bill, the US government warned of the repercussions if he signed it into law. ‘We have grave concerns with the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act … and increasing violence targeting LGBTQI+ persons,’ said the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre.
‘It would impinge upon universal human rights, jeopardise progress in the fight against HIV/Aids, deter tourism and [investment] in Uganda, and damage Uganda’s international reputation,’ said Jean-Pierre. ‘The bill is one of the most extreme anti-LGBTQI+ laws in the world. Human rights are universal: no one should be attacked, imprisoned, or killed simply because of who they are or whom they love.’
Bisexual Bugandan king
The debate around the bill has been framed as a question of Ugandan independence against overweaning neo-colonial powers, with one MP urging Museveni to sign the bill to defy ‘western threats’. But the reality is that, as in most former British colonies, anti-sodomy laws were imposed under imperial rule. The fact that the last independent Bugandan kabaka, or king, Mwanga II, was bisexual is ignored by Ugandan politicians getting into a lather about gay and lesbian citizens who were supposedly inspired by western influences.
On to this Victorian-era British morality has been grafted the hardline teachings of an unholy alliance of US evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Catholics. More than a decade ago, a US liberal thinktank argued that US evangelicals were promoting homophobia in Africa in a ‘cultural colonisation’ to promote an ‘anti-abortion and anti-gay agenda’. Each of these latter-day Christian missionary organisations ‘frame their agendas as authentically African, in an effort to brand human rights advocacy as a new colonialism bent on destroying cultural traditions and values’, according to the report, Colonizing African Values: How the US Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa.
It is hard not to see the anti-gay law as the fruit of this campaign. Roger Ross Williams, director of God Loves Uganda, a documentary about conservative US Christians’ influence in the country, insists the ‘bill would never have come about without the involvement of American fundamentalist evangelicals’.
While Uganda is the most egregious recent example, such anti-gay rhetoric and politicking is replicated across the Commonwealth. As of 2014, homosexuality remained a criminal offence in 80% of the Commonwealth. A Kaleidoscope Trust report in 2015, Speaking Out, documented the Commonwealth’s ‘poor record in protecting the rights of its LGBT+ citizens’. Eight years later, it is still illegal in nearly two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s now 56 states.
Kenya’s president, William Ruto, recently criticised a supreme court ruling that allowed an activist to register an LGBTQ+ rights organisation. Although the ruling noted the illegality of same-sex marriages (where homosexual acts are also criminalised), Ruto emphasised: ‘Our culture and religion does not allow same-sex marriages.’ In Tanzania, the lawyer and activist Fatma Karume said gay, lesbian and transgender people were scapegoats for political leaders struggling to address economic crises. ‘They want to use this minority group to distract people,’ she said.
In Ghana, draft legislation similar to Uganda’s, the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values bill, was introduced in 2021. Independent human rights experts at the UN concluded that adopting the legislation would ‘be tantamount to a violation of a number of human rights standards, including the absolute prohibition of torture’. In Nigeria, Davis Mac-Iyalla, founder of the Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa, had to leave his birthplace because speaking up for LGBTI+ people ‘became really life-threatening’. He told Kaleidoscope: ‘The more I spoke out and organised my community, the more people threatened me and tried to harm me.’
Stoning in the Commonwealth
While Africa has the largest number of Commonwealth member states that criminalise homosexuality, there are several in Asia with equally draconian laws, such as Brunei, which made gay sex punishable by stoning to death (with public flogging for lesbian sex) in 2019. Malaysia is one of only a few countries to criminalise gender non-conformity, while also penalising oral and anal sex with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping, Human Rights Watch reported last year.
‘To our LGBTI+ siblings in Uganda: we share your devastation at the passage of this Bill,’ the Commonwealth Equality Network said, urging the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth governments to speak out against the bill and ‘remind the Ugandan government of its human rights obligations under both its constitution and international treaties which it is a signatory to, as well as its commitments to tolerance, respect and understanding under the Commonwealth Charter’.
In 2014, Dr Augustine Arimoro, a UK-based law academic, urged: ‘The Commonwealth as a body must adopt a more robust approach towards encouraging the decriminalisation of homosexuality amongst the member states.’ But nearly a decade later, Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth Secretary-General, has done little to further this, despite her frequent espousal of human rights and the fact that homophobic legislation, as in Uganda, goes against everything in the Charter. While Scotland has often denounced domestic violence, she has appeared reluctant to condemn violence against LGBTQ+ members of the Commonwealth.
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said last year: ‘I can’t recall an instance where Baroness Scotland has made an effort to get LGBTQ+ rights on the agenda. We certainly hoped that the enactment of the Commonwealth Charter would provide a way to hold homophobic countries to account. But that hasn’t happened. The Commonwealth Secretariat in London has said and done nothing of significance to protect Commonwealth LGBTQ+ citizens.’
The Commonwealth Secretariat and Secretary-General were contacted for comment.
In Living a Life of Crime: The Ongoing Criminalisation of Homosexuality within the Commonwealth, Prof Paula Gerber concluded: ‘The Commonwealth is unlikely to be able to influence its member nations to repeal their laws criminalising homosexuality. It has a majority of states that support treating LGBTI people as criminals and a weak Charter when it comes to human rights.’
Not for the first time, an observer might be left wondering: if the Commonwealth does not stand for the rights of a beleaguered minority in a member state, what does it stand for?
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.