In a strongly worded leader column, The Guardian condemns Uganda’s proposed law that could execute gay people or leave them facing lengthy prison sentences. The newspaper says that Sweden is right to suggest that aid to the country should be cut if the law is passed.
David Bahati, the MP for Ndorwa West in the Ugandan parliament, would not normally come to international attention. His name is becoming notorious, however, as the sponsor of a wretched piece of legislation intended to rile the west and torment an already suffering part of his country’s population. Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill 2009, which is now before parliament, is unpleasant even by the standards of anti-gay laws around the world. Its supporters will decry any criticism as neocolonial interference, but the reality is that Uganda is being misled, not least by evangelical churches, some of which have links with the American Christian right.
The proposed law is more a rant against homosexuality and the west than a workable piece of legislation intended for Uganda itself. Much of it consists of a list of unfounded claims, starting with the statement that “same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic”. Infamously, it calls for the execution of gay men found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” – by which it means those who are HIV positive, or who have sex with someone who is under 18 or disabled. The bill may be amended during its passage through parliament to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment, but that change would be only a gesture to spare the blushes of Uganda’s aid donors. If passed – which looks likely, since its sponsor is a member of Uganda’s ruling party – the bill will continue to write hate into law.
Ugandans may ask why they are being singled out for criticism: some American states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, and in Britain legal equality is a recent development. Ugandans may also feel that their laws should not be decided by outsiders. And some in the west, though appalled by the legislation, will fear that international criticism will only further isolate Africa’s gay and lesbian population. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni – like President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe – likes to claim that homosexuality is a decadent import to Africa from the west. He may use foreign attacks on the bill to bolster his case. “When I was in America some time ago I saw a rally of 300,000 homosexuals. If you have a rally of 20 homosexuals here I want to disperse it,” Mr Museveni said in 1998.
Gordon Brown raised the bill with President Museveni at the Commonwealth summit. Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, says it will reconsider its development aid if the law is passed. They are right to use this leverage. Some people may fear the imposition of western liberal values. The far greater prejudice would be to tolerate an injustice in Africa that would not be tolerated at home.