In an adjournment debate today Conservative MP Crispin Blunt argued that Britain should impose a travel ban and strict sanctions on Uganda’s politicians if President Museveni passes the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed by the Ugandan Parliament on the 20th December. It is now with President Museveni either to be signed, returned with amendments or ignored in which case it will become law automatically. This law will extend the existing colonial anti-sodomy laws: threatening maximum life sentences for those who commit a new offence of ‘aggressive homosexuality’, that is to repeatedly have homosexual sex, have homosexual sex when HIV positive, or with a disabled person or a minor. Landlords will face imprisonment for renting to homosexuals or LGBT organizations. The promotion of homosexuality will now be banned, which will effectively outlaw LGBT organisations and charities and significantly hamper HIV/Aids work.
If this law is passed, Uganda will join a club of nations, not only committed to the criminalisation of homosexual acts but determined to expand legal discrimination beyond the normal boundaries of historic bigotry.
2013 was a disheartening year for LGBT activists worldwide: we saw Nigeria and Russia pass and enact their own versions of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, India take a step backwards as its Supreme Court re-criminalised the sexual practice of one of the world’s largest LGBT populations and the Singaporean Supreme Court reject an appeal against its colonial era sodomy laws.
However, this trend cannot be accepted by those who support international human rights with a sense of mute, inert inevitability. Ugandan activists have demanded that we act, let us not fail to hear them. As the Parliamentary Friends of the Kaleidoscope Trust are aware, last week I met with Dr Frank Mugisha, the Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Uganda’s largest LGBT group. While we cannot, and should not, be seen in the developed world to be dictating the direction of local LGBT movements and inadvertently making their position even more difficult, Dr Mugisha was unequivocal about the necessity for our support.
This Bill’s supporters have repeatedly labelled homosexuality as alien to Africa, as yet another element of Western cultural imperialism along with global brand Fast Food Restaurants, capitalism and secularism. However this a wishful fantasy for the African homophobe. Far from being esoteric or non-existent, the history of African homosexuality is increasingly well documented. In pre-colonial Uganda alone, same sex relationships existed among the Bahima, Banyoro, and Baganda tribes. The Itesco and the Lango tribes sanctioned men of alternative gender status and the Lango even allowed mukodo dako, as they called them, to marry.
There is in fact one Western import notably responsible for the current homophobia rife in Uganda: a hateful strand of Christianity. Christianity of the sort which prompted British Sodomy Laws to be enacted throughout the Empire. They still scar much of the Commonwealth. These Laws which have been used as a fig leaf for bigotry. They represent the worst of the repressive colonial inheritance, not the well intentioned colonial era Good Samaritans and those who wished to love their African neighbours as themselves. This aggressive, authoritarian version of Christianity is now preached by the disgraceful Scott Lively, who having mined the depths of prejudice in his own country is now seeking to expand this hatred into Uganda.
A Christianity inclusive of homosexuality is not and should not be the exclusive preserve of Western theologians. Archbishop Desmond Tutu made his feelings on the issue quite plain earlier this year:
“I would refuse to go to a homophobic Heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about Apartheid.”
However, a group of “scientists” have duly presented themselves to establish this. These scientists are being led by Members of Parliament from Museveni’s own ruling NRM Party with scientific backgrounds. Their lack of independence is not the only issue. One of the scientists, Dr Kenneth Omona told the Ugandan Observer: “In one study [it is] revealed that actually 50 per cent of the homosexuals revert to heterosexuality if rehabilitated in time. This, in itself, reveals a behavioural aspect.” This unnamed study seems to be the mainstay of Dr Omona’s views on the issue. If only he listened to his former allies in this area. Exodus International, previously the largest international Gay Cure agency, shut down its operations in 2013 and issued a public apology.
More substantively, these views conflict with the opinion of the major medical authorities including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the American Academy of Paediatrics. The Psychological Society of South Africa wrote an open letter stating as much to President Museveni in 2009. All confirm that homosexuality is the result of complex environmental and biological factors.
These supposed scientists may be high and dry intellectually, well away from the mainstream of scientific opinion but they draw on a rich of popular prejudice. If they were truly scientists, they would be ashamed of this. Another member of the commission, Dr Bitekyerezo reduced arguments for homosexuality’s biological connections to a belief in a singular homosexual gene. Political courage and scientific objectivity seem wholly absent.
Another cited reason for this Bill is to protect the traditional African family unit. Beyond the difficulty of isolating a traditionally heterosexual African family, this is a claim which founders under demographic evidence. The two countries with the highest fertility rates are Niger and Mali. They do not criminalise and 40% of the top ten countries with the highest population growth rates also do not criminalise homosexuality.
The law purports as well to aim to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, specifically targeting those who are HIV positive. However, the belief that criminalisation decreases the spread of aids is a very dangerous misconception. UNAIDS, Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana and Zambian First Lady Christine Kaseba-Sata are among many who have called for decriminalisation as a means by which to halt the spread of infection. The Lancet Journal has even found that:
“The odds of HIV infection in black Men who have Sex with Men relative to general populations were nearly two times higher in African and Caribbean countries that criminalise homosexual activity than for those living in countries where homosexual behaviour is legal.”
The International HIV/AIDS Alliance naturally have raised fears that the clauses obstructing “promotion” will in particular hamper HIV/AIDS charities working with the LGBT community. HIV/AIDS treatment is dependent on equitable and non-discriminatory access to healthcare. To justify the bill on these grounds is not only false but criminally dangerous.
Similarly the Bill focuses on the protection of minors, conflating homosexuality and child abuse. There is no denying that Uganda has a problem with child abuse. The Ugandan Police Force reported that it was the second most reported crime in 2011, the vast majority of it between adult males and young girls. Clearly what Uganda needs is not further criminalisation of homosexuality but stronger legal action on child abuse. The confusion of these two separate issues is not only dangerous for the LGBT population but in failing to deal with the real problem puts the children of Uganda at risk.
Sexual Minorities Uganda have suggested a range of amendments to the Bill which would better serve the Ugandan people in preventing Child Abuse and the spread of HIV:
- To make sexual offences laws gender neutral
- To ensure a system of mandated reporting of Child Abuse
- To commit the Government to addressing risk factors associated with child sexual exploitation
- To prevent discriminatory access to healthcare in line with Uganda’s own HIV Prevention and Control Bill 2010
If President Museveni implements the suggested amendments or others of similar effect, he will live up to the constitution of Uganda, the Commonwealth Charter and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. They all enshrine the right to freedom from discrimination. He will have bravely stood out for what is scientifically sound and socially decent. He will be vindicated by history. If he fails, we must respond. The responsibility for the original criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda rests at our feet and, if that were not enough, our own international human rights commitments oblige us to condemn this Bill.
We should examine a range of responsive measures including travel bans for the main supporters of this legislation, not least its leading cheerleader David Bahati. We should redirect the few Government aid programmes where we work explicitly with the Ugandan Government to suitable civil society organisations. We should conduct a proper audit of other programmes where we, directly or indirectly, deliver support through the EU or the UN to ensure that they are not simply pork barrel expenditure directed by Ugandan politicians.
Outrage and dissatisfaction at this Bill should not be restricted to the LGBT community, much as we will be the most vocal in raising it. It is for the Government of all the citizens of the United Kingdom to uphold the dignity of the individual and freedom from discrimination around the world. We therefore look to our Government to act and protect these values take up the United Kingdom’s special historic responsibility as the original author of this intolerance.
Crispin Blunt is the Conserative MP for Reigate and a former Prisons and Youth Justice minister.