The Constitutional Court in Uganda delivered a welcome ruling on 1 August when it struck down the country’s widely condemned Anti-Homosexuality Act, whose draconian provisions mandated life in prison for what it termed ‘repeat offenders’. It also outlawed the ‘promotion’ of and ‘recruitment’ into homosexuality – the latter flying in the face of credible research which makes clear that sexual orientation is not a ‘choice’ nor a ‘lifestyle’ but an innate characteristic and a perfectly normal, natural variant of human sexuality.
The successful challenge to the deeply homophobic law – whose international critics have included President Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and many other world leaders – was initiated by Ugandan based LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) activists. The verdict amounted to a rare victory in a part of the world that has seen a worrying rise in officially sanctioned anti-gay prejudice in recent years. This prejudice has been fuelled largely by shadowy US based religious fundamentalist groups exporting their homophobic hatred abroad because they are losing the equality battle at home.
However, lest we cheer too soon – the decision of the court to throw out the homophobic bill rested mainly on a technicality. The judges ruled that the legislation had been passed in the absence of a proper parliamentary quorum being reached and was therefore null-and-void. Within hours of the judges passing their verdict, the architects of the bill, including Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, were threatening to re-enact it at the earliest opportunity and have since succeeded in changing the rules around quorum requirements to re-introduce this measure.
Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, signed the bill into law last February, having assembled a panel of ‘experts’ who conveniently informed him that homosexuality was something people willingly choose. Since then he has apparently become more circumspect and has advised his party caucus to proceed slowly and carefully on the issue.
Equality rights advocates and activists hope that Museveni’s caution has been influenced by the international outrage that greeted his signing of the homophobic law, and the decision of a number of Western donors to suspend aid to a country heavily reliant on outside assistance. The Obama administration also announced visa restrictions on a number of Ugandan officials linked to the bill.
As we wait for the next developments to emerge from this fraught area, the pressure from world governments and the wider international human rights affirming community needs be maintained and the Ugandan authorities must be left in no doubt as to what a new Anti-Homosexuality Act would mean. It is no time to become complacent in the battle against state-endorsed homophobic persecution, as the glimmer of hope that emerged from that Kampala courtroom on 1 August needs to be seen against the shocking backdrop of a world where over 80 countries continue to criminalize people simply on account of their sexual orientation. Indeed, despite the recent ruling, being LGBTI in Uganda remains a ‘crime’ worthy of imprisonment – making the bravery and determination of the LGBTI community there all the more impressive.
Activist Frank Mugisha is one of the LGBTI activists who, together with nine other petitioners, brought the case to court. Mugisha heads the organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). ‘Changing laws is not hard, but what we really need to do in the long-term is change minds,’ he said, speaking to the Guardian in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, ahead of the judge’s verdict.
In these debates, there can be a temptation to tread more softly because of what are termed cultural or religious sensitivities. However, human rights – such as the right of LGBTI people to live their lives in the absence of fear and persecution – must know no borders and homophobia or anti-gay bias can never be justified, regardless of what wrapping it comes in. That needs to be a constant mantra, and there must be real consequences for those governments that fail to respect and uphold such basic rights.