NEW YORK – A Ugandan bill that proposes the death penalty for homosexuals has sparked international condemnation. Enraged opponents of the bill have been advocating that Uganda reject passing such a severe law.
On Nov. 19 in New York, a few dozen protestors marched outside of the Uganda House, the Ugandan Mission to the United Nations. Many of the protestors represented various lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and human rights groups, all protesting Bill 18, which was introduced in Ugandan Parliament on Oct.14. Carrying signs with slogans such as “Love should be legal everywhere” and the condemning “Shame on Uganda,” the protestors marched for about an hour in the drizzling rain.
A similar protest took place in Washington, D.C. the same day and petitions have been started in Canada and the UK, advocating for government sanctions against Uganda if the bill passes.
But while international advocacy is intended to apply pressure on the Ugandan government by offering a voice for gay and lesbian Ugandans, some advocates warn that pressure could be misconstrued and have the opposite effect.
Kent Klindera, who works for amfAR, an HIV/AIDS awareness organization, said that international actors should tread carefully. Though he attended the protest on Nov. 19, Klindera made sure he was in contact with associates in Uganda via text messages and that he was acting upon their wishes.
Klindera cited an incident in Senegal earlier this year as an example of how advocacy can go awry. Nine men were convicted in January of “indecent and unnatural acts,” which is how homosexuality is defined under Senegalese law. International controversy then prompted French President Nicolas Sarkozy to speak out against Senegal’s actions. According to Klindera, input from the former colonizing country led once-indifferent Senegalese citizens to side with the government for prosecuting the men. What began as the criminalization of homosexuals escalated into resisting “colonial pressure,” said Klindera. Although the men were eventually released, the incident should act as a cautionary tale for advocates.
Similarly, talk in the United States of cutting off aid to Uganda in protest could be misconstrued, he noted. Within Uganda, such an action could be seen as an attempt to impose foreign values on a sovereign country. Klindera said that is why “you have to be careful what you do here in New York. We’ve asked ourselves, ‘Did Ugandans ask for this?’ This time, yes they did.”
The author of the blog Gay Uganda agrees with Klindera. He continues to speak out against the bill from within Uganda but insists on remaining anonymous because of the persecution he could face as an identified homosexual.
In an email, he wrote that international pressure could be dangerous but is worth the risk. “Of course there will be backlash. We are accused of being at the beck and call of foreigners. But at the same time, we are absolutely voiceless here. We can’t say anything. We can’t even publish anything to debunk the lies they say about us.”
Other advocates warn that international pressure could be misconstrued and have the opposite effect.
Frank Mugisha, who works with Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), said that Ugandan culture is “very homophobic” and that the “average Ugandan hates homosexuals.” Current sodomy laws have created an atmosphere where LGBT Ugandans are afraid to speak out. The introduction of the bill has only increased the fear, he said.
The bill, introduced by MP David Bahati, a member of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement, would significantly sharpen the homosexuality laws that already exist in Uganda, including the introduction of “aggravated homosexuality” for HIV-positive individuals and repeat-offenders. A guilty verdict would result in the death penalty.
Opinion is divided over the likelihood that the bill will be passed. Some Ugandans, like Gay Uganda’s author, feel that the bill has enough support within government to pass. “MP Bahati boasts that they have the numbers. And, it will most likely be passed with only a few minor changes,” he said.
Amanda Lugg of the African Services Committee said she hopes that the “bill will be killed on the committee floor.” As a British Ugandan and a key organizer of the Nov. 19 protest, she hopes that international pressure will prevent the bill from going any further. She fears that if put to a vote, it’s unlikely any MP would publicly oppose it. Klindera, however, said that he has contacts in Uganda who are optimistic that the bill will not be made law.
Many Ugandan groups feel that despite possible backlash, international pressure is essential to seeing the bill quashed. “We call upon everyone to ask Uganda to stop this bill,” said Mugisha. “[If the bill] is made law, Uganda will be the worst place to live as a homosexual.”