As a “Christmas gift” to its citizens, the Ugandan Parliament hopes to pass a bill this December legislating the death penalty for homosexual people. The bill, also known as the “kill the gays” bill, was first introduced in 2009 by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati. When confronted with the possibility of being cut off from international aid, the bill was stalled. It was resurrected this February in response to mounting pressure from groups wanting to preserve the traditional family.
There is a large portion of countries in the Middle East and Africa that outlaw homosexuality. It is illegal to engage in homosexual acts in nearly two-thirds of the countries in Africa, including Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia and Nigeria. Punishments vary from minor penalties, life imprisonment and the death sentence. It is already against the law to engage in homosexual acts in Uganda, and those accused can face up to 14 years of imprisonment. The anti-homosexuality bill is calling for a tougher stance that would involve a life sentence for people in same-sex relationships; extradition and prosecution of LGBT Ugandans living abroad; jail for anyone who doesn’t report suspected gay people within 24 hours; and the death penalty for repeat offenders of “aggravated homosexuality.”
The pervasive culture of homophobia in Uganda has been used to justify human rights violations of its LGBT community. In 2010, Rolling Stone, a tabloid newspaper in Uganda, published a story with photos of the “top 100 gays and lesbians” with their names and addresses next to a title that said “hang them.” The Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga is convinced the bill will be passed, claiming that Ugandans are “demanding it.”
The response coming from leaders of the international community has been one of outrage and contempt. American President Barack Obama has called the proposal “odious,” while others threaten economic sanctions to the already struggling African country.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird slammed Kadaga at the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference on Oct. 25 in Quebec City, alluding to previous human rights abuses towards gay and lesbian Ugandans. Baird said Uganda should protect its people regardless of sex, sexuality or faith. Kadaga defended the anti-gay stance, stating that Ugandans will not be forced to embrace homosexuality because they are not a Canadian colony. This response incited a huge reaction from some Ugandans who, upon her return home, greeted Kadaga with triumphal applause.
Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, but in many ways it continues to bear the scar of colonialism. As a fairly new nation, leaders resist any attempts from outsiders to dictate policies and lawmaking initiatives that are not of their own making. However, many Ugandan beliefs are guided by the remnants of the colonial imposition of religion. American evangelicals like Rick Warren have a strong influence on Ugandan Christians, who oppose the use of condoms and the separation of church and state.
Uganda is one of the poorest nations in the world. Corruption is rife in the political realm and, despite some national economic growth, poverty continues to impact most people. The international community should not threaten to withhold aid to Uganda if the bill passes for a few different reasons. Firstly, given their past colonial history, it would be unwise to employ coercion. Having endured so many years of oppression, Ugandans will fight tooth and nail to maintain their ideological independence. Secondly, there is no way to target individuals through sanctions. Everyone, including those the international community wishes to protect, would be harmed.
The international community must allow Ugandans who are against the anti-homosexuality bill to do the groundwork needed to fight their own battle. In August, Uganda hosted its first ever gay pride events, demonstrating that despite the over-arching anti-gay sentiment, there is a growing movement of people willing to stand up for their rights. Recognizing that the Ugandan people are strong and fully capable of pursuing justice in their country, dissolves the external pressures of the perceived culture war between developing African nations and the West. If the bill does go through, there is legal recourse as it would violate Uganda’s own constitution, which declares the rights of equality and freedom from discrimination for everyone.
There are courageous and capable Ugandan human rights organizations and allies working hard to protect Ugandans. The international community would do best to focus on offering asylum and support for those who request it and model the type of world where all people are valued, regardless of sexuality.