Frank van Dalen, Moses Walusimbi and Julius Matovu
Just before Christmas parliaments in both Uganda and Nigeria passed draconic laws further criminalizing homosexuality. At the same, time the West is struggling with how to respond. Cutting back on aid is an option, but western countries seem reluctant to do so. Yet it is precisely what is needed now.
On Friday, December 20 the Ugandan Parliament passed an anti-gay law that punishes “aggravated homosexuality” with life imprisonment. People who fail to report acts of homosexuality to the authorities, including doctors and parents of gay children, risk up to seven years of imprisonment. Defenders of gay rights face up to five years in prison.
Before the law comes into force, President Museveni has to sign the law. Since the law was presented for the first time in 2009, Museveni has repeatedly stated that Uganda cannot afford this law. Western donors threatened to cut the development budget, which is twenty-five percent of the Ugandan state revenues. The United States alone spent about 1 million dollars a day on HIV/AIDS projects. Parliamentarians and other high ranking officials are the first to benefit from this.
The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans said in early December that cuts in the development budget are not an option as long as the law is not in operation. Cutting aid however is not meant to punish Uganda after the law has passed, but to avoid the law entering into force. To show that the previous threats from the international community are to be taken seriously, the time seems to be right to decrease or at least suspend aid-budgets now that the parliament passed the law. President Museveni is not the primary target, but rather the parliament.
Museveni will have two opportunities to sign or amend the law. If he doesn’t do so within thirty days, the parliament can overrule the president with a two-thirds majority and put the law into effect. That majority in parliament is present.
These are nuances that most residents of Uganda totally missed. They think that the law is already in effect. This has disastrous consequences for the sense of security gays and lesbians in Uganda have. The fear and even panic is complete. Many gays and lesbians experience the draconian laws as a fatal attack on human rights where every hope for the future is wiped out by the vote of the parliament. Stories of heterosexuals cutting off ties with their gay and lesbian friends, colleagues or family out of fear are heard increasingly. The social isolation is thus complete.
In order not to worsen the situation for the local gay community, it is important to ensure the gay community does not get blamed for the reductions in development funds. The deteriorating human rights situation in general should be the leading argument for the proposed cuts. This summer, one week after the second Ugandan Gay Pride, the Public Order Management Bill passed parliament and prevents unwelcome public meetings from happening. It was also last week that a law that prohibits pornography and miniskirts passed. Generally speaking, all human rights are under pressure in Uganda.
To protect the gay community, further reduction measures will have to be presented behind the scenes. Secondly, talks with the President must not be given the nature of negotiations. Providing rewards if the law is not put into operation as a negotiating point sends the wrong signal, especially to other African countries with the same homophobic climate.
Parliamentarian and member of Museveni ’s party David Bahati filed the law, which included capital punishment, for the first time in 2009. Thereafter, treatment was delayed or otherwise tampered with by the politicians. The situation has now changed. The cat and mouse game in which the law is not legally effective and at the same time brought up for debate on a regular basis for electoral reasons must stop. It nourishes the homophobic climate and puts homosexuals in immediate danger. Museveni will have to use his power to get the law of the table. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay should convince Museveni to actually do so. It is not a mission impossible. The first parliamentarians, Sam Otada en Fox Odoi, have stood up asking the president not to sign the law. And the first religious leader and known homophobe pastor Moses Solomon Male van Arising For Christ said the law was unnecessary and irrelevant and the parliament should start to focus on real issues Ugandans are suffering from.
However, just taking the law of the table on its own will not be enough to improve the hostile homophobic climate in Uganda. More is needed. Tentative steps to prosecute evangelists from the United States who preach hatred in Uganda in Western courts should be pursued with vigour. Many of the laws criminalising homosexuality in Africa are legacies of the British colonial era, which are so often wrongly claimed to be a part of African culture. Overt affirmation by the United Kingdom could help counteract the cultural relativism. Training of homosexuals for political office is another step.
Meanwhile, the pressure must be increased permanently. As activists from Uganda suggested, it is time to discourage tourist visits to Uganda. Even economic boycotts are gently suggested. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, said western companies should reconsider their investments in Uganda. And they have every reason to do so. Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo stated this weekend that the law would also apply for expats, resulting in the expulsion of LGBT-expats. This will impact aid-workers and LGBTI/human-rights defenders, as well as those working for multinational companies.
The West cannot and must not remain silent and should show it is serious about protecting universal human rights. Cutting the development budget is the first appropriate action, followed up by the suggested steps to create a more sustainable solution.
Moses Walusimbi and Julius Matovu are founders of Uganda Gay On Move.
Frank van Dalen, president of Pride United and chair of the LGBTI group of Liberal International, the global federation of liberal political parties. Frank van Dalen attended the second Uganda Gay Pride in 2013. Last November in Tanzania he talked about LGBT-rights with political representatives from numerous African countries on invitation by the African Liberal Network.