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Experts Weekly: Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Think Africa Press asks a panel of experts 'What are the potential impacts of Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill?'.
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David Kato, an LGBTI activist, whose death brought anti-homosexuality issues into sharp relief. Photograph by Abolire la miseria della Calabria.

Last week, Uganda’s highly controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill was moved down from number two to number seven on the parliament’s Order Paper. And with parliament adjourning until 2013, the bill will now not be discussed until next February at the earliest, meaning the passing of the bill will not be "a Christmas gift" to Uganda as Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of parliament, had suggested. 

The bill encapsulates a broad range of issues – from religion to human rights to international relations to donor funding to colonialism – and has drawn plenty of international attention. In order to shed more light on the bill, Think Africa Press asked several experts (both for and against the bill) to discuss its potential effects:

Maria Burnett, Human Rights Watch

The proposed anti-homosexuality law, if enacted, will be a major blow to Uganda’s obligations to provide everyone equal protection of the law under the constitution and international human rights treaties. The impact will be serious and broad-reaching whether or not there is any attempt to carry out its oppressive provisions.

The bill perversely protects hate speech about homosexuality, while any comment about homosexuality that is not derogatory could be considered a crime under the article criminalising “promotion of homosexuality”. Banning all debate will create a comfortable cushion for homophobes to obstruct any reflection on the issue. Should members of parliament want to revisit the bill’s provisions in the future, the law itself could be used to obstruct public discussion and intimidate dissenting voices.

The bill’s overly vague provisions make all Ugandans vulnerable to possible criminal sanction. For example, the bill criminalises touching with the “intent to commit an act of homosexuality” and “failure to disclose” any offence in the law. Police might find themselves inundated with allegations, prompting witch-hunts and mass arrests. Tragically, this will divert much-needed police attention and resources from fighting rampant serious crime, such as the numerous rape, child abuse, and torture cases that currently often go without investigation and prosecution.

Businesses and the non-profit sector could also be hamstrung. The provision on extra-territorial jurisdiction will force international businesses and investors to rethink their engagement since alleged violations of the law committed outside Uganda could be prosecuted in Uganda. This bill will fundamentally reverse social progress by undermining the work of civil society at the forefront of discussions on many important issues such as oil, good governance, corruption, health and rule of law. If civil society raises any effort to address LGBT-related topics inside or outside Uganda, the group could not only be deregistered but directors could be sent to jail.

And despite what some have said, this is obviously not about Uganda’s sovereignty. No-one questions that. But the current criminal provision outlawing consensual same-sex intercourse is not even Ugandan. It’s a legacy of British colonialism.

Reverend Canon Dr Kapya Kaoma, Religion and Sexuality Researcher at Political Research Associates

If passed, Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill will impose long prison sentences and, in some cases, execution for sexual minorities. It will require fellow citizens and even parents to report “suspected gays or lesbians” or face prosecution and lengthy prison sentences themselves.

This bill not only violates fundamental human rights for gay people, it will break trust within families and communities. The bill violates the rights of caregivers, pastors, and medical personnel by requiring them to report gays, undermining efforts to fight HIV/AIDS by driving gays underground and forcing healthcare providers to deny care for fear of arrest. And since many Ugandan gays are married men, this risks the lives of women and families as well. Millions of innocent persons will lose their jobs and businesses, and could face long prison sentences based on mere jealousy or politically-motivated attacks, as with the accusations of homosexuality levelled against Uganda’s famous pastor Robert Kayanja by fellow pastors.

Regardless of whether the death penalty is dropped from the bill, branding homosexuality as dangerous criminal behaviour sanctions state and mob violence against gays – justifying blackmail, rape, and killing. As with the murder of Uganda gay activist David Kato, perpetrators can portray themselves as victims. The bill will encourage extortion of gays by their employers, co-workers, and even relatives; victims will fear going to the police, allowing perpetrators to control them with the threat of exposure.

Reverend Scott Lively, President of Defend the Family International

Now that Uganda’s so-called “kill the gays” bill has dropped the death penalty and reportedly added provisions for prevention and therapy of homosexuality I think there may be room for tentative support in the Christian community in the West, even though it retains jail terms for offenders. Here are three reasons why.

First, the Bible has always defined homosexuality as a crime, and not just in the Mosaic law. Homosexuality was condemned by God long before Moses declared it a capital crime (by God’s own instruction), and God's condemnation of it was reaffirmed repeatedly in the New Testament. Preceding Moses, there is the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, and a somewhat similar account in Judges 19. According to Rabbinic tradition even the great flood of Noah in Genesis 6-9 was precipitated by homosexual sin. In the New Testament, Chapter 1 of Romans not only condemns homosexuality as “depraved”, but reaffirms the death penalty for it as well (Verses 18-32). I Corinthians 6:9-11, the “ex-gay” passage, both condemns homosexuality and reports that some of the Corinthians to whom the letter was written were themselves recovered homosexuals who had been healed and delivered by faith in Christ. These are just a few of the numerous Bible passages addressing homosexuality, all of which condemn it in unequivocal terms.

In modern times we have infused our laws with the mercy of Christ, as exemplified in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8 1-11). We have done away with the harsher penalty that God’s justice would otherwise demand. But neither homosexuality, nor adultery for that matter, have ever stopped being crimes in the eyes of God. Nor did they stop being crimes in certain cubbyholes of our law. And don‘t forget that it was only last year that sodomy and bestiality were decriminalised in the US Military.

Just because secular humanist America began to decriminalise sexual sins in civilian law starting in the early 1960s doesn’t mean criminal sanctions against homosexuality are “un-Christian”. Indeed, given the enormous damage to our culture from the so-called “sexual revolution”, it was obviously a big mistake for us to have done this. Knowing what we know now it is arguably more “un-Christian” to support the status quo than to support a return to the legal framework of the 1940s and 50s regarding sexual misbehaviour.

Second, in all the media-driven hysteria about the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill one glaring fact has been consistently omitted. The fact is that Ugandan law is typical of most African law in that it tends to be very harsh in the letter, but very lenient in the application. I doubt very much that anyone arrested under the new law (if it passes) will receive anything close to the jail terms allowed for in the bill.

Third, and most importantly, there is one easy, guaranteed method of protecting oneself from ever being subject to the Anti-Homosexuality law in Uganda: Don’t Commit Sodomy! We all seem to forget, in the dense propaganda haze of American popular opinion, that homosexuality is defined by voluntary sexual acts. Homosexuals are no more compelled to commit sodomy with each other than a married man is compelled to cheat on his wife.

In my opinion, the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill is still too harsh in the letter. I would prefer something closer to the approach several American states have taken toward marijuana: criminalise it but minimise the penalty and turn a blind eye toward discrete violations. Indeed, this would be my prescription for dealing with homosexuality (and all sex outside of marriage) in the United States. This would preserve the basic freedom of choice for people who choose to inhabit various sub-cultures out of the mainstream, yet provide the larger marriage-based society with the legal power to prevent sex activists from advocating their lifestyles to children in the public schools or to flaunt their sins in “pride” parades through the city streets.

However, since I didn’t write the Ugandan bill and have no power to redraft it on my own terms, and since the alternative to passing this bill is to allow the continuing, rapid, foreigner-driven homosexualisation of Ugandan culture, I am giving the revised Anti-Homosexuality Bill my support.

Angelo Izama, Ugandan Journalist and Blogger

There is a general perversity in the behaviour of African elites before a foreign audience. It is as if having a problem to solve in which foreigners are interested is a ticket to some big game, a confirmation that one is part of a broader civilisation perhaps. And so the public debate on local issues (like whether the church should consider same-sex issues superior to other crises) take on a weird quality once placed on a global stage.

The story of aid to Africa is strewn with this variety of the exhibitionism of victimhood – it becomes a bidding game for who has responded to the most misery or who has the most misery to pawn. Perhaps that is why this moral issue has become a very political one.

When David Bahati, the youthful MP from Ndorwa West, a rising star in the National Resistance Movement and friend of the religious right in America put forward his Anti-Homosexuality Bill, we had a lengthy discussion on a radio programme and later privately over the foreign policy implications of the law. However I’m resigned to the view that the bill – like other issues that resonate with a foreign audience (e.g. terrorism, regional military adventures etc.) – play to political instincts of the ruling establishment. In exchange, they produce a superficial engagement that occupies public debate and conferences and projects for those involved. Very little about values are exhaustively evaluated by this process.

Many of the twitter supporters of the petition to stop the bill from passing before Christmas, for example, get the sense that gay people in Uganda are living in an atmosphere that produced the seminal religious event of the Uganda Martyrs in the late 1800s. However, I have also found that local activists often exaggerate the day-to-day risks they face in the face of the interest in this issue – often because aid assistance after the bill was tabled has been for protection, travel, rent and security.

So now many people involved in the movement to hold off the “Kill the Gays Bill” ask how politics (and its religious arm) will resolve this issue especially after the high-profile statements of the Ugandan speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who found political capital in suggesting MPs have a sovereign right pass the law before December 25.

If the matter comes before parliament, which now will not happen before February 2013 at the earliest, the likelihood is that the law will pass. Most Ugandans are also conservative enough in attitudes not to care deeply for its legal consequences. It is unlikely to be signed into law by a Ugandan president, however, because of the sheer consequences of international reaction – especially because the current Ugandan president has recently seen the country begin to descend into a pariah status over corruption scandals in his government and accusations over its role in the Congo crisis. What the debate has served has been to raise the stakes for openly gay behavior, which may attract social sanction, not necessarily legal ones, since a law against homosexual acts has long been in the old colonial-era Penal Code.

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