HIV/AIDS Envoy: Uganda’s Chairing Of Commonwealth Meeting “A Mockery of Commonwealth Principles”
November 24th, 2009
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) takes place every two years to bring together the heads of states of some fifty-three countries, most of them former members of the British Commonwealth. CHOGM was last held in Kampala, Uganda in 2007. This year, the CHOGM will take place in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on November 27-29, with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni serving as the meeting’s chair.
Prior to the CHOGM, there is another important series of meetings known as the Commonwealth People’s Forum. This Forum is conducted by the Commonwealth Foundation, which is officially sponsored by the Commonwealth. This year’s Forum is taking place in Port of Spain November 22-24, and it brings together hundreds of civil and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss several important issues on wide ranging topics of human development around the world.
Today, Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, is speaking before the Forum to address the Anti-Homosexuality Act which has been tabled before the Uganda Parliament. Lewis also serves as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. According to prepared remarks (PDF: 143KB/7 pages), Lewis said that the proposed Act is an “inflamatory redesign” of Uganda’s already draconian anti-sodomy law into “a veritable charter of malice.” He also warns that the proposed Act and Museveni’s chairing the CHOGM “puts the Commonwealth’s legitimacy and integrity to the test”:
One must remember that the last meeting of CHOGM was held in Uganda in 2007, and issued what is called the “Munyonyo Statement of Respect and Understanding”. It asserted that the Commonwealth “is a body well-placed to affirm the fundamental truth that diversity is one of humanity’s greatest strengths”. It went on to say that “accepting diversity, respecting the dignity of all human beings, and understanding the richness of our multiple identities have always been fundamental to the Commonwealth’s principles and approach …”. President Museveni signed the document. How in the world does he reconcile the affirmation then with the defamation now?
Lewis recalls some of the most heinsous aspects of the proposed legislation — the death penalty for LGBT citizens with HIV/AIDS, the criminal sanctions against those who fail to report LGBT people to police within 24 hours, the extraterritorial clause which “extend(s) the arm of the state into the bedrooms of the world,” and the provisions which explicitly suspend international law — and he declares that the legislation has a “powerful Orwellian flavor”:
If it weren’t so extreme, so menacing, so lunatic, it would be the stuff of theatrical parody. Parents, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, preachers, landlords, community health workers, members of the media, civil society activists, anyone who can identify a homosexual, gay or lesbian, or has reason to believe that homosexuality is lurking, must report to the authorities or face a fine, or jail term of three to ten years, or both. Can you imagine a father or a mother turning in a son or daughter? Can you imagine a teacher ratting on a student? Can you imagine a physician who’s taken a Hippocratic oath to tend to the sick betraying that trust because of a patient’s sexual orientation? But that’s exactly what this law requires.
I’ve truly never seen its like before. Please forgive the harsh language, but this intended antihomosexual statute has the taste of fascism.
And yet, that’s only the half of it. What is put at terrible risk here — beyond the threat of the death penalty for HIV-positive homosexuals — is the entire apparatus of AIDS treatment, prevention and care.
Citing the significant amounts of HIV/AIDS funding now being funneled to Uganda from the United States (through PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Marlaria, Lewis warns that “there’s a very real crisis of conscience in the offing.” As written, this bill, which also bans any activities which can be seen as “support” for LGBT people, would place ordinary NGO employees and volunteers at risk for criminal penalties. Lewis continues:
I know that the views I am expressing on behalf of the organization I represent, AIDS-Free World, will seem tough and harsh to some. But let me tell you what we feel.
We don’t think that this piece of legislation deserves a careful parsing of its clauses, invoking all of the international human rights instruments that Uganda has endorsed, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, attempting to show where the Bill is in conflict with human rights principles. That just gives far too much credibility to the proposed legislation. On its face, without more than a simple glance at the substance, the Bill is revealed as an unbridled attack on the human rights of sexual minorities. There is no overall clause worthy of retention. There are phrases here or there (like the prohibition of sex with a minor) that any sentient human being can agree with. But the Bill cannot possibly be salvaged. It must be expunged in total from the parliamentary record. And for those who believe in conspiracy theories, let me say that the fundamentalist hand of the religious right in the United States is not difficult to discern.
Nor do we think that we need treat this issue with respect. We don’t believe that we have to ‘respectfully submit’ our arguments to anyone, or seek to ‘respectfully influence’ the powers-that-be. There are some moments in life where defining issues are indelibly joined. I remember sitting behind my then Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, at the Commonwealth meeting in Vancouver in 1987. The issue was apartheid. The contest was between Margaret Thatcher and Mulroney, and Mulroney let her have it. There was no respectful pretense. He didn’t parse the pass laws, he didn’t invoke the clauses of international covenants, he just lacerated Prime Minister Thatcher for defending apartheid, and he decried it for what it was: a totalitarian regime rooted in racism and the savage decimation of human rights. It’s worth noting that he was joined by Sir Shridath Ramphal, then the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who was slightly more restrained but unmistakable of tone and purpose. That was a time when the Commonwealth stood for something.
Lewis skillfully defends the apartheid analogy be pointing out that he didn’t invent the analogy. The comparison between racial apartheid and anti-LGBT legislation was made by the Constitutional Court of South Africa itself in 1998 when it struck down that country’s anti-sodomy law.
Describing the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Act as “positively criminal,” Lewis demands that the CHOGM takes up this issue and places it on the agenda. He also demands that the Commonwealth collectively commits to suspending Uganda from the Commonwealth should the proposed law pass. This step is typically reserved for when a member state undergoes a military coup or suspension of its constitution. Zimbabwe is the most recent suspension. However, South Africa was suspended in 1961 over apartheid, and it wasn’t re-admitted until 1994 after its racial policies were dismantled.
But that was a relatively easy call: no other member nation had state-sanctioned racial segregation policies. Forty of the fifty-three member nations currently have anti-sodomy laws, although none of them as severe as Uganda’s existing law which already provides for lifetime imprisonment. With the vast majority of the Commonwealth already on record as fully prepared to imprison its LGBT population, and Museveni acting as chair of the Commonwealth summit, a statement addressing the proposed legislation is a severe long shot. But as Lewis concludes:
“The credibility of the Commonwealth is hanging by a spider’s thread. …If the once-upon-a-time civilized values of the post-colonial Commonwealth are to be restored, then the monstrous war on homosexuality is the place to start the restoration. Uganda makes a perfect beginning.