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Beware of a “Compromise” In Uganda

Jim Burroway

January 15th, 2010

Uganda’s independent Monitor reports that the Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament Edward Ssekandi insists that, despite President Yoweri Museveni’s call for a “discussion” of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill due to international outrage and the prospect of forfeiting badly needed donor aid, the bill will go forward in Parliament:

Uganda's Speaker of Parliament, Edward Ssekandi

Uganda's Speaker of Parliament, Edward Ssekandi

Mr Ssekandi said: “There is no way we can be intimidated by remarks from the President to stop the Bill. This Bill was officially tabled in Parliament and was subsequently committed to a committee for scrutiny. The President has a right to express his views like any other people who have petitioned me.”

He added: “This was a private members\’ Bill and if the Executive wants to bring their views they are free. The Constitution is clear, it doesn\’t allow people of the same sex to get married and what we are looking for in the Bill is (basically) the penalty and the process should continue.”

When Museveni announced to the Executive Council of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) that his Cabinet would sit down with fellow party member MP David Bahati to discuss the wide-ranging and draconian bill, many observers saw it as a signal that the bill would be withdrawn. But since then, we’ve noticed that while Uganda’s state-owned media gave Museveni’s remarks prominent play (the state-owned New Vision, the country’s largest daily newspaper, has mostly ignored the Anti-Homosexuality Bill until now), it has also been extremely cautious about reporting what the implications of his remarks might be. Meanwhile Bahati has remained defiant, insisting that he will proceed in pushing the so-called “kill-the-gays” bill through Parliament, and now it appears that the Parliament’s Speaker has Bahati’s back.

Museveni justified his announced intervention by telling the NRM gathering that the repercussions of the bill has gone beyond the borders of Uganda and has become a ign policy issue. But Voice of American yesterday reported that Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem now denies that the government is backing away from the draconian legislation because of foreign policy implications:

Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem

Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem

The minister said the president’s remarks to party members was in response to a recent war of words in the media between senior government officials over the gay bill, with one minister stating the government’s position was that the bill was “not necessary.”

“What the president was trying to say was that when it comes to those kind of issues that are related to the current issues relating to homosexuality – will aid be cut, will it affect our relations with other countries, and so forth – nobody has the right to comment on those matters except him as the president, and then it will be integrated by the Foreign Affairs [ministry],” said Oryem.

President Yoweri Museveni

President Yoweri Museveni

So what’s happening? It’s hard to know. Uganda is effectively a one-party state (Museveni’s NRM controls more than two-thirds of Parliament) and Museveni is about to begin his twenty-fifth year in power. In many ways, he rules as a strongman, closing radio stations and declaring opposition demonstrations “illegal” whenever it suits him. Uganda’s 1995 Constitution (PDF: 459KB/a whopping 192 pages!) calls for an “independent” Electoral Commission, but all seven members of the commission are appointed by the President. The constitution originally called for term limits on the President, but that was amended in 2005 to remove those limits and allow Museveni to run for a third term in 2006.

In fact, with the NRM dominating Parliament as it does, Museveni can change the constitution pretty much at will, and there are suspicions that he may do so again to gain a further advantage in the upcoming 2011 elections. The NRM, not surprisingly, has already named him as their candidate for a fourth term. Assuming he wins and completes that term, he will have held power for thirty-one years. Uganda has not had a peacful change of government since its independence in 1962. Museveni came to power after overthrowing his predecessor in a civil war in 1985. Museveni’s predecessor, Milton Obote, came to power following an invasion from Tanzania in 1979 which overthrew Idi Amin.  Despite the U.S. Congress having mandated that the State Department closely scrutinize the upcoming elections, few people expect a peaceful change in government next year.

None of these are the hallmarks of a transparent, functioning democracy. And yet, NRM appears to be a rather fractious party these days. In addition to competing statements on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill from various NRM ministers even after Museveni spoke on the subject, delegates at the NRM gathering openly challenged Museveni on his preferences for appointing fellow members of his Ankole tribe to key positions and steering the country’s resources to western Uganda, his home area.

Unlike his predecessors, Museveni  seems to tolerate a measure of dissent, but this tolerance only goes so far and it extends to those areas which are useful to him. While he has no qualms about banning demonstrations by opposition parties and deploying a huge show of force to prevent them from taking place, Museveni has been remarkably “tolerant” of announced massive anti-gay rallies. Pentecostal pastor Martin Ssempa, who has close ties to several American evangelical groups as well as to Museveni and the First Lady (who also happens to hold a seat in Parliament), has just announced a”million-man” march for February 17 in support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni

President Yoweri Museveni

So let’s not be fooled into thinking that Uganda is a free-wheeling and fully functioning democracy. It isn’t, and Museveni holds all of the cards where the future of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is concerned. And we must not forget this, because Museveni may point to those appearances of an open and functioning democracy as an excuse for refusing to prevail upon Bahati to withdraw the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, even though this is something which Museveni could very easily do without breaking a sweat.

The danger then, is that we may see a “compromise” in the works, which would be just as disastrous for human rights as having the bill become law unchanged. To see what I mean, consider what the bill does now. If passed, it would:

  • Expand the definitions for homosexual acts, making conviction easier. Current law requires evidence of penetration. The new law would expand the definition of homosexual activity to”touch(ing) another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.” Touching itself is defined as “touching—(a) with any part of the body; (b) with anything else; (c) through anything; and in particular includes touching amounting to penetration of any sexual organ. anus or mouth.”
  • Affirm Uganda\’s lifetime imprisonment for those convicted of homosexuality.
  • Define a new crime of “aggravated homosexuality” for those who engage in sex with someone under the age of 18, who are HIV-positive, who is a “repeat offender” (so broadly defined as to include anyone who has had a relationship with more than one person, or who had sex with the same person more than once), or who had sex with a disabled person (consensual or not). The penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” is death by hanging.
  • Require anyone arrested on suspicion of homosexuality to undergo HIV testing to determine the individual\’s qualification for prosecution of “aggravated homosexuality.”
  • Criminalize “attempted homosexuality” with imprisonment for seven years.
  • Criminalize “promoting” homosexuality with fines and imprisonment for between five and seven years. This overly-broad provision would criminalize all speech and peaceful assembly for those who advocate on behalf of LGBT citizens in Uganda . It would also criminalize any attempt to repeal or modify the law in the future, as those moves could also be seen as “promoting” homosexuality.
  • Criminalize “aiding and abetting homosexuality” with seven years imprisonment. This provision could be used against anyone extending counseling, medical care, or otherwise providing aide gay people.
  • Criminalize the act of obtaining a same-sex marriage abroad with lifetime imprisonment.
  • Add a clause which forces friends or family members to report LGBT persons to police within 24-hours of learning about that individual\’s homosexuality or face fines or imprisonment for up to three years.
  • Penalize people who run “brothels” with five to seven years imprisonment for renting to LGBT people. However, it defines a brothel as “a house, room,set of rooms or place of any kind for the purposes of homosexuality” instead of the more normal definition of a place where commercial sex work takes place. Anyone’s bedroom would be a “brothel” under this definition, placing landlords and hotel owners in jeopardy for renting to LGBT people.
  • Add an extra-territorial and extradition provisions, allowing Uganda to prosecute LGBT Ugandans living abroad.
  • Void all international treaties, agreements and human rights obligations which conflict with this bill.

There can clearly be no “compromise.” Should even one provision of this bill survive, it would still represent a disastrous setback for human rights in Uganda. It could also, not surprisingly, become a powerful tool that Museveni could deploy against his political opponents with devastating effect.

In 1999, Museveni ordered a campaign of mass arrests under the current anti-gay law. “I have told the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) to look for homosexuals, lock them up and charge them,” he announced. Several people were jailed. Five men and women who had formed Right Companion, a fledgling LGBT group, were beaten and tortured by police and the women were sexually abused. Others fled the country in fear. The survival of any part of this proposed bill will result in anti-gay pogroms which will make 1999 look like child’s play.

Click here to see BTB\’s complete coverage of the past year\’s anti-gay developments in Uganda.



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