How to be a good ally to LGBTI activists in Uganda

By Jackie Hansen, Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner

There appears to be a rise in homophobia around the world. From Russia and Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Uganda, and beyond, homosexuality is becoming further criminalized. This is particularly hard to understand here in Canada where we are steadily marching in the opposite direction—we have had marriage equality for a decade, and several provinces and territories have legislation in place to protect the transgender community from violence and discrimination.

When we hear about new legislation criminalizing or further criminalizing same sex sexual conduct we are enraged. And we want to act. And when activists in Uganda ask us not to act—or at least not act in the ways we would normally work here at home—we are confused. We want to be supportive. We want to help. We want to send a message to the Ugandan government that LGBTI rights are human rights. And sometimes the hardest thing we can do is nothing.

Today, Amnesty International released a report on discriminatory laws in Uganda. For the past few years much international attention has been focused on the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was passed into law on February 24, 2015, but nullified months later on August 1, 2014 by the Constitutional Court because of a technicality—there weren’t enough people in court when the Bill passed to reach quorum. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, or AHA as its commonly known, included sweeping provisions criminalizing, amongst other things, vague and broadly defined offences, including “promoting homosexuality,” and “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” both of which carried maximum sentences of seven years in prison; and “aggravated homosexuality,” which carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The AHA led to people being subjected to harrassment and violence because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. It led to violent attacks, people losing their jobs and housing, and being too afraid for their safety to access medical care. 

The AHA wasn’t the only discriminatory Bill to be passed in recent years. To understand where the AHA came from, and how to advocate for LGBTI rights in Uganda we need to look at what other discriminatory laws have been passed and what motivated their creation. 

The Anti-Pornography Act (APA) entered into force on May 9, 2014. It stipulates that “a person shall not produce, traffic in, publish, broadcast, procure, import, export, sell or abet any form of pornography,” or risk a fine or up to 10 years in prison. “Pornography” is poorly defined as  “any representation through publication, exhibition, cinematography, indecent show, information technology or by whatever means, of a person engaged in real or stimulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement.” It has interpreted to mean that mini-skirts and other revealing clothing is banned, a belief fuelled by misinformed media reporting. This has led to attacks on women for perceived violation of the law.

The Public Order Management Act 2013 (POMA) came into force on November 20, 2013. It  grants the authorities—specifically, the police— sweeping powers to prevent, stop, or regulate the conduct of all public meetings, which clearly violates the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Activists are concerned the legislation was put in place to prevent protests like the Walk to Work protests against high fuel and food costs, and took place in 2011. The impact has been the cancellation or restriction of civil society activities.

Three discriminatory laws—the AHA, APA, and POMA—all passed in less than a year. All have the effect of putting a chill on civil society engagement. All stifle democracy. All violate fundamental rights and are inconsistent with Uganda’s obligations under international human rights law. They are all vaguely worded and allow for selective interpretation and implementation. They have legitimized targeted of specific groups, primarily women and LGBTI people, by authorities and the public. And the failure of authorities to respond to this targeting of LGBTI people and women has led to increased violence and a growing climate of fear.

Uganda is obligated to respect the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, the rights to freedom from discrimination and equality before the law, the right to privacy, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the rights to work and housing, the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to an effective remedy. The government also has an obligation to take all appropriate measures to achieve the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on stereotyped roles for men and women.

Where is are these laws coming from? The reasons are many and complex. They include the rising influence of religion on law-making, Uganda’s relationship with the Global North, cultural autonomy, and family values. Amnesty International has released a new report, Speaking Out: Advocacy experiences and tools of LGBTI activists in Sub-Saharan Africa which explores some of these issues in depth. It looks at how authorities in Uganda and elsewhere believe that the LGBTI rights movement comes from the West, and fails to recognize that the laws criminalizing homosexuality are a holdover from the colonial period. And it acknowledges the rise of US evangelical churches with anti-LGBTI views.

So what can we do here in Canada? Given the Ugandan government’s sensitivities around LGBTI issues, and the perception that the LGBTI rights movement is being imported from the Global North, we have been asked not to directly target the Uganda government. Uganda has an active LGBTI activism community and they are domestically working to create societal and legal change. When they need us to take action they call on us to do so. Right now they are asking for our solidarity. They need us to keep reminding them that the world is watching and that they are not alone. They need us to continue raising their profile to offer them a layer of protection, same as we do with so many human rights defenders. And they need us to spread the word.




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