LGBT rights in the Republic of Uganda threatened
-If lesbians and gays can be punished simply for speaking up for their rights, the freedom of all Ugandans are endangered-- Juliana Cano Nieto, Human Rights Watch. The murder of Ugandan human rights defender and LGBT activist David Kato, right, Wednesday 26 February dramatically illustrates the danger of standing up for your rights in the Republic of Uganda.
Saturday, 29 January 2011, by Renee Andersen
On Friday, 27th of January, 2011, friends, family, and human rights activists gathered in the small village of Nakawala, near Kampala, to mourn the great loss of gay rights activist David Kato. David Kato, an openly gay, courageous human rights defender, was beaten to death with a hammer in his home Wednesday afternoon. The Ugandan police deny that Kato was murdered because of his sexuality, but his friends and other human rights activists believe otherwise. David Kato’s murder comes only three weeks after his court victory over a Ugandan tabloid newspaper that publicly “outed” him as a homosexual. According to David Kato’s friends and fellow activists, Kato received numerous death threats after his name, photograph, and address were published in the Ugandan Rolling Stone newspaper under the headline: “Hang Them.”
The murder of David Kato has, once again, brought international coverage to Uganda’s anti-homosexual laws and homophobic environment. Fear and hatred towards lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Uganda is spreading at an alarming rate. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the freedom to be a human rights defender are all rights that the Ugandan government is obligated to protect under international law; regardless, the Ugandan government continues to chip away at these rights by denying them to LGBT people and supporters of LGBT rights.
Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda for over 100 years through a sodomy law first implemented by British colonizers. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), under section 140 of the law, the maximum penalty for homosexual conduct is life imprisonment; section 141 punishes “attempts” at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years imprisonment; section 143 punishes “gross indecency” with five years imprisonment; and any conviction under the sodomy law carries a sentence of 14 years to life imprisonment.
Since the 1990s, the law has been strengthened. Campaigns targeting homosexuals, led by evangelical churches both in Uganda and in the United States of America, the media, and the government, have had a dramatic impact on Ugandan society. A climate of fear has silenced all opposition to the harsh laws and any discourse on LGBT rights as human rights.
In 2007, HRW sent a strongly worded letter to the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, urging the government to repeal its sodomy law and to put a stop to the harassment and violent attacks against LGBT people. “If lesbians and gays can be punished simply for speaking up for their rights, the freedom of all Ugandans are endangered,” said Juliana Cano Nieto, a researcher at HRW. Cano Nieto stated in 2007 that, “[h]arassing rights defenders and silencing discussion of sexuality threaten more than freedom—they threaten life. State homophobia and well-funded fanaticism are undermining Uganda’s efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
Evangelical Christian leaders, with the help of powerful American evangelicals, have also been a key player in anti-homosexual propaganda. Stephen Langa, head of Family Life Network in Uganda, an anti-homosexual group, sponsored a U.S. evangelical event in March, 2009, which many local human rights defenders fault for the increase in targeted attacks against homosexuals. Stephen Langa stated that, [p]roviding literature, writing books about it, standing up and saying it’s OK—you should be arrested. Even if you are not in the act, you should be arrested. Anybody who tries to promote it should be arrested. That’s why we need a stronger law.”
Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), stated that “[h]omophobia has always existed in Uganda. But I would say it’s greatly increased over the past two years, ever since the American evangelicals came to Uganda.”
Pastor Martin Ssempa, leader of the evangelical Makerere Community Church in Kampala, has become the face of Uganda's anti-homosexuality movement. He not only receives money from evangelical churches within the United States, but received HIV prevention funding through the United States’ Bush Administration AIDS relief program, known in Uganda for their anti-homosexual stance and campaigns against condom use.
Jeff Sharlet, an investigative journalist, recently traveled to Uganda to interview some of the strongest and outspoken anti-homosexual advocates. In his September 2010 Harper’s article, Straight Man’s Burden, he found that, “[f]or years, American fundamentalists have looked on Uganda as a laboratory for theocracy, though most prefer such terms as “government led by God.” They sent not just money and missionaries but ideas, and if the money disappeared and the missionaries came and went, the ideas took hold.”
Not only is there a fear to speak up for human rights, but there is also a fear that those who do speak out will be accused of being gay or a supporter of gay rights, which could potentially lead to a long prison sentence or outright violence.
Not too long after the U.S. evangelical event, David Bahati, a staunch anti-homosexual advocate, introduced an anti-homosexual bill in the Ugandan parliament, and though it has yet to be passed, allegedly due to international outrage, the bill is still alive and being debated. The proposed bill would imprison consenting adults who engage in “gay sex.” The bill also carries up to three years in prison for anyone who knows someone who is LGBT and does not report that person to the Ugandan authorities within 24 hours. Furthermore, the bill carries a seven year prison sentence for those who “promote” homosexuality and the death penalty for “serial offenders.” Equally important, the proposed bill threatens to withdraw Uganda from all international agreements that call for human rights of LGBT people.
With regards to the anti-homosexual bill, Amnesty International’s Kate Sheill, an expert on sexual rights, stated: “Certain provisions of the bill are illegal; they are also immoral. They criminalize a sector of society for being who they are, when what the government should be doing instead is protecting them from discrimination and abuse.”
After his article was published in Harper’s, Jeff Sharlet was interviewed by National Public Radio, a Washington based news network. Sharlet described his interview with the drafter of the anti-homosexuality bill, David Bahati.
"It was a very chilling moment, because I'm sitting there with this man who's talking about his plans for genocide, and has demonstrated over the period of my relationship with him that he's not some back bencher — he's a real rising star in the movement. This was something that I hadn't understood before I went to Uganda, that this was a guy with real potential and real sway and increasingly a following in Uganda."
You can read the interview in its entirety here.
While the Ugandan parliament debates the anti-homosexuality bill, further comments from government officials demonstrate the hostile climate towards LGBT people. Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, has bluntly said, “Homosexuals can forget about human rights.” The government has also silenced any discourse on LGBT rights. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, the Broadcasting Council in Uganda fined a radio station 1.8 million shillings ($1000) for hosting a lesbian and two gay men on a talk show. The guests on the show spoke out against discrimination and called for a repeal of the 100 year old sodomy laws.
While all discourse regarding LGBT rights have been silenced, Ugandan newspapers continued to “out” whom they believe to be homosexual. HRW noted that in 2006, the Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid, published a list of first names, workplaces, and other information of 45 alleged homosexuals. Just last year, the Ugandan Rolling Stone tabloid published “100 pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos.” Another article had “hang them” written above the list of names, photographs, and personal addresses.
In an interview with gay rights activist Julius Kaggwa, PRI’s The World host, Lisa Mullins, asked about the climate of homophobia in Uganda after the tabloid newspaper was published. Kaggwa stated that, “[a]lmost everybody who was outed in that paper is in fear for their lives…And I think the whole issue is about messaging the way that homosexuality has been presented. It has been presented as an abuse, as equal to pedophilia, as equal to sodomy, not a loving relationship between two people of the same sex…We want to bring it down as a human rights issue, not as a gay issue. Because it’s not a gay issue really. All this discrimination, all this hate speech and hate crimes is a human rights issue.”
The interview with Kaggwa, can be found on PRI’s The World’s webpage.
Frank Mugisha, the executive director of SMUG, was outed in the newspaper and received a text message shortly after his name was published stating: “We don’t like homosexuals in Uganda and you guys should be executed. We know where you live, we know who you hang out with, we know who your friends are and we shall come and deal with you as a youth of Uganda.”
David Kato and two other LGBT activists sued the tabloid newspaper. Three weeks before David Kato was murdered, they won a landmark court victory against the Rolling Stone tabloid. According to an Amnesty International press release, the Supreme Court of Uganda ruled against the tabloid, banning the Ugandan media from publishing names of LGBT people, and heavily fined the newspaper for this violation of privacy. Kasha Jacqueline, one of the people who filed the suit, stated: “While this injunction is a positive step for gay people in Uganda, the fact remains that the government of Uganda has four long been mute about the discrimination, threats and violence faced by LGBTI people in Uganda.”
The time to act is now. These homophobic campaigns targeting human rights defenders and all members of the LGBT community in Uganda must be halted. Not only does the Ugandan government have an obligation to protect human rights defenders, but the international community is morally obligated to stand up to this injustice. As the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon eloquently stated: “When our fellow humans are persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, we must speak out…States have the primary responsibility to protect human rights advocates. I call on all States to ensure the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly that make their work possible. When the lives of human rights advocates are endangered, we are all less secure. When the voices of human rights advocates are silenced, justice itself is drowned out.”
David Kato’s work for equality, justice and human rights will always be remembered within the human rights world. It is now each of our duty to continue his brave work and to speak out against homophobia and the attacks against our LGBT brothers and sisters.