On the same day that the Indian government asked its Supreme Court to review its decision on India's laws criminalizing homosexuality, the Ugandan Parliament has passed the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill and, as if in sync, the Nigerian Senate rubber-stamped the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill. The Nigerian Bill. as well as outlawing gay marriage and prescribing jail terms for anyone who attends such a marriage, bans LGBT organizations altogether. The Ugandan Bill promises legal sanctions so extreme that life imprisonment will now follow on convictions of repeat "offenders" for "homosexual offences." A last minute attempt to introduce a more lenient 14-year-sentence was rejected by Members of Parliament who instead maintained the draconian proposal. But this is only one aspect of a terrible law.
It isn't just LGBT people who will be targeted; anyone, whether family, friends, teachers or colleagues, who doesn't report homosexual conduct to the police is liable to be fined or sent to prison for up to seven years. Provisions in the new Ugandan law include proposals for criminal sanctions for anyone testing or treating LGBT people for sexually transmitted diseases who does not report them as gay to the authorities within 24 hours. Any one talking about or writing about gay rights will equally fall foul of the law: I could not publish this article and you could not read it. Last year, the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, promised that the Bill would be passed as a "Christmas gift" for the people of Uganda. It took her a year but Kadaga's decidedly unchristian gift has now been wrapped up in time for the Holidays. Parliament even thanked her in a special motion. The Ugandan and Nigerian Bills now only await their Presidents' signature.
It's too early to tell, but I suspect the recent decision of the Indian Supreme Court to overturn the Delhi High Court's ruling in 2009, which decriminalized homosexuality in India, might have something to do with these Bills passing. The judges declared that it was up to legislatures to review laws, and that's exactly what the Ugandan and Nigerian legislatures have just done. The fact that Uganda's Bill violates Uganda's international human rights treaty obligations doesn't seem to matter much - provisions within it allow for an automatic derogation from the relevant treaty clauses - but this Bill also violates the country's own Constitution . One has to wonder just how much a government which turns on a small, insignificant minority of its own people in this way, and rips up its own constitutional framework in the process, has to hide. So far-reaching and authoritarian are the Bill's provisions, no one in the Ugandan legislature or government who voted for this law could credibly claim that they believed in human rights. And yet in November last year Kadaga was chairing a session at a human rights conference in Westminster with the great and the good of the UK Parliament.
Sadly Uganda and Nigeria are not isolated. Similarly extreme legislation has been mooted in Liberia, Burundi and South Sudan and prosecutions of gay men and lesbians in Cameroon have sharply increased. Throughout the Commonwealth anti-gay criminal sanctions remain very much in place, so, not surprisingly, local attitudes are shaped by the simple fact of gay sexuality being deemed criminal. The resultant violence and intimidation stain the good name of peoples whose governments purport to share the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, values which have unequivocally been acknowledged to include LGBT rights.
To be fair, the international community has responded to these laws in the past, but should more robust measures be adopted now, travel bans for example? That way there could be no more invitations to the likes of Speaker Kadaga to chair human rights conferences, and politicians like David Bahati, who has been behind the Ugandan Bill, and even Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Goodluck Johnson should no longer be welcome in countries which espouse human rights standards. These are measures for the EU, the US and other jurisdictions to decide, but had the Ugandan Parliament, for instance, passed legislation criminalizing a religious or ethnic group they wouldn't be controversial. We must also help LGBT Ugandans and Nigerians by offering them asylum: Earlier in December a Ugandan lesbian, who had fled a lifetime of rape and persecution, was deported back to Uganda from the UK. She must now face a situation that has become infinitely more pitiless for her.
When David Bahati announced last year that the infamous 'kill the gays' clause, whereby the death penalty would kick in for "aggravated" homosexuality, had been amended in favor of life imprisonment, sighs of relief could be heard all over the Ugandan parliament, no one's death would be on anyone's conscience, except that it was a distraction; the fury whipped up by Bahati has made ordinary Ugandans willing executioners even without the death penalty. In 2011 LGBT activist David Kato was brutally murdered in what is widely believed to have been a homophobic attack. Barely able to speak, his mother has described a repeated dream of the hammer used to kill him smashing into his head. The Bill condones such lawlessness.
Members of the Ugandan Parliament stood and cheered when the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first introduced back in 2009. It was one in the eye for the decadent West. But this is not, as has so often been claimed, an African response to supposed creeping Western sexual libertarianism. Uganda and Nigeria already criminalize consensual homosexual acts, a legacy of British colonial administration. Before we turned up gay Ugandans and Nigerians weren't persecuted. These are odious laws pedalled through an unholy alliance with right-wing US Christian fundamentalists. They have nothing to do with Africa.
What has happened in Uganda and Nigeria this Christmas is a tragedy for those who are trapped by unjust laws, singled out to be scapegoats by hatred and bigotry. Everything must be done now to draw good people in Africa and elsewhere towards the honorable side of history. Our own politicians must maintain the pressure on the Ugandan and Nigerian governments. Most importantly, Uganda's Presidents Museveni and Johnson must be persuaded not to sign these Bills into law and thereby drive men and women further into the shadows where only fear, cruelty and sickness lurk.
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