Recently I forwarded the global Avaaz petition to encourage more people to speak out against Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I thought I was doing a good thing by spreading the word and giving people an opportunity to stand up against a bill that would impose the death penalty on members of Uganda's LGBT community.
However, I received a disconcerting reply from a Ugandan friend who told me that I had no idea what Uganda was. He informed me that Uganda has one of the most religiously tolerant cultures, but is incredibly rigid when it comes to "behavior." He said that demanding rights for LGBT people is perceived as "western" and as "a sign of selfishness and greed." He also felt that any lobbying on behalf of the LGBT community would only make matters worse.
Though I have never been to Uganda, it has been possible to follow the Anti-Homosexuality Bill closely through the media and statements from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Sylvia Tamale (the dean in the Law Faculty at Makerere University in Kampala), and other human rights bodies.
Admittedly these sources have all spoken out against the bill, but most have helped debunk Ugandan parliamentarian David Bahati's argument in favor of prohibiting the "promotion or recognition of homosexuality and to protect children and the youth who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and deviation." Bahati frames homosexuality as something that is inherently wrong and predatory, a flawed notion upon which he bases the entirety of the bill's discriminatory provisions.
The reason that Ugandan and foreign activists have taken a stand against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is that it is full of blatant human rights violations that run counter to the Ugandan Constitution and the international human rights treaties that Uganda has ratified. While it is arguable whether or not these treaties are representative of the Western vs. non-Western world, Uganda has ratified the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which guarantees the rights in the charter to all people "without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national or social origin, fortune, birth or any status." The African Commission on Human and People's Rights has interpreted the clause to encompass sexual orientation.
Looking at the provisions (including the prohibition on consensual sex between same-sex individuals, criminalizing the failure to disclose offenses of people suspected of being LGBT or HIV positive, subjection to arbitrary arrest that could lead to torture, cruel, inhuman and other ill-treatment, and capital punishment for "aggravated homosexuality") in the context of the Ugandan constitution and international human rights law, it is apparent that the bill compromises an abundance of rights, including the rights to life, health, privacy, liberty, security of person, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought, conscious, and religion.
From a public health perspective, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is perilous in that it lumps homosexuality with HIV/AIDS and essentially seeks to carry out a witch-hunt against people living with HIV/AIDS. The provisions would make it so that no one in Uganda would have an incentive to determine his or her HIV status through testing. Likewise, it would be nearly impossible for those living with HIV/AIDS to seek out treatment.
With respect to Clause 3 of the bill, which makes "aggravated homosexuality" a capital offense, the bill runs counter to the international trend towards the elimination of capital punishment. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Uganda has ratified, countries that currently practice capital punishment can do so only for the "most serious crimes." Yet in a world characterized by the progressive realization of LGBT rights, including the decriminalization of homosexuality, can Uganda really qualify homosexuality as a serious crime that merits capital punishment?
If the Anti-Homosexuality Bill were to go into effect now, the lives of an estimated 500,000 to 3.2 million people (not to mention anyone wrongly accused of being LGBT or HIV positive) would be compromised. As defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, any widespread and systematic instances of murder, extermination, imprisonment, torture, or persecution would qualify as crimes against humanity for which Ugandan lawmakers could be held accountable.
I understand the frustrations some Ugandans may have with the idea of foreign human rights activists ostracizing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. However, as Avaaz has stated, most of the opposition to the bill comes from Ugandan civil society and the Anglican Church. What both Ugandan and foreign activists are upset with is the possibility of seeing so many people negatively affected by inherently violent policies.
I also understand that Uganda is a conservative country in the midst of a Christian revival and that a public discourse on homosexuality has never occurred before this bill. However, is that to say we cannot question or condemn those who seek to realize the bill's provisions? And is it truly "selfish" or "greedy" to criticize discriminatory, abusive, and life threatening state policies when the majority of the populous is not necessarily ready to address the issue?
These questions bring to mind the abolition movement in the United States, during which many white people viewed the rights and lives of black people as inferior to their own. Yet black and white abolitionists alike rose up to criticize slavery long before it was ever defined as a crime by state Constitutions around the world or international human rights treaties.
Many argue that there is still a considerable way to go in terms of promoting civil rights for all minorities in the US, including LGBT people. But just as I do not underestimate the United States' capacity to bring an end to social injustice, nor do I underestimate that of Uganda. Progress is possible, especially when we come to understand that it is in no one's interest to condemn an innocent portion of the population to the shadows or gallows.