Friday marked a victory for human rights activists in Uganda and the rest of the world, when its Parliament ended its session without voting on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
The proposed bill was an unprecedented and unconstitutional attack on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans gender and inter sex (LGBTI) community - and on Uganda’s citizenry at large. It would have criminalized the “promotion of homosexuality,” including the provision of health and other essential services to LGBTI people, with three years in prison, and punished “aggravated homosexuality,” which entails homosexual acts by “serial offenders” and those who are HIV positive with the death penalty.
It was no coincidence that the Ugandan parliament galvanized new energy to pass the bill last week, at a time when Ugandan citizens are protesting high food and fuel prices and the government is cracking down with violence, repression and disregard for the rule of law.
In fact, the renewed push to pass the bill during the last week of parliament was a blatant political tactic to divert attention from the deteriorating human rights situation affecting all Ugandans. Over the past month, President Yoweri Museveni has responded to peaceful protests over sky-rocketing commodity prices by arresting opposition leaders, teargassing bystanders and using live ammunition on crowds.
According to Human Rights Watch, Ugandan security forces have killed at least nine unarmed people during the protests, including three in the back as they fled.
Beyond this crackdown, Museveni’s government has done little to respond to the expressed needs of its citizens, who can’t afford food or other basic needs. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was nothing more than a hateful diversion.
There’s no question that the bill would have passed if it came to a floor vote. Museveni has publicly stated that he would veto the bill, but his government’s conduct of late makes it clear that he has no problem violating human rights to maintain power. Passing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and pandering to the country’s hateful climate for LGBTI people would have garnered Museveni increased public approval at a time when he desperately needs it.
Uganda is a sovereign country and has the right to govern its own affairs. But the international community must not stand by while a repressive government opens fire on its people for peacefully protesting—and considers legislation that forces a mother, teacher or doctor to report her daughter, student or patient to the police simply for being who he or she is.
We must remain vigilant when the next session of Uganda’s parliament opens on May 18th, as it is likely, if not probable, that the bill will be re-introduced.
When I woke up on Friday to the amazing news that the bill had been defeated, at least for now, I started thinking about what made it possible and what lessons we might extrapolate for the human rights work that my organization, American Jewish World Service, supports around the world.
First, activists in Uganda built a remarkable coalition of organizations working in different sectors—human rights, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, refugee rights, labor rights, LGBTI rights, and the list goes on. The notion that LGBTI Ugandans deserve the same rights as all Ugandans was not an uncontested idea in Ugandan civil society in October 2009 when the bill was first introduced. Building a coalition was no easy feat. But 28 organizations came together on the premise that LGBTI rights are not special, different or extra: they are human rights.
The victory in Uganda would not have been possible if LGBTI activists had been the only voices opposing the bill. Speaking from multiple perspectives, the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law made the argument that the bill was unconstitutional, violated best practices in public health, and undermined civil liberties. The win underlines the importance of building social movements that transcend narrow identity-based rights claims and can gain new allies as a result. Activists in Uganda have shown us what that can look like.
In addition to local organizing, there’s no doubt that international activism played a critical role in killing the bill. In just the past few week, e-petitions from organizations like AllOut gathered millions of signatures, and domestic pressure in the U.S. and Europe encouraged dozens of legislators and government representatives to speak out against the legislation.
What’s been encouraging to me in the last week—in contrast to past moments during the nearly two-year fight to kill the bill—is the degree to which international actors took their lead from Ugandan activists. The Civil Society Coalition offered strategic guidance to advocacy organizations in the West, providing context by sharing its broader critique of the human rights crisis in Uganda, and helping us avoid playing into the government’s use of the bill as a distraction from its violence and repression.
AJWS believes that grassroots communities are best placed to envision, articulate and carry forward their own visions and strategies for social change. In the struggle against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it has been encouraging to see more and more international advocates respect the expertise and leadership of local activists in their own struggles.
There’s no question that the fight for human rights of LGBTI people in Uganda is far from over, and the country’s overall human rights situation is worsening with no end in sight. But victories are few and far between. This one is certainly worth savoring.
Sarah Gunther is the associate director of grants for Africa at American Jewish World Service, where she oversees a human rights grantmaking program with a focus on LGBTI communities in Uganda.