By Zach Waksman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
KAMPALA, Uganda – A bill that would impose the death penalty for “repeat offenders” of homosexual acts was introduced to Parliament in Uganda on Tuesday. The proposed statute, previously introduced in 2009 and shelved last May, drew widespread criticism from international human rights groups and would criminalize other acts of behavior involving homosexuality.
MP David Bahati, leader of the ruling party, reintroduced the bill, but said that the language referring to the death penalty would be removed, in favor of lifetime imprisonment. That sentence would apply to anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time as well as for gay sex where one partner is a minor or has HIV. If passed, it would also have the effect of making the mere discussion of homosexuality or knowingly renting property to a homosexuality a crime. The first reading in Parliament reportedly drew applause within the chamber.
Uganda is a conservative country that has already banned homosexual behavior, making it one of more than 80 nations to do so. According to a press release from the Uganda Media Centre (UMC), “the main provisions of this bill were designed to stem the issue of defilement and rape which in the minds of [Ugandans] is a more pressing and urgent matter that needs to be addressed.” Despite the UMC’s claim, the bill’s reintroduction quickly drew scorn from world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who called it “odious.”
Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization, was quick to condemn the bill and encouraged the Parliament to reject it in its entirety so as not to “legislate hate. “
“It’s alarming and disappointing that Uganda’s Parliament will once again consider the Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” said Michelle Kagari, Deputy Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International. “If passed, it would represent a grave assault on the human rights of all Ugandans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Though hailed within Parliament, others in Uganda were less than enthusiastic about the bill’s reintroduction. On Friday, James Tumusiime wrote an editorial urging citizens to fight it in The Observer, making reference to recent incidents in Malawi and India, where groups of people attempted to impose their own culture by interfering with other people’s rights to live as they saw fit.
“Bahati’s bill makes it imperative to speak out now because once it is enacted, an article like this might be interpreted as ‘promoting homosexuality,’ an offence under the proposed law,” he explained.
Similarly, Pepe Julian Onziema, a gay rights activist with Sexual Minorities Uganda, considered the bill dangerous for promoting homophobia. She told the BBC World News that the country is already facing increased reports of harassment based on sexual orientation.
“Being in jail in Uganda is as good as the death penalty,” she said. “What I’m worried about most is not even the police coming to arrest me, it’s my neighbour attacking me – it’s the motorbike cyclist [taxi] refusing to take me to a destination. I’ll be killed before I reached my destination.”
In response to these concerns, the UMC said that the government does not back the bill.
“What many of these critics fail to convey is the bill itself was introduced by a back bencher. It does not form part of the government’s legislative programme and it does not enjoy the support of the Prime Minister or the Cabinet,” the press release said. “However as Uganda is a constitutional democracy, it is appropriate that if a private members bill is presented to parliament it be debated.”
The bill’s likelihood of passage is unknown. While anti-homosexuality might be strong, the parliamentary contingent that favors it is small, but vocal. The ramifications, however are much greater. It might be a small, but significant step toward a less tolerant country. Tumusime feared the worst.
“[Bahati] may not realise it, but his bill is driving Uganda down the path of bigotry and intolerance. If the MPs legislate against homosexuality today, what will stop them legislating about mini-skirts, leggings, nose pins or G-strings tomorrow?” he asked.
For more information, please see:
The Observer — Today It’s Homo-sexuality, tomorrow it is G-Strings — 10 February 2012
BBC — Uganda Anti-Gay Bill “Not Backed by Government” — 09 February 2012
Al Jazeera — Uganda Anti-Gay Bill Back in Parliament — 08 February 2012
Uganda Media Center — Response to International Criticism of Debate on Anti-Homosexual Bill — 08 February 2012
Amnesty International — Uganda: Anti-Homosexuality Bill “a Grave Assault on Human Rights” — 07 February 2012