Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed an anti-homosexuality bill into law, defying protests from Western donors and US President Barack Obama.
Even before this bill was signed into law, there was already legislation on Uganda's statute book outlawing homosexual acts – a relic from the days when Uganda was a British colony. But this latest measure is even more draconian, because it punishes in addition all who support gay rights, or who do not report same-sex activity to the authorities.
Siranda Gerald Blacks from the Ugandan NGO Refugee Law Project regards the bill with great dismay. "It makes difficulties for all of us - including people who work with gay people or who live with them. If you know gay people, you are forced to tell the police. If we don't do that, we can be imprisoned," he said.
This new bill has a long history. A first draft was presented to parliament in 2009. It foresaw the death penalty for homosexual acts, causing outrage in many parts of the world. On December 20, 2013, an amended version was approved by parliament in which the maximum penalty was reduced to life imprisonment.
Museveni hesitated before signing the bill. He said he wanted scientific advice. Ugandan lawyers and human rights activists took the opportunity to voice their concerns. They said the draft bill was discriminatory and unconstitutional. International medical experts from more than 60 organizations wrote an open letter to President Museveni - published in the Daily Monitor - in which they warned of the dire consequences of the bill. They fear, among other things, a setback in the fight against HIV/AIDS if men who have sex with men are denied medical help or advice.
A president who doesn't want to step down
At the beginning of the year Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed his country's anti-gay law. Museveni, on the other hand, seemed to be heeding international criticism. But Museveni, an evangelical Christian, was deciding to await the findings of a commission of 11 scientists, physicians and politicians he himself had appointed. On February 10, 2014, the health ministry, which was responsible for the commission, published a "scientific statement." It concluded that homosexuality was not a disease, was not caused by a single gene, but that more research was needed. The commission did not, however, make any concrete recommendations.
Museveni's political associates were the first to hear of his decision to back the controversial law. On reading the statement from the health ministry, Museveni had come to the conclusion that homosexuality had no genetic component and was caused solely by environmental factors. Observers believe Museveni's decision was motivated by his desire to stay in power.
Anti-gay legislation is widespread in Africa. Homosexual acts are punishable by law in 37 African countries. But the aim is not necessarily to prosecute and to penalize, according to Andrea Kampf from the German Institute for Human Rights. "There haven't been that many prosecutions in Uganda or in the other countries – with the exception of Cameroon," she said. The primary purpose is to stop public debate on the issue. "For those who are directly affected, this means that they live in a climate of fear and stigmatization. For activists, this means threats of physical violence," she said.
Severe criticism from abroad
These are no empty threats, as was shown by the murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato two years ago. Just before his death a Ugandan newspaper had published the names and addresses of gays and lesbians under the headline "Hang them." Kato's picture was on the front page.
Museveni's decision to back the anti-gay bill has met with harsh international criticism. Immediately on hearing of the Uganda's leader's support for the bill US President Barack Obama said it would be "more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda. It will be a step backward for all Ugandans." Bloggers say Museveni's advisors have drawn the wrong conclusions from scientific findings. The German government's human rights commissioner Christoph Strässer also said he was shocked by Museveni's decision to sign the bill. "It is particularly shocking that he bases his decision on social causes allegedly responsible for the spread of homosexuality," he said.
Kampf said criticism is important, but believes there are risks if it is done too publicly and in full glare of the media. "Over the last few years, African human rights organizations have persistently criticized statements by donor countries. Gay and lesbian organizations had reported that threats to freeze aid had led to even greater stigmatization. "It would be better for donor countries to take action via their embassies, or within the framework of development aid programs," she said.
There is resistance to the new law within Uganda itself. As one Ugandan tweeted "If Museveni signs the bill, we will stay a Third World country. Development means tolerance."