Under international pressure, Uganda mulls amending anti-gay bill | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 17.02.2010
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Under international pressure, Uganda mulls amending anti-gay bill

Uganda's draft Anti-Homosexuality Bill sparked international condemnation last October and prompted threats to cut aid to Uganda. The latest reports from the country indicate the bill could now be softened.

A demonstration of members of the Uganda National Pastors Task Force

Members of the Uganda National Pastors Task Force tell the international community to back off

As it is in 36 other African countries, homosexuality is illegal in Uganda under laws dating back to British colonialism, and punishable by up to 14 years in jail. But last October, Member of Parliament David Bahati went one step further when he tabled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which outlines some of the harshest anti-gay regulations in the world.

Since then, Uganda has been locked in a bitter debate, while outside the country some of its international donors have joined the fray and threatened to withdraw their funding should the bill become law.

David Bahati is undeterred. "We are determined to defend traditional family values and to stop the recruitment of our children into homosexuality," he has vowed.

The draconian bill seeks to prohibit any form of sexual relationship between persons of the same sex and will criminalize anyone who "aids, abets, councils or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality". Even foreign non-governmental organizations could therefore risk prosecution.

But the most contentious part of the bill is a clause that allows the death penalty for any person found guilty of committing "aggravated homosexuality" - the act of committing homosexuality with a person below the age of 18. An offender who is living with HIV, is a parent or guardian of the person against whom the offence is committed, or uses drugs to lure anybody into sexual acts, will also face capital punishment.

International condemnation

A pastor holding a banner that reads Back Off Obama

Obama called the bill odious

While US President Obama described the bill as "odious," it also prompted a number of international donors to threaten to withdraw their financial support to the Ugandan government if the bill is passed in its present form.

Among these donors - who fund about a third of Uganda's budget - is Sweden . In response to the bill, the Swedish government said that it would revoke its $50 million development aid to Uganda if the law came into effect, calling it "appalling."

In December, the country's Assistant Minister for Development Gunilla Carlsson told Swedish radio that she was disappointed, stating that she "thought and hoped we had started to share common values and understanding."

The same month, the European Parliament passed a resolution against the bill, also threatening to cut financial aid to Uganda .

Uganda 's Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo reacted angrily.

"The issue of integrity of a nation is one that cannot be bought at all," he said. "It is important that our friends understand how Ugandans feel about this. It is not right to say that because it is alright with them it should be alright with us, and if we don't toe the line then we will be punished and resources which were going to orphans, to children, to women and so on, will be withdrawn because we have not listened. Those who happen to practice that lifestyle should be helped to come out of something we do not believe is right."

Even Uganda 's president Yoweri Museveni was quoted on a government website expressing frustration about donors' protests against the bill.

"When I was at the Commonwealth conference, the prime minister of Canada came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays. Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays. When I got to New York when I was coming back, assistant council rang me. What was he ringing me about? Somalia and gays. The other day when I was here, Mrs Clinton rang me, what was she talking about? Gays," he complained, stressing that Uganda has a right to its own values.

Hesitation

Yoweri Museveni

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has distanced himself from the bill

But if donors follow through on their threat to stop funding the Ugandan government, the economy would be badly hit. This fear has made many in the Museveni administration think twice.

In early January, Minister of State for Investment Aston Kajara said that a proposed law including the death penalty for some homosexual acts was "not necessary" and told local media that the government was considering talking to the mover of the bill, David Bahati, to withdraw it.

A day after his statement however, a government spokesperson came out to deny the state minister's comments.

The man in-charge of the ethics ministry, Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo, is standing his ground in the face of international condemnation.

"The threats you hear about are totally unacceptable," he said. "We are accountable to the people of Uganda . We are going to say politely to those who have that thinking that by the way, there has to be some degree of respect. We have got our own way of doing things. Finally let me make it clear, this matter of homosexual practices will not be promoted, it will not be encouraged and it will not be recommended to the people of Uganda . This is our position. We have integrity that we must defend and so belief in threats is not the way to go in the modern world."

But by late December, Reuters new agency reported that Buturo had announced that the death penalty would be dropped from the bill.

President Museveni, who has openly criticized gay people, also began to distance himself from the bill and said it did not represent the views of his government

In mid-January, he suggested sitting down with the bill's author to find a compromise that satisfies both the donors and the supporters of the bill, such as a revised version that will limit the maximum sentence to life imprisonment.

"We must handle it in a way in which it does not compromise our principles but also takes in mind foreign policy," he said, explaining that his cabinet members will speak to Bahati to reach a compromise to satisfy the MP's concerns weighed with the calls he is receiving from throughout the world.

The Ugandan parliament is expected to enter discussions about passing the bill in late February or March.

Rising panic

Aid workeers in Uganda

About 40 percent of Uganda's budget is said to come from aid

Meanwhile, as the political discussions continue, fear is growing among Uganda's gay community.

According to human rights organizations, the country is home to some 500,000 homosexuals out of a total population of 31 million. Many remain defiant in their opposition to the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill and their determination to stop it.

"We are going to fight this bill because it violates our rights of association and companionship," says one woman who is lesbian, and wishes to remain anonymous. "If it is passed, we shall seek redress at the constitutional court."

Others are afraid of tough punishments and say they already face growing discrimination.

Another lesbian woman says that she feels ostracized. "You go to a shop and someone will not come to serve you. You are in a restaurant and people are not going to come to serve you. We are thinking about moving house. My girlfriend is so scared. My workmates knew I was a lesbian, some were accepting me, some were not, but everyone was treating me normally. But now I enter work, voices are dropped, people are discussing the gay-bill, they don't want to discuss it around me. We have to leave. I think about going to the village for some time for things to cool off. What's going to happen to us?"

Worldwide demonstrastions of support

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has strongly criticized the bill, which human rights activists say flies in the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which grants equality and dignity for everyone despite their sexual orientation.

Demonstrators outside of Uganda have rallied against the bill, saying that it has serious implications for the estimated half million homosexual men and women living in Uganda.

"They’ve not killed anybody," says Human Rights activist Emmanuel Mmali. "Why should they be punished by death? In our situation here in Uganda for example such a law when enacted might even be used by political opponents to finish off each other. People can be easily framed so that they are seen to be gays or homosexuals because you don’t see so much different among ourselves – between us and them."

But the bill’s supporters appear claim that the majority of Ugandans are for the bill. Over the following days, both Muslim and Christian groups will march to protest against the international pressure to withdraw the bill.

Uganda is not the first African country to consider tightening anti-gay laws. In Nigeria, homosexuality is already punishable by death, and in Burundi, laws against homosexuality were recently made stricter. These countries will all be looking to Uganda to see what happens next.

Author: Leylah Ndinda with additional reporting by Jane Paulick
Editor: Kristin Zeier

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