Editor's note: This article has been updated to amend some details of what is included in the bill.
The human rights of LGBTQ+ people in Uganda are once again under attack. The country’s parliament just passed an anti-LGBTQ+ bill that the UN high commissioner for human rights described as “among the worst of its kind in the world”.
The bill, which was passed by Uganda’s parliament on Tuesday, March 21, would introduce severe punishments for identifying as LGBTQ+, expressing your sexuality, or even supporting the community.
While same-sex relationships are outlawed in 32 of Africa’s 54 countries (Uganda included), one of the most extreme features of this new bill is "that it criminalizes people simply for being who they are," said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The new bill expands on the criminalization of same sex acts, including, for example, touching another person "with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality", according to Human Rights Watch. While it would also implement harsher penalties — including up to 10 years in prison for people found guilty of "the offense of homosexuality" or those who "holds out as a lesbian, gay, transgender, a queer, or any other sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female." It also, according to HRW, "effectively declares all same-sex conduct as nonconsensual."
Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda as a remnant of colonial-era laws, however, EyeWitness News reports that since the country’s independence in 1962, not once has there been a criminal conviction under the law for consensual same-sex activity. This new legislation would change that.
The bill will next go to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who will either veto it or sign it into law, according to the Guardian. Museveni is reported to not have commented on the current legislation, however, he has long opposed LGBTQ+ rights.
Speaking on a broadcasted address earlier in March, he said: “The western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people… Homosexuals are deviations from the normal.”
Here’s what you need to know about Uganda’s new bill and how it will impact citizens in the East African country.
3 Key Facts About Uganda’s New Anti-LGBTQ+ Bill
- The new bill both expands on the existing criminalization of same sex acts, while going further, to criminalize anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+, with punishments of up to 10 years in prison.
- The bill also targets media, journalists, individuals, and institutions that advocate for gay rights, “promote homosexuality", or fund LGBTQ+ rights activities.
- Uganda’s President Museveni must now decide whether to sign it into law or not.
What Is the Bill?
The fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda is not a new one, and neither is this bill. In 2013, Uganda’s parliament came under fire from western governments and leaders when it published an anti-gay bill that made it illegal to even rent an apartment to an LGBTQ+ person. The bill was later struck down by a domestic court that said it had been passed without a proper quorum.
Now, a decade later, an amended but almost identical bill has been passed. According to the new bill — as well as leaving anyone convicted of "homosexuality" facing up to 10 years in prison — a person who is convicted of what the bill refers to as “aggravated homosexuality” could face the death penalty in certain circumstances, including for "serial offenders", or for anyone having same sex-relations with a person with a disability. This, as highlighted by HRW, automatically denies people with disability the capacity to consent to sex.
The bill also seeks to criminalize individuals or institutions that support or fund any LGBTQ+ rights work, as well as activists advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, media and journalists face prosecution or imprisonment if they publish, broadcast, or distribute any content that "promotes homosexuality”.
While the bill is still undergoing changes, some Ugandan MPs have shared their criticism of it calling it “unconstitutional” and arguing that the offenses it criminalizes are already covered in the country's code of criminal law. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk has described the bill as “the worst of its kind in the world”, urging President Museveni not to pass it into law.
What Has the Response Been?
World leaders, LGBTQ+ activists, and human rights organizations have been quick to respond with their disapproval of the bill, calling for President Museveni to reconsider and reject the new legislation.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act passed by the Ugandan Parliament yesterday would undermine fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We urge the Ugandan Government to strongly reconsider the implementation of this legislation.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 22, 2023
Activist Eric Ndawula responded to the news on Twitter, saying: “Today’s events in parliament are not just immoral, but a complete assault on humanity. It’s frightening that our MPs’ judgment is clouded by hate & homophobia. Who benefits from this draconian law?”
Amnesty International’s Tigere Chagutah highlighted that the bill "amounts to a grave assault on LGBTI people and is contemptuous of the Ugandan constitution."
Chagutah continued: "In reality, this deeply repressive legislation will instutionalize discrimination, hatred, and prejudice against LGBTI people, including those who are perceived to be LGBTI, and block the legitimate work of civil society, public health professionals, and community leaders."
You do realize that when Parliament passes a bill that’s regressive on one set of human rights that it only opens the door to other even worse laws? This affects you whether you’re gay or not.— Oryem Nyeko (@oryembley) March 21, 2023
What Impact Would the Anti-LGBTQ+ Law Have on People’s Lives?
If signed into law, the new legislation would further inequality and devastate dignity and the human rights of the LGBTQ+ community in the country. Even prior to the bill, discrimination and violence leveled at LGTBQ+ individuals in Uganda has been intense and escalating.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community have faced threats, arrests, violence, and harassment for simply existing. In 2011 a Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist was targeted and murdered; in 2019 police instructed mass arrests of 16 men who were suspected to be gay; in that same year an activist was attacked and murdered. This is just the tip of the iceberg considering that, according to the United Nations, not all cases of discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community are reported due to shame, stigma, and a lack of justice.
What’s more is that while Uganda has made strides towards the eradication of HIV, with the number of AIDS-related deaths decreasing by 60% since 2010, UNAIDS research shows that in sub-Saharan Africa (a region that includes Uganda) the chances of gay men and other men who have sex with men contracting HIV is five times higher in countries that criminalize same-sex sexual activity compared to those that do not.
Critics are viewing the implementation of the law as a distraction from Uganda’s other existing crucial issues, including poor governance, corruption, and increased rates of poverty. Following the announcement of the bill, neighboring countries like Kenya and Tanzania have also followed suit in further imposing restrictions on the rights of LGBTQ+ people by banning LGBTQ-specific books in schools.
How Does It Relate to Ending Extreme Poverty?
A world that is free from discrimination and prejudice is a world that is several steps closer to ending extreme poverty and its systematic causes.
This new bill directly impacts the United Nations Global Goals, including Goal 3 which concerns good health and well-being, as members of the LGBTQ+ community are exposed to sexual health threats as a result of stigma, and can also have their mental health impacted by ostracization and harassment.
It also affects Goal 4 which calls for quality education, as sexual health education on same-sex relationships is omitted from schools under the bill. Global Goal 5 for gender equality is also directly impacted in the case of refusing transgender identifying people their rights to live and express themselves freely.
How to Take Action?
Global Citizens can take action by keeping the conversation going. The more we educate ourselves and speak about disruptions and violations of human rights, the stronger we become in our fight against them. Follow organizations working on the ground, such as Amnesty International, Outright Action International, and Human Rights Watch, to stay informed on the situation and share the stories of the impacts in the country.
You can also take action with Global Citizen to learn more about how activism, the civic space, and right to expression is limited on the African continent by taking our quiz here.