By Emily McGranachan, Member of Amnesty International USA’s LGBT Human Rights Coordinating Group
While pundits in the U.S. lament the political stalemate on Capitol Hill, legislatures elsewhere have had a banner year. Take Uganda, for example, where no fewer than three major pieces of controversial and internationally scrutinized legislation were signed into law between August 2013 and February 2014: the Public Order Management Act (POMA), the Anti-Pornography Act (APA), and the now-nullified Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA). This flurry of activity in the lead-up to Uganda’s 2016 elections legalized repressive and discriminatory policies.
Thanks to these three laws, restrictions on the rights to free expression, association and assembly for all Ugandans have intensified.
Though multi-party politics was reintroduced in Uganda in 2005, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party has consistently restricted free expression and peaceful assembly in an attempt to silence political opposition and civil society. The POMA was first introduced by President Yoweri Museveni in response to increasing challenges from anti-corruption campaigns led by civil society groups and from popular senior party leaders with presidential ambitions. This bill institutionalizes restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
Like the Anti-Pornography Act and Anti-Homosexuality Act, the POMA’s vague wording and broad restrictions have been interpreted to include prohibition of almost any public gathering and giving the police powers to prohibit and break up public gatherings of a political nature. By further regulating public space, Uganda’s government is limiting the ability of civil society to help discuss, let alone address the issues facing the country and stifling democracy.
To maintain its hold on power, the NRM coupled the restriction of civil society and protest with some of the oldest tricks in the books, playing to its extreme base by identifying a rallying cause and an ‘other’ to vilify. The Anti-Pornography Act was tabled in Parliament back in 2011, only to be finally passed on December 19, 2013 and signed into law by President Museveni in February 2014. The Anti-Pornography Act states that “a person shall not produce, traffic in, publish, broadcast, procure, import, export, sell or abet any form of pornography,” an offense that is punishable by a steep fine or imprisonment of up to ten years. In a now-familiar pattern, the language of the law is vague and its scope poorly defined. While the final draft of the bill did not include specific language, the law has been widely interpreted by the public to ban miniskirts and other revealing clothing. It legitimizes the targeting of women because of their dress, thereby contributing to societal discrimination based on gender.
In a startlingly similar trajectory, the Anti-Homosexuality Act was first tabled in Parliament in 2009 as a Private Member’s Bill by David Bahati MP. The initial version of the bill drew international condemnation for proposing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and other measures intended to strengthen the existing criminalization of consensual, private sexual activity between two adults of the same sex. Despite the international backlash, the somewhat toned-down Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed by Parliament on December 2013, one day after the Anti-Pornography Act. President Museveni signed it into law in February 2014. While the law was ultimately nullified on a technicality by the Constitutional Court on August 1, 2014, it continues to have devastating consequences and some members of parliament have publicly stated that they plan to reintroduce it. The AHA legitimized human rights abuses, from harassment and violence to discrimination in housing, employment and healthcare. This led to an increased discrimination and attacks on LGBT people, as the police and other authorities either allowed the abuses to occur with impunity or perpetuated further abuse themselves. Human rights defenders have faced homophobic and transphobic backlash from the public, effectively silencing other voices that could defend LGBT rights.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act and the Anti-Pornography Act also clearly indicate the influence of religion on law-making. Both bills were introduced as Private Member’s Bills, meaning they were presented by a member not acting on behalf of the government (unlike the POMA). With the funding and support of US-based evangelical groups, some Ugandan churches and religious leaders have expanded their political influence and vitriolic rhetoric against persons they consider to be transgressors and have joined forces with a government that has a long history of intolerance and abuses against people it defines “unacceptable.”
In the end, all three Acts divert the public and civil society’s attention from issues of governance (such as widespread corruption) and development. The Anti-Homosexuality Act and Anti-Pornography Act are a horrible sleight of hand to distract people from serious issues and political failures. As people are distracted by these laws, the POMA steps in to suppress any challenges to the government. The legislation also further enshrines the ability of the Ugandan government to strip whomever it wants to of their rights not be discriminated against and to live lives in security and dignity under the Ugandan constitution and international and regional human rights standards.
Amnesty International’s new report “Rule by Law: Discriminatory Legislation and Legitimized Abuses in Uganda” finds that attitudes towards women, LGBT people, and civil society organizations have worsened since the passage of these three Acts. Faced with these extreme laws, people are afraid of speaking out and being targeted.
Of course, not all Ugandans are supportive or silent, and the country’s LGBT community is leading the fight against these laws, despite the risks its members run in standing up against legally sanctioned discrimination. Amnesty International stands with them.