Being gay in Uganda

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A Ugandan government minister has said that a proposed law which includes the death penalty for some homosexual acts is ?not necessary?. The bill submitted last October sparked international condemnation. Homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Uganda. Jeb Sharp talks with Maria Burnett, Uganda researcher for Human Rights Watch, about the anti-gay bill.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Uganda is facing condemnation for a bill under consideration there. It's an anti-gay measure that would impose the death penalty in certain cases. Western countries and many Ugandans have expressed outrage. Even Uganda's president has asked that it be withdrawn. But all that outrage doesn't seem to have had much impact. Today, the Ugandan lawmaker who proposed the bill said he wouldn't withdraw it. Maria Burnett is the Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. Maria, remind us what's in this bill.

MARIA BURNETT: The bill, which was tabled in Uganda's Parliament in October of 2009 is mostly duplicative of Uganda's laws: homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, though this bill ups the penalties for homosexual conduct. The new aspects of this bill involve the death penalty for same sex relationship with a minor. An HIV positive person who has any same sex relationship would face the death penalty, whether that relationship was consensual or not. And if the person that you have a same sex relationship with is disabled, for example. So it's a couple of provisions that would get that person the death penalty. The other new aspects of this bill are provisions relating to anyone who supports or promotes homosexuality or sexual minority works. And what's more, there is an extremely important measure in the bill which calls for anyone to inform police of anyone they believe to be a homosexual or to have committed a homosexual act. So parents, doctors, lawyers, activists, local government officials, I mean, anyone in the country who's aware of any homosexual conduct would be required to turn those individuals in to police within 24 hours or face criminal penalties themselves.

SHARP: And this bill doesn't come out of the blue, right? Homophobia, as you point out, is alive and well in Uganda, so why now? What's going on?

BURNETT: I think it's a couple of things. I think that certainly the work on HIV/AIDS has prompted sort of more dialog with groups about how their needs could be addressed. Uganda's national HIV/AIDS policy does not include any provisions for lesbian and gay and transsexual people, transgender people. Last year we also saw a conference which took place in Kampala, sponsored by the Family Life Network, a Ugandan organization who claims to try to protect Ugandan family values. It was attended by several American evangelical Christian groups who preach that through prayer and consultation with your pastor, you can be reformed from a homosexual lifestyle. So that event certainly crystallized more homophobia in Kampala, and just a few months later, we saw the presentation of this bill.

SHARP: The American evangelicals you mentioned have actually distanced themselves from this bill, correct?

BURNETT: Mm-hmm, yes, they have.

SHARP: What about the strength of this bill. Is this bill actually coming up for a vote?

BURNETT: We don't know when this bill might come up for a vote. Uganda has presidential and parliamentary elections in about a year and one month. We should see those in the end of February 2011, and so there is an emphasis right now in Parliament on passing some electoral laws. It should be noted that Uganda has a lot of bad laws coming up, including a bill that criminalizes HIV transmission. So we're not sure when we'll see this bill presented for plenary debate. It could certainly happen in the near future.

SHARP: Now what about Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni? Does he have the power to intervene and stop this from going forward, this bill?

BURNETT: Well, certainly he can not sign it into law if it's passed by Parliament, but currently the argument goes that because this bill has been presented by an individual member of Parliament, he can't intervene in the democratic process and insist that the bill be withdrawn. He has to allow the legislative process to take shape. Frankly, the member of Parliament who presented the bill is a member of the ruling party and the President wields tremendous power to influence what members of the ruling party do and don't do. And so certainly he could stop this bill from going forward, though it wouldn't at this point be a formal maneuver.

SHARP: I mean, presumably the threat by western donors also to pull out and withdraw support to Uganda and programs there is significant leverage as well.

BURNETT: To the best of my knowledge, there hasn't actually been a threat by the United States or the United Kingdom, or the EU to actually pull funding if this bill passes. The only country that's been alleged to have made that threat is Sweden. The United States, the EU and the UK are by far Uganda's largest donors, and I think at this point, they are not willing to condition aid on this basis. But Ugandan government officials, including the parliamentarian who presented this bill, respond negatively to those kind of threats. They argue that this is Ugandan values and that this is about protecting the Ugandan family.

SHARP: Maria Burnett is with Human Rights Watch in New York. Her focus is Uganda. Maria, thanks so much for talking to us.

BURNETT: Thank you.