Beyond Persecution

Cary Alan Johnson Speaks on Uganda at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, addresses a proposed law in Uganda that would allow use of the death penalty for same-sex consensual relations.

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BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. I'm Bridget Conley-Zilkic. Today we'll be speaking with Cary Alan Johnson who is the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. We've brought him here to talk about a new extremely harsh law against homosexuals in Uganda. To help set that up, I wanted to give our listeners a little background on how this connects to Holocaust history.

The Nazi Government attempted to rid Germany of people who did not fit its vision of the master Aryan race. Foremost among the so-called racial enemies were the Jews, who were systematically murdered across Europe, but also Germans with mental and physical disabilities, Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and homosexuals. During the Nazi era, 100,000 German men were arrested and tried for violating Nazi law against homosexuality. And some 5,000 to 15,000 suspected homosexual men were sent to concentration camps without trial. For those of you who'd like to learn more, we have an exhibition, including a really robust online exhibition companion, on the Museum's website, at, under "online exhibitions."

Mr. Johnson, turning now to today, one of the most draconian laws against homosexuals is being considered by Uganda. Can you help our listeners understand what makes this law different from other laws -- because there’s widespread persecution of homosexuals in Africa and around the world. What's different about this law?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: With this law, the government of Uganda will move itself into a very unique category of states and that is states that include the death penalty in their penal provisions for consensual same-sex relationships. The bill has a number of other features that are extremely harsh. It has a provision that allows for extra-territoriality, meaning that Ugandans who are outside of their country, living in countries where gay and lesbian rights are, in fact, protected can be extradited or can be prosecuted for consensual same-sex acts upon return to Uganda.

The bill goes further and makes the organizing of gay and lesbian rights movements or any kinds of discussion about gay and lesbian rights in any sort of a positive context punishable by imprisonment, which is, of course, a violation to the right of freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly, all of which are guaranteed and promised under the Ugandan Constitution and by Uganda's commitments to various both regional African human rights treaties and international treaties as well.

If anything could be more egregious than the death penalty in the bill, it's the idea that parents, friends, pastors, priests are required by law, under this legislation, to report within 24 hours any member of their family or congregation that they discover to be homosexual or to be questioning about their sexuality, which would turn the whole country into a country of informers and require parents to basically subject their own children to harsh penalties, such as imprisonment or even the possibility of being subjected to the death penalty.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What so-called crimes would one have to commit to be eligible for the death penalty in this area?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: Well, the death penalty is a provision provided for under the rubric of what the bill refers to as "aggravated homosexuality." And this is how the framers of the bill are trying to justify it in a lot of ways. One of the offenses for which you can be put to death is if one of the persons who is engaged in a consensual same-sex act is HIV positive. What's needed in Uganda and needed everywhere is education and access to services for people who are HIV positive and access to safer-sex supplies, not provisions that criminalize sexual acts between people who are among people who are HIV positive. It's one of the really harsh provisions of the bill.

Also, one of the things that disturbs us the most is the idea that anyone who is referred to as a "serial offender" can be subjected to the death penalty under the provisions of the bill. That is left purposely vague, we believe, as a way of allowing the legislation to basically entrap and punish anybody who is known to be an activist or human rights defender for gay and lesbian rights or anyone who may have been arrested for gay and lesbian activity previously. The bill also provides for forced HIV testing. So anyone who's arrested on a charge of homosexuality will also be subjected to mandatory HIV testing.

The death penalty provisions of the bill are the things that perhaps make it the most objectionable to many people around the world, but simply removing the death penalty provisions of the bill still don’t make it palatable. Homosexuality is already punished in Uganda by life imprisonment. The penal code already, under Article 140, which the Ugandan Government incidentally inherited from its British colonial rulers, imposes a maximum life imprisonment penalty for what's referred to as "carnal knowledge against the order of nature." So this bill basically is an attempt to further police and marginalize and basically rid the country of a growing and increasingly-visible LGBT minority.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: As you just stated, the law takes things one step further. But it's not going from a place of respect for lesbian and gay communities to a worse place. The starting point is a situation of persecution. How does that compare with gay and lesbian rights throughout the continent of Africa in particular?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: Civil societies in Africa are growing and becoming stronger and better organized: women's rights movements, environmental rights movements, movements on minority rights, linguistic rights, in general. There's a new sense that human rights should be a broad and inclusive discourse. As part of that, sexual minorities, including LGBT people, are emerging as players and as partners in larger human rights movements and standing up for their own set of rights, particularly trying to fight sodomy laws that still exist in more than two-thirds of the countries in Africa. And in many parts of Africa, there’s real progress being made.

But at the same time, there is a serious backlash underway. And we've seen a number of countries throughout Africa starting to either impose constitutional prohibitions particularly against same-sex marriage and a number of countries implementing laws against same-sex acts in which there had never been such laws before.

I would say, though, the government of Rwanda, which has experienced its own genocide back in 1994 -- there was an attempt to implement a similar law. Once again, there had never been a sodomy law in Rwanda before. I'm glad to say that Rwanda has learned from a very difficult experience that it went through during its civil war and then the genocide of 1994, learned that marginalizing certain groups of people because of their identity only creates further ruptures in society. So the government of Rwanda removed that bill from discussion and it did not go ahead and pass that law. I think by not passing a new law that the government of Rwanda made a statement that, perhaps while they're not yet ready or willing to provide for protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, that they acknowledged that further criminalizing a particular group, in this case LGBT people, would be a serious mistake and a blow to progress for human rights in that country.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And, inside Uganda, you talked a little bit about some of the arguments that supporters are making. Is there much debate about this law? Is there much controversy around it? What are the poles of debate?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: Well, the framers of the law propose that the bill is being discussed as a way of defending family values. And that is a refrain that we have often heard here in the United States, as LGBT people have fought for a basic set of civil rights, basic access to the same set of protections that other people experience, that somehow LGBT lives are contrary to family values. What I think is contrary to family values is a bill that would require a mother or a father to go to the police and betray and turn in their own child. That, to me, is a contradiction to family values. A bill that would require a country and allow a country to execute its sons and daughters simply because of whom they choose to love, that, to me, is a contradiction of Ugandan family values, African family values, human values.

Uganda is a very religious country, and the churches have overall been in favor of the bill and have betrayed many of their parishioners. But at the same time, a number of important church leaders, such as leaders of the Anglican Church in Uganda, and leaders of the Catholic Church in Uganda have made clear that this legislation, in its entirety, in both its criminalization of homosexuality and, in particular, in the use of the death penalty, is incongruous with Christian values and with Ugandan values.

The debate is raging on, and I'm happy to say that it's more of a debate than we originally thought it would be.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What has the international role been, both in terms of supporters of the proposals? Also, has there been much criticism from outside Uganda?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: Uganda is part of the international community. It plays an important role in African politics and is a signatory to a number of important human rights treaties. As a result, the international community has weighed in on the potential impacts of passing this piece of legislation. The United States government has made it clear to the government of Uganda that they are strongly opposed to this legislation. President Obama made that very clear at the National Prayer Breakfast, and Secretary Clinton has communicated it to the president of Uganda and to ranking officials in the Ugandan government. Other governments, particularly some of the European governments, have expressed the possibility that Uganda would face sanctions or would face disruption of its bilateral aid packages if the bill were to pass. I think that other governments expressing their opinion on this is very important, because the Ugandans need to know that they’re part of a world community, that the rest of the world is watching the ways in which they are moving forward with creating a democratic and inclusive society.

I think we’ve been disappointed that more African governments have not expressed the same kinds of opposition to this bill. The South African government, in particular, has been disappointing in that South Africa has such progressive legislation with regard to human rights protections in general and LGBT rights specifically. But they’ve been publicly silent on the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda. So the lack of real leadership on the African continent, particularly from South Africa, on this bill, has been very disturbing.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: There have been a number of reports on the role of conservative movements within the United States influencing the passage of this law. How influential do you think the U.S. movement has been on Uganda?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: Extremely. In March 2009, we saw an anti-homosexuality conference that happened in Kampala. It was basically orchestrated by three conservative U.S. evangelicals, one of whom was a board member of Exodus International, which is a group that promotes the notion that homosexuality is a disease and an illness and can be cured. But they went to Uganda, and they put on quite a show in which they showed films and they presented a whole package of misunderstandings and misconstructions about LGBT people. At the time, we knew that there was something very dangerous underway but we had no idea that this was the preparation for the introduction of this bill. That is what that conference was. Those three U.S. evangelicals, Don Schmierer, Scott Lively and Caleb Brundidge, who went to Uganda and jump-started the introduction of this bill, have significant responsibility for the aftermath of their brief trip.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: So where do things stand now? Does it look like the bill will pass? Is it scheduled to come up for a vote soon?

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: It is scheduled to come up for a vote soon certainly. Right now the bill is in the parliamentary and legislative committees of the Ugandan Parliament. We were relatively confident that President Museveni had expressed his opposition to the bill and that the bill would not move forward, but it continues to move forward in a very frightening way. We hope that members of parliament will realize what a harmful piece of legislation this is for the Ugandan body politic and vote against it. Failing that, we hope that President Museveni will stick to his commitments and veto the bill should it come to his desk.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Mr. Johnson, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today.

CARY ALAN JOHNSON: Sure. Thank you very much.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at