Uganda: IGLHRC Condems Uganda's Targeting of Lesbians and Gay Men; Calls Ban on Same-Sex Marriage "Legislative Overkill"

(October 12, New York, NY) — The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) condemned today the recent decision by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni to ban same-sex marriage. According to IGLHRC, the new law is the most recent in a series of attacks designed to silence Uganda’s increasingly vocal lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and sanction anti-gay violence.

“Uganda is engaged in an active campaign of legislative overkill and coercion to silence an emerging community,” said Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC’s Senior Specialist for Africa. “Sodomy is punishable in Uganda by life imprisonment and LGBT people live in fear because of aggressive government intimidation. Marriage is not really at the top of the community’s list of needs.”

Uganda’s Parliament passed the highly unusual amendment to the constitution in early July of this year. President Museveni signed the bill on September 29th, making Uganda the second country in the world to use its constitution to outlaw marriage between people of the same sex. Honduras passed a constitutional amendment last year and the government of Kenya is using its constitutional revision exercise to reinforce the illegality of same-sex marriages.

“Constitutions are normally documents which enshrine the rights of a country’s citizens,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC. “In Uganda and Kenya, they are being used to codify discrimination. It’s a blatant attempt to force lesbians and gay men back into their closets.”

Museveni’s signature comes as little surprise to most LGBT and human rights activists, given the government of Uganda’s consistent targeting of gay and lesbian Ugandans and their supporters. In October 2004, the minister of information publicly supported police harassment of a LGBT student group at Uganda’s Makerere University. In February 2005, the Media Council—a state censorship board—banned a staging of the play, The Vagina Monologues, by the U.S. author Eve Ensler. The government claimed that the play “promotes illegal acts of unnatural sexual acts, homosexuality and prostitution.”

Women’s rights activist Juliet Mukasa, upon hearing about the constitutional amendment, said: “As a citizen of Uganda, who is also lesbian, I call upon my government to reconsider this legislation which ultimately makes it legal to discriminate against certain members of our society.” Mukasa herself was the victim of a raid of her home in July 2005 by local council members. Officials confiscated documents relating to Sexual Minorities in Uganda (SMUG), a leading lesbian and gay rights group in the country.

Equally disturbing is the government’s campaign against HIV/AIDS prevention programs that provide access to condoms or include outreach to men who have sex with men. Once hailed as a global leader in the struggle to combat HIV, Uganda has moved away from its successful HIV prevention campaigns of the last two decades toward an “abstinence-only” message that many trace directly back to the president and the First Lady, Janet Museveni.

In August 2004, Radio Simba, a popular Ugandan station was heavily fined by the government for broadcasting a call-in talk show featuring a lesbian and two gay men discussing anti-gay discrimination in Uganda and the need for HIV/AIDS services for men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women. In May of this year, the director of the UN agency responsible for HIV/AIDS activities in Uganda was quietly expelled for engaging in discussions with LGBT activists.

According to IGLHRC, despite a dismal overall human rights record and a protracted civil war in the north of the country, Uganda is held up by some western powers as a model of good governance. In 2005 alone, Uganda will receive more than $1 billion in foreign aid and, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, more than 350,000 tourists will visit the country this year.

“The government of Uganda may have been lulled into believing that its financial supporters don’t care how it treats its lesbian and gay citizens,” said Ettelbrick. “They are wrong. IGLHRC is joining forces with a number of other human rights groups in Africa, the United States and Europe to launch a public information campaign about discrimination in Uganda. We are demanding that the government comply with the human rights obligations Uganda agreed to when it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”