UGANDA: A MOMENT OF TRUTH
Wed, 25 November 2009
We present an edited version of the impassioned speech about the draconian Ugandan anti-gay bill, given by Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World. It was delivered at the Commonwealth People's Forum in Trinidad and Tobago on the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held between 27 and 29 November 2009.
Activists have called on the Commonwealth to ensure that the proposed legislation – described as one of the most outrageous attacks on human rights in modern times – is put on the meeting’s agenda. It’s not a short speech, but it is an insightful and powerful one - and certainly worth reading.
This is a moment of truth for the Commonwealth. The anti-homosexuality Private Member’s Bill introduced into the parliament of Uganda, and now proceeding through the normal legislative process, puts the Commonwealth’s legitimacy and integrity to the test.
In a fashion unmistakable in both clarity and intent, the putative legislation declares war on homosexuality. There are deeply offensive sodomy laws and homophobic statutes on the books of many other Commonwealth countries, particularly here in the Caribbean. But nothing is as stark, punitive and redolent of hate as the Bill in Uganda; nothing comes close to such an omnibus violation of the human rights of sexual minorities. For some time now, Uganda has had offensive anti-homosexual legislation on the books, but this variant, this inflammatory redesign makes of the law a veritable charter of malice.
What is truly staggering about all of this is that not a peep of scepticism or incredulity has come from [Ugandan] President Museveni. And President Museveni is chairing the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. In so doing, he makes a mockery of Commonwealth principles.
One must remember that the last meeting of CHOGM was held in Uganda in 2007, and issued what is called the “Munyonyo Statement of Respect and Understanding”. It asserted that the Commonwealth “is a body well-placed to affirm the fundamental truth that diversity is one of humanity’s greatest strengths”. It went on to say that “accepting diversity, respecting the dignity of all human beings, and understanding the richness of our multiple identities have always been fundamental to the Commonwealth’s principles and approach …”. President Museveni signed the document. How in the world does he reconcile the affirmation then with the defamation now?
It is noteworthy that much of the strongest opposition to the Bill is coming from the courageous Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender activists on the ground. LGBT activism always commands admiration, but in this instance especially so, because their very lives hang in the balance.
The proposed legislation actually mandates the death penalty for any HIV positive gay man who has sex with another man or any HIV-positive lesbian who has sex with another woman. But because it’s often hard to believe the sheer malignancy of language, let me quote directly from the Bill itself. Section 2 of the Bill is titled, “The offence of homosexuality”. It reads as follows: Clause “(1) A person commits the offence of homosexuality if --- (a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption; (b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate the sexual organ of a person of the same sex; (c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.”
Clause “(2) A person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for life”.
Where does the death penalty enter this twisted world of sexual paranoia? Let me quote the applicable section and sub-section. Section 3 of the Bill is titled, “Aggravated homosexuality”. It reads in part: “A person commits the offence of aggravated homosexuality where the … offender is a person living with HIV”. “A person who commits the offence of aggravated homosexuality shall be liable on conviction to suffer death”. And just in case there’s any conjecture, we have this finale: “Where a person is charged with the offence under this section, that person shall undergo a medical examination to ascertain his or her HIV status”.
From whence do such sentiments arise? What dark corner of the soul is at work? The entire bill confounds rationality.
In fact, the legislation has a powerfully Orwellian flavour. Section 14 has the title “Failure to disclose the offence”. It requires everyone in the entire society to report on any evidence of homosexuality and to do so within twenty-four hours. If it weren’t so extreme, so menacing, so lunatic, it would be the stuff of theatrical parody. Parents, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, preachers, landlords, community health workers, members of the media, civil society activists, anyone who can identify a homosexual, gay or lesbian, or has reason to believe that homosexuality is lurking, must report to the authorities or face a fine, or jail term of three to ten years, or both. Can you imagine a father or a mother turning in a son or daughter? Can you imagine a teacher ratting on a student? Can you imagine a physician who’s taken a Hippocratic oath to tend to the sick betraying that trust because of a patient’s sexual orientation? But that’s exactly what this law requires.
I’ve truly never seen its like before. Please forgive the harsh language, but this intended anti-homosexual statute has the taste of fascism.
And yet, that’s only the half of it. What is put at terrible risk here --- beyond the threat of the death penalty for HIV-positive homosexuals --- is the entire apparatus of AIDS treatment, prevention and care.
It’s profoundly ironic that the country that’s seen as emblematic of success in fighting the pandemic is now contemplating such a decisive step backwards. The effect of this legislation will inevitably be to demonize homosexuality even further, to intensify stigma, to drive gay men and women underground, to terrify them in their everyday lives, to diminish dramatically the prospect of counselling and testing to establish HIV status, to make it virtually impossible to reach homosexuals with the knowledge and education and condoms that prevent the spread of AIDS.
Furthermore, what’s going on with the legislation is not simply confined to the egregious sections that I’ve quoted. There are several additional odious sections; the erosion of human rights has few limits. One other clause of the Bill purports to extend the arm of the state into the bedrooms of the world. Using what is called “extraterritoriality”, the legislation decrees that any Ugandan engaging in homosexual acts outside of Uganda is equally culpable, and will be arrested and charged accordingly. Thus, homosexuality joins terrorism and treason in the pantheon of extraterritorial jurisdiction to be exercised by Uganda. How this would be enforced is not immediately apparent, and of course the clause is ridiculous, but the ridiculous has a habit of becoming national jurisprudence if it’s driven by hatred.
The evidence of just how foolhardy and crazed the legislation is, lies in its most extreme feature: the Bill asserts that where any of its provisions is in conflict with any international human rights instrument that Uganda has ratified, the content of the Bill will prevail over international law. This is palpable nonsense, and simply not possible. But it is a fascinating glimpse into the twisted cerebral calculus that fashioned the legislation.
Naturally, the protagonists of the legislation are mounting arguments in its defence. The arguments are unsustainable.