Uganda’s NGO regulator has shut down the operations of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a leading LGBTQ rights group in the country.
SMUG announced on Thursday that its work had been stopped on the orders of the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO Bureau).
The NGO Bureau confirmed it had “taken the decision to halt the operations of SMUG with immediate effect” because the organisation is not legally registered and is thus “operating illegally”.
The authorities, however, have previously refused to allow SMUG to register. In 2012, activists Frank Mugisha and others applied to the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) under the Companies Act to register the group.
In a 2016 letter, the URSB rejected the application to reserve the name ‘Sexual Minorities Uganda’ because the name was “undesirable and un-registrable” as it would advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people who it said, “are engaged in activities labelled criminal acts under sec.145 of the Penal Code Act.” The decision was upheld by the High Court of Uganda.
Colonial-era legislation criminalising same-sex intimacy remains in force in Uganda, allowing the state to punish anyone found guilty of the “offence” with life in prison.
“The refusal to legalise SMUG’s operations that seek to protect LGBTQ people who continue to face major discrimination in Uganda, actively encouraged by political and religious leaders was a clear indicator that the government of Uganda and its agencies… treat Ugandan gender and sexual minorities as second-class citizens,” said SMUG in a statement.
“These further compromise efforts to demand better health services and escalate the already volatile environment for the LGBTQ community,” it added.
Mugisha described the bureau’s actions as “a clear witchhunt rooted in systematic homophobia.” He stated that “anti-gay and anti-gender movements… have infiltrated public offices aiming to influence legislation to erase the LGBTQ community.”
Nate Brown, Executive Director of Pan Africa ILGA condemned the shutting down of SMUG.
“We have observed that several African states continue to use state law and state apparatus to clamp down on LGBTIQ+ organisations and activists whose only offence has been to protect the human rights of LGBTIQ+ persons,” said Brown.
“We have seen this in Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Lesotho, and Uganda. This is disparaging to many of these states’ commitment to advance human rights protection of all persons in their national laws, regional and international treaties.”
SMUG has called on the Ugandan government to honour its international obligations to protect the rights of all Ugandans and for law enforcement institutions “to desist from using the NGO Bureau pronouncement as a tool to witch-hunt, harass, torture, and arbitrarily arrest members of SMUG and the entire LGBTQ community in Uganda”.
The group also urged all civil society organisations to “strongly speak out and stand in solidarity with SMUG and the entire Ugandan LGBTQ Community.”