Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has signed into law the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ bill, which allows the death penalty for homosexual acts.
The move immediately drew condemnation from many Ugandans as well as widespread international outrage. The UK government said it was appalled by the “deeply discriminatory” bill, which it said will “damage Uganda’s international reputation”.
US President Joe Biden decried the act as “shameful” and “tragic violation of universal human rights”. He said Washington was considering “sanctions and restriction of entry into the United States against anyone involved in serious human rights abuses” – a suggestion that Ugandan officials may face repercussions.
Early on Monday, the speaker of the Ugandan parliament, Anita Annet Among, released a statement on social media confirming Museveni had assented to the law first passed by MPs in March. It imposes the death penalty or life imprisonment for certain same-sex acts, up to 20 years in prison for “recruitment, promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities”, and anyone convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” faces a 14-year sentence.
Described by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, as “shocking and discriminatory”, the bill was passed by all but two of 389 MPs on 21 March. Museveni had 30 days to either sign the legislation into law, return it to parliament for revisions or veto it. He sent it back to MPs in April, with a request for reconsideration. The bill would have still become law without the president’s assent if he returned it a second time.
Among tweeted on Monday morning: “The president … has assented to the Anti-Homosexuality Act. As the parliament of Uganda, we have answered the cries of our people. We have legislated to protect the sanctity of [the] family.
“We have stood strong to defend our culture and [the] aspirations of our people,” she said, thanking Museveni for his “steadfast action in the interest of Uganda”.
The speaker said MPs had withstood pressure from “bullies and doomsday conspiracy theorists” and called for courts to begin enforcing the new laws.
Martin Ssempa, one of the main backers of the bill, presented it as a victory against the US and Europe and suggested Uganda needed to push back against groups working to tackle HIV. He said: “The president has shown great courage to defy bullying of the Americans and Europeans. That bullying we shall not give you money. They intimidate and threaten you.”
In a joint statement, the heads of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UN Aids and the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) reacted with “deep concern” and said progress on tackling Aids and HIV was “now in grave jeopardy”.
“The stigma and discrimination associated with the passage of the act has already led to reduced access to prevention as well as treatment services. Trust, confidentiality and stigma-free engagement are essential for anyone seeking health care,” said the statement.
“LGBTQI+ people in Uganda increasingly fear for their safety and security, and people are being discouraged from seeking vital health services for fear of attack, punishment and further marginalization,” added the statement, signed by Peter Sands, Winnie Byanyima and John Nkengasong.
There has been strong condemnation of Museveni. A statement from the UN read: “We are appalled that the draconian and discriminatory anti-gay bill is now law. It is a recipe for systematic violations of the rights of LGBT people and the wider population. It conflicts with the constitution and international treaties and requires urgent judicial review.”
Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, Africa deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said: “Museveni’s signing of the anti-homosexuality bill is a serious blow to the right to freedom of expression and association in Uganda, where instead of being restricted they ought to be strengthened.
“The law is discriminatory and is a step in the wrong direction for the protection of human rights for all people in the region.”
A 2014 anti-gay bill also prompted widespread international criticism and was later nullified by Uganda’s constitutional court on procedural grounds.
“President Museveni’s decision to sign the anti-homosexuality act 2023 into law is deeply concerning,” said Steven Kabuye, a human rights activist in Kampala. “This act violates basic human rights and sets a dangerous precedent for discrimination and persecution against the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda.
“As we have seen in the past, such laws can lead to increased violence, harassment and marginalisation of already vulnerable groups. It is important that we stand together in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda and around the world and fight against bigotry and hate.”
In February alone, 110 LGBTQ+ people in Uganda reported incidents including arrests, sexual violence, evictions and being forcibly stripped in public to the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug). Transgender people were disproportionately affected, said the group.
“It is wishful thinking to assume a piece of bogus legislation will erase the existence of LGBTQI+ persons in Uganda!” tweeted Sarah Kasande, a Kampala-based lawyer and human rights activist.
“Queers are Ugandans, they belong to Uganda. No stupid law will ever change that!”
Edna Ninsiima, an editor and social critic, said: “We should all be concerned that our collective homophobia as a country has, once again, culminated in the state signing a permission slip for hate and dehumanization.”
On 17 April, a court in the eastern town of Jinja denied bail to six people working for healthcare organizations who had been charged with “forming part of a criminal sexual network”. Ugandan police confirmed that it conducted forced anal examinations on the six and tested them for HIV.
Museveni claimed in March that his government was attempting to resist western efforts to “normalize” what he called “deviations”.
“The western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people,” he said.
Activists plan to petition the court to nullify the discriminatory legislation, “Of course, we are going to march to court and contest this draconian law in every way possible,” said Kabuye.
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