Barely a year after the murder of gay rights activist David Kato focussed international attention on the treatment of sexual minorities within Uganda, there is a sense that renewed attacks on freedom for these citizens are growing in momentum once again.
Yesterday, a conference organised by Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a campaign lobbying for the recognition of same sex relationships was ordered to close by the State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, who threatened force against participants unless they dispersed. The Minister ordered the arrest of Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, a prominent LGBT rights activist, but she managed to escape the venue in time.
This follows at the heels of the announcement in the last couple of weeks that the “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill that prompted international revulsion last year, has now been reintroduced by backbench MP, David Bahati. Whilst details remain unclear on which elements of the Bill have been discarded aside from the headline-grabbing death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, it remains a fierce incursion into the lives of Ugandan citizens and a grave new source of human rights violations. For me, a particularly worrying element of the bill is the potential criminal penalties for those who know of homosexual behaviour, but do not report individuals to the authorities. Medical practitioners, teachers, relatives and aid workers may find themselves under threat of arrest.
The broader implications for civil society in Uganda are exceptionally worrying and play into a wider narrative of intimidation of those threatening the hegemony of the state, such as attacks upon journalists covering the presidential and parliamentary elections and the cancellation of similar conferences of organised sex workers. FARUG and the other participants are exercising the right to organise around sexual rights and the forced cancellation of this meeting undermines the right of citizens to freedom of expression and association in Uganda, rights guaranteed under national and international law.
In many ways, the treatment of the advocates for sexual minorities mirrors the silencing of oppositional political parties by the state, making it harder for their case to be heard and distracting attention from the real problems facing Uganda – accusations of Government corruption, poverty and the painful reconstruction of northern Uganda as a result of the armed conflict by the militant Lords Resistance Army. A more authoritarian approach is emerging from the Government, one that finds strength in targeting sexual minorities as a Western imperialist “enemy within” that plays to comforting nationalist tropes. These repressive events demonstrate even more keenly that the rights of sexual minorities are as important as all other human rights and that the methods used to suppress their political freedom are as pernicious and familiar as those experienced by other parts of Ugandan civil society. Building solidarity across these movements remains as important as ever.
As a gay man, I know through experience how important the fight for equality is for those people outside normative gender and sexual identities in shaping our sense of identity and self-worth. It fuels my commitment to development and the transformative impact of international aid in building sustainable communities that possess the confidence to support all their citizens. This current existential threat to the daily lives of sexual minorities in Uganda undermines their ability to participate in their communities in that manner and could also prevent their ability to work in partnership with international aid agencies, consequently undermining the viability of valuable work around poverty alleviation, health outcomes (including, but broader than HIV/AIDS) and access to education. The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme continues to focus our attention upon the links between sexuality and poverty and how heteronormativity in aid programming reinforces these inequitable structures in outcomes for groups within society. An essential part of tackling this involves working in partnership with community organisations in countries such as Uganda to reach these vulnerable populations, work also imperilled by this renewed intrusion into civil society by the Government.
As I’ve argued previously in an earlier post, these latest events present a challenge for the international community. I believe we need to see a nuanced, collective strategy that continues to build diplomatic support internationally for the human rights of all citizens, coupled with support on the ground for those NGOs with a proven track record in working with marginalised and vulnerable communities. International pressure should be available as a tool at the disposal of southern communities and exercised as their strategic political needs dictate. Their voices and needs should lie at the heart of our development policies, not least at a time when they are under sustained threat of being silenced.
Stephen Wood is a researcher for the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: stephenwood_UK