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The Ugandan homosexuality bill: a threat to human rights and development


Last month I was in Uganda working closely with UNICEF and government ministry officials on the rights-sensitivity of the forthcoming National Development Plan. The NDP is explicit in its commitment to uphold human rights principles, as enshrined in the African Charter. It also supports human rights principles by championing the Millennium Development Goals, which are rooted in the pro-human rights Millennium Declaration (of which Uganda is a signatory). Our aim was to raise awareness of how to build Uganda’s commitment (specifically those on child rights) into programming strategies. For a full week of workshops my colleague and I presented the case for the realisation of human rights commitments, including those on gender, in front of representatives from the Ministry of Finance, Gender, Labour and Social Development and from the National Planning Commission.

As we were doing this, a new piece of draconian legislation was being debated in the Ugandan Parliament. This legislation, a private members bill presented by David Bahati, criminalises homosexuality and would allow the imprisonment of anyone ‘promoting homosexuality by advocating for the protection of sexual minority rights’. By showing our support for equality and non-gender discrimination were we ‘promoting homosexuality’? Could we have been thrown in jail? Is this now the position for anyone advocating for gender equality and non-discrimination in Uganda?

Many African countries have laws criminalising homosexual acts, in spite of the global ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to life and liberty and must not be subjected to punishment on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (Article 2,3,4). Despite these blatant breaches of international law, ‘cultural sensitivity’ has prevented a firm response from the international community, until now.
Uganda, one of the ‘success stories’ of development, risks being suspended or expelled from the Commonwealth  and being shunned by the United Nations, should its Parliament end up passing the bill that refers to the death penalty (for the crime of "aggravated homosexuality") when an HIV-positive person engages in homosexual sex with someone disabled or below the age of 18. Passing such legislation would also imply imposing sentences or heavy fines on those who fail to report homosexual activity, and prohibits the "’promotion’ of homosexuality through advocacy on sexual minority rights.  Taking an unusually vocal stand Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all personally lobbied President Museveni to renounce the Bill. The outcome of which will not be known until the bill is discussed again in Uganda’s parliament, later this month.

The timing could not be worse, coming as it does in a period of human rights progress and with serious implications for development practitioners and their programming, particularly for healthcare and hard-fought gains in HIV and AIDS treatment and access. The implications for adequate and targeted healthcare for the most vulnerable are alarming.

The African Charter (in Article 16) recognises the right to health and obliges Uganda as a state party to take measures to protect the health of her people. Criminalising the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and ‘aiding and abetting homosexuality’ will have an impact on access to and quality of healthcare for Ugandans who are lesbian or gay, as they may be afraid to discuss their sexual behaviour with doctors and fear ‘detection’ when bringing their medical concerns to health clinics, thereby undoing many of the hard-fought gains that have aimed to reduce stigma and discrimination. What does all this mean for the treatment of HIV and AIDS?

  • First, it will make it much harder to analyse the links between gender and disease, with implications for the targeting of vulnerable groups and the identification of those at risk. Recent evidence from the UN suggests that sex between men is an important factor in East Africa’s AIDS epidemic, but more detailed analysis on this may now be impossible in Uganda. This will have knock on effects on the efficacy of campaigns to prevent HIV transmission and may even intensify the problem amongst the gay and lesbian population as they are driven underground. 
  • Second, the new bill poses a threat to declining funding for HIV and AIDS. Funding for HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention in general is already under threat, as highlighted in a recent study by ODI’s social development team on the impacts of the financial crisis on HIV treatment and prevention. It has been suggested that President Obama’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), the largest funder of HIV and AIDS services in Uganda, may review its funding to Uganda if the legislation is passed,  in an ‘ultimate catch 22’ whereby those living with AIDS could be caught between the government’s bigotry and the donors’ need to take a stand against that bigotry (as  Sarah Kalloch has written). 

While high-level policy makers like Gordon Brown battle this issue in political forums, what can we, as development partners, actually do? Will this bill change the way we work in Uganda? Are funding cuts the way to go, when they may undermine important human rights like the right to health? And if not, how do we express our dissent without compromising the quality of our services and programmes? 

I, for one, am at a loss as to how to cooperate with a government that may punish me for airing views on the sanctity of individual rights and my gut tells me that that we should be Churchills, rather than Chamberlains.  But our own moral outrage should not blind us to the fact that there are more than principles at stake – this is also about the wellbeing of many thousands of Ugandans who could face a new era of social repression as a result of this bill, and who need our support as never before. 

This blog was amended on 25 March 2010 at the request of the author. The words 'lobbied' and 'campaigning' within the original text were removed as they do not reflect the actions and work of the research team in Uganda, who were working on the development of a set of tools with representatives from Ugandan ministries. These tools aim to provide assistance on how to integrate human rights principles (specifically child rights) into national development planning.