Good news out of Kampala this week! Justices of the Constitutional Court of Uganda, in their infinite wisdom, have struck down the grotesquely homophobic laws that were signed into law by President Museveni in February. The court did not, however, strike down the laws on their merits, but rather because of a legal technicality, finding that the bill was passed despite objections from legislators on a lack of consensus in the Parliament.
LGBTQ activists had brought challenges before the court on these technical issues, as well as the content of the laws themselves. Though the manner in which the laws were passed was deemed unconstitutional, the content was left unexamined, raising the possibility that the laws could be reintroduced to Parliament, in accordance with their widespread public support from Ugandans.
Further, because the content of the laws was not reviewed, the British Colonial-era legislation on sodomy remains in effect, meaning that homosexuality continues to be criminalized, just not as harshly as it would have been under the legislation just struck down.
As tenuous as this victory is, it’s nonetheless a huge relief to Ugandans who opposed the laws, and rightly so. While they might have liked to see the courts denounce the legislation as hateful and punitive, which it is, the repeal of these laws for any reason is cause for celebration.
The way in which this happened is also interesting – analysts are speculating that President Museveni may have given tacit approval for this decision, which dismisses a deeply problematic international situation while not appearing to be a concession to Western lecturing. A Ugandan delegation, including the President, is heading off to Washington, D.C. next week, and this decision will surely improve their welcome, as well as give them the opportunity to try and mend some fences with the American government.
True to its earlier threats, American relations with and aid to Uganda have cooled since these laws were signed into effect. In June, the Obama administration announced it was imposing visa restrictions on Ugandan public figures who might be implicated in human rights abuses, cancelling a US-sponsored aviation exercise and either cutting or redirecting financial support programs benefitting the Ugandan Police, Ministry of Health and National Public Health Institute.
All of that funding is now potentially back on the table, given changing circumstances, and let’s hope that it is – According to US-based advocacy group Health GAP, the prevalence of HIV in Kampala, the capital, among men who have sex with men is double the national average. Funding cuts to Uganda’s public health programs, like the ones implemented in June, will only exacerbate that problem – and yet the cuts were supposed to be a gesture of solidarity with some of the very people who are now more vulnerable.
As for our own government, after fiery condemnation from Canadian officials (and snubs at the Foreign Affairs’ Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa) Canadian immigration staff initially declined to provide visas to a delegation of Ugandan LGBTQ activists and speakers who were invited to World Pride in Toronto, presumably because they could, quite legitimately, quote the rhetoric of some of our own Ministers on the situation in Uganda when claiming refugee status once in Canada.
As I have previously stated, I don’t think the leveraging of aid is an effective way to challenge domestic politics, but I do think that almost any response is better than the empty rhetoric and callous disregard of our government. If we are truly committed to human rights and the equality of all people, we need to do better.