Uganda Bill Gets a Hearing in U.S. Congress

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The debate over Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill moved to the U.S. Congress today, as HIV experts and gay-rights activists denounced the proposal and urged U.S. leaders–including President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama—to ratchet up pressure on Uganda to drop the draconian measure.

At a hearing convened by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, witnesses detailed a range of repercussions the law could have if enacted—from increased violence against homosexuals in Uganda and other African countries, to dividing families against each other by encouraging reporting of “suspected” homosexual activity, to a deadly setback in efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic.

At issue is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, pending before Uganda’s Parliament and reportedly inspired, at least in part, by some conservative American religious leaders. The bill would impose life imprisonment, or even death, for same-gender consensual sex acts and threatens imprisonment of individuals who do not report homosexual activity to the police. Today’s hearing was a signal of the growing international concern about the bill and mounting pressure on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to kill the proposal.

Ugandan activist Julius Kaggwa said homosexuals in his country already endure "gross hostility and abuse" and the new proposal has heightened that harassment

“This bill is despicable and reprehensible,” Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said in opening remarks at the hearing. She challenged the administration to use “every means possible” to stop the bill and to send a message that the US would not tolerate this kind of human-rights violations.

The first witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary Karl Wycoff, with the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said the administration had been “very active” in conveying US opposition to the bill, including public and private remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But he indicated that State Department officials were trying to walk a fine line, pushing against the law without seeming overly intrusive and thus sparking accusations of external meddling from the West, which could potentially empower the bill’s supporters.

“Our interest is to be as effective as we can in ensuring this legislation doesn’t go anywhere,” Wycoff said. “We’re trying to calibrate what our approach is. We don’t want to do things that would be counterproductive.”

He noted that the US “enjoys a close and mutually beneficial relationship” with Uganda, a rapport that could provide multiple points of leverage. And he called the bill an “unacceptable step backwards” on human rights that could spark “mass persecution of an entire cross-section of Ugandans based solely on their sexual orientation.”

Another witness, Julius Kaggwa, leader of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Uganda, said such persecutions are already on the rise in the wake of the bill’s introduction.

Sexual minorities face “gross hostility and abuse” in Uganda on a daily basis, he said, recounting his own experiences of harassment, which included having his house set on fire, being intentionally and publicly humiliated by his employer, and being fired from his job, among other things. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill “has aggravated this situation” and if the bill becomes law, he added, “I have no doubt that it will heighten legislative and social harassment and persecution” of gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities.

He described a growing grass-roots effort in Uganda to defeat the bill, saying it was vital for indigenous voices to be heard as clearly and loudly as the international chorus.

“What we want to stress is that it’s not only a foreign policy issue,” he said. “It’s about us—our families, our children, our citizenship rights.”

Christine Lubinski, director of IDSA’s Center for Global Health Policy, described the profound implications the Uganda proposal could have on that country’s efforts so fight HIV/AIDS.

“Seen through the lens of HIV/AIDS, the proposed legislation is not simply an outright assault on sexual minorities, but it also places at risk a comprehensive program of HIV prevention, care and treatment,” said Lubinski, conveying the experience of the Global Center’s HIV physicians and scientists who work in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.

“Until now, Uganda has been held up as a model for real progress against AIDS by demonstrating serious, high-level political leadership, a willingness to engage in straight talk about HIV risk reduction and to mount a concerted condom distribution campaign,” she said. “Knowledge of HIV serostatus is one of the foundations of HIV prevention, but this law will make Ugandans even more reticent to be tested for HIV infection, to ask candid questions about their HIV risks, or to access HIV care if they do discover they are infected.” 

Christine Lubinski, of IDSA's Global Center, said the proposal jeopardizes Uganda's successful AIDS programs

Despite aggressive efforts, AIDS remains a staggering threat in Uganda, which has an estimated HIV prevalence rate of 5.4 percent—roughly five times the HIV prevalence in the United States.  More than 1 million Ugandans have died and 1.2 million children have been orphaned by the disease, she said.   

“Stigma already poses a formidable barrier to HIV services for people living with or at risk of HIV in Uganda and elsewhere in southern Africa,” Lubinski said. “This law, if enacted, would render every person with HIV a potential criminal, subject to scrutiny about their sexual behavior and threatened with life in prison or even death.” Click here to read her full statement.  

Physicians and scientists represented by IDSA and its sister organization, the HIV Medicine Association, have been deeply troubled by the developments in Uganda, and nearly 1,500 of those global health leaders had recently signed a petition to President Museveni calling on him to stop the legislation. Click here to read more about that effort.

Lubinski noted that the proposed law could potentially criminalize any organization delivering HIV prevention, care or treatment services, because of the provision threatening jail for anyone who fails to report individuals suspected of engaging in homosexual acts. “From the perspective of the HIV clinicians, researchers and educators, this law would cripple the provider-patient relationship, making it virtually impossible for physicians and other caregivers to provide quality comprehensive medical care and risk-reduction counseling,” she said.  

Baldwin and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., pressed the witnesses on what additional steps the US could take and whether, for example, the Administration should consider halting US foreign aid if the law is passed.

Lubinski said when it comes to funds for critical HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services, the answer is no. “It’s too much of a day-to-day lifeline for too many people,” she said. “It seems like there’s significant other avenues to pursue.”

Cary Alan Johnson, of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the Administration should work more aggressively with neighboring African countries to pressure Uganda to pull back, making it a broader regional issue. “President Obama’s stature in Africa is unparalleled,” he said. “His voice carries great weight,” he said, suggesting the Congressional Black Caucus could also be a potent force in this debate.

Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia and project director of Political Research Associates, suggested that the US could work harder to counter myths propagated by conservative religious leaders. And he also suggested that the personal involvement of Michelle Obama (not to mention her husband) couldn’t hurt, especially if it came to direct outreach to Uganda’s first family.

Others agreed. Said Kuggwa: “If Presisdent Obama and the First Lady can engage more with our first family, especially on the issue of AIDS specifically … I think that would be very, very helpful.”

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