When Uganda President Yoweri Museveni considered the latest version of an “anti-homosexuality bill” the nation’s parliament passed just before Christmas, he had, as the cliche has it, more questions than answers.
Some of his questions concerned the correctness of the parliamentary procedure with which the bill was passed, some with how much, or how little, he, and the legislators, actually understood about what they were legislating against. It seems likely, in addition, he may have questioned how ready he was to face the international pressure he had faced when parliament passed an earlier version of the bill which carried a penalty of death for the commission of “aggravated homosexuality.”
He sat down and put many of those questions to paper, in a letter dated the 28th of December 2013. But what he did not do, contrary to reports carried by BBC, Time and other news organizations, is kill the bill (which reportedly substitutes life in prison for the death penalty). While the letter, which is eight pages long, suggests at times that the bill may not be the way to — in his words — “correctly handle the sexually abnormal,” it does not reach a conclusion on the fate of the bill, and in fact, suggests that his consideration of the bill continues. “When we meet in the NRM caucus,” he writes, “we shall, I am sure, find a scientifically correct position.”
In the meantime, he has not confirmed a position on the bill.
“The Bill is currently under President Museveni’s consideration, he has thirty days to take action, from the time he received it formally on January 23, 2014,” writes Asia Russell of Health GAP (Health Global Access Project), from Uganda. “We are imploring him to veto the bill, and we are imploring MPs to shelve this harmful and discriminatory legislation once and for all and instead focus on the real issues plaguing their voters.”
One way health advocates on the ground are seeking to persuade the President is by answering his questions on science, with a letter endorsed by clinicians, scientists, and academics in Uganda, as well as from across Africa, and around the world, working to address HIV and other health and human rights issues affected by the legislation. Addressing both Museveni’s questions about the origins of homosexuality, and the consequences of the law, they advise him of the the link between homophobic discrimination and abuse and increased vulnerability to HIV. The bill, the letter tells Museveni, “blatantly defies highly corroborated scientific evidence.”
Even without Museveni’s signature, the bill already has an impact, according to service providers who have reported that some health workers are unwilling to provide services to men who have sex with men, for fear of penalty, Russell writes.
“The Bill is bad for human rights and human dignity, and it is bad public health,” Russell adds, “For example, it would criminalize Uganda’s efforts to respond to the HIV prevention and treatment needs of men who have sex with men — such efforts would be considered ‘promotion of homosexuality’ or ‘aiding and abetting homosexuality’ — offenses that are serious criminal acts under the bill, punishable with up to seven years’ incarceration.”
It remains unclear, in Museveni’s letter, if he is supportive of those components of the bill. The letter refers, “apart from the people who are born abnormal” to “a larger group of those that become homosexual for mercenary reasons — they get recruited on account of financial inducements.”
In addition, it remains unclear how conclusive the weight of scientific evidence will be. In his letter, Museveni refers to the fate of an earlier piece of legislation that would have outlawed marital rape, another human rights violation, that also has demonstrably increased HIV risks of victims. The bill that would have recognized the right of a spouse to not be raped, according to his letter, had to be withdrawn because “it was unnecessarily provocative to our traditional society . . .”
Health advocates in Uganda are continuing to seek signatures from scientists on the letter, which Russell says will run in newspapers Thursday. The deadline for signatures, she writes, is 7 AM Kampala time Wednesday morning, Feb 5.
“The President has asked for scientific evidence, and the science couldn’t be more clear–homosexuality is neither a ‘mental abnormality,’ nor a vice to be cured. Will he listen to real evidence and reject the bill?”