When a Uganda high court overturned the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 on constitutional grounds today, it wasn’t because of the law’s conflict with human rights. It was because parliamentary procedure requiring a quorum to pass a new law hadn’t been observed.
That was the same reason President Yoweri Museveni gave for what appeared to be his original reluctance to sign the act into law, leading to wide misreporting that he had vetoed the bill. Instead, however, he deferred the question of whether the law was a good idea to science, then untruthfully said science had shown it was a good idea, and, after signing the bill, threw a massive, malevolent, rabble rousing “celebration.”
In the time since, police raided the Makerere University Walter Reed Project that provided life-saving HIV treatment, including to gay people and others who faced barriers to care in government settings. The project was forced to suspend activities, and redirect services for those most in need. Media outlets stoked an atmosphere of legalized bigotry by “outing” people and fear drove people who needed health services into hiding instead. Other nations weighed following Uganda’s example and adding to their already restrictive anti-sodomy laws. Donor aid restrictions that followed, Ugandan leaders assured the world, would trickle down until it affected those most in need, those targeted by the law, those whom the restrictions were meant to support.
Perhaps, in the terms that appeared to guide Museveni’s choice, he emerges as a winner, having exploited a position on either side of politically charged issue.
The real winners are the local human rights advocates and those around the world who supported them, whose perseverance and courage led the law to court, and to being scrubbed from the books.
But the law, the step backward it represented at a time when steps forward are more critical than ever, and the political expediencies it demonstrated, leaves questions in its wake.
- The future of the similarly harmful, repressive and rights-violating HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill, which would criminalize HIV transmission, force testing for pregnant women and sexual assault victims and compromise health provider confidentiality;
- The after-effects of the Anti-Homosexuality law on HIV service provision and uptake;
- The future and impact of civil-society restraining measures in Nigeria and Uganda that also obstruct health responses;
- The continuing impact of that nation’s and at least 75 other nation’s anti-sodomy and other anti-gay laws;
- Whether similar attention and sanctions as those directed at Uganda’s law, in response to Nigeria’s anti-gay law that was signed into law before Uganda’s, would support human rights advocates there, and prompt re-examination of that legislation.
Reaction to the laws in Nigeria and Uganda prompted reflection, inspired action, and raised the profile of human rights in HIV responses. So as the world celebrates the defeat of one bad law, it will also be watchful.