- Human rights activists fear that Uganda's gays and lesbians may face a round of even tougher repression as the Kampala parliament last week approved a constitutional amendment that criminalises marriage between persons of the same sex. Uganda already is one of the countries that practice the strongest sanctions against homosexuals worldwide.
On 5 July, by a vote of 111 to 17 with three abstentions, the Ugandan parliament approved a proposed constitutional amendment stating that "marriage is lawful only if entered into between a man and a woman," and that "it is unlawful for same-sex couples to marry." The amendment must still pass a third reading in parliament, which is expected later in the month.
The constitutional amendment is widely seen as a first step to introduce new legislation against same-sex relationship. A parliamentary spokesman has publicly said that specific criminal penalties will be enacted later, when the Ugandan penal code is revised.
The US-based group Human Rights Watch today says it fears that the new ban will deepen the repression of gays and lesbians in Uganda. "Uganda already imposes draconian prison sentences on people who engage in homosexual conduct," said Scott Long, of the human rights group. "New criminal penalties against people who dare to marry can only have one purpose: to codify prejudice against same-sex couples," he added.
Same-sex sexual relations are already criminalised in Uganda under a sodomy law inherited from British colonial rule and punishments were strengthened in 1990. The Penal Code criminalises "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. "Attempts" and acts of "gross indecency" are punished with up to seven years. In Britain and Uganda, these terms were understood to describe consensual homosexual conduct.
The proposed constitutional change follows months of state-promoted controversy about homosexuality in Uganda. In October, Ugandan Information Minister James Nsaba Buturo ordered police to investigate and "take appropriate action against" a gay association allegedly organised at the Makerere University.
In February, the Media Council - a state censorship board - banned a staging of the play, "The Vagina Monologues," by the US author Eve Ensler, because it "promotes illegal acts of unnatural sexual acts, homosexuality and prostitution."
State-sponsored media have called for stronger measures against homosexual conduct. On 6 July, a writer in the government-owned 'New Vision' urged the state to crack down on homosexuality, saying, "The police should visit the holes mentioned in the press, spy on the perverts, arrest and prosecute them. Relevant government departments must outlaw or restrict websites, magazines, newspapers and television channels promoting immorality—including homosexuality, lesbianism, pornography, etc."
Human Right Watch sees this as an attack on basic rights at large. "Basic freedoms of expression, association and respect for private life are at stake in Uganda," said Mr Long. "Members of parliament should reject both this amendment and the campaign to stigmatise and silence people because of their sexual orientation," he urged.
The US group has been engaged in Uganda's discrimination against homosexuals for a long time. In March, a Human Rights Watch report on "abstinence-until-marriage" HIV-prevention programmes in Uganda documented instances of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the country's HIV/AIDS policy.
The report found that abstinence-until-marriage programmes were "jeopardising Uganda's successful fight against HIV/AIDS by denying young people information about any method of HIV-prevention other than sexual abstinence until marriage." These programmes "intrinsically discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, since gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry in most jurisdictions," Human Rights Watch holds.
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