In Uganda, new bill threatens LGBTI advocates

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

LGBTI rights activists in Uganda have sounded an alarm about a new threat to their advocacy of justice and fair treatment for the country’s sexual minorities.

While the now-overturned Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 targeted individual LGBTI Ugandans and the organizations representing them, the NGO Bill focuses only on the LGBTI rights organizations, along with every other non-governmental organization working in Uganda.

Parliament is scheduled to consider the NGO Bill starting Sept. 1.

In an Aug. 3 letter to the leader of the Uganda Aids Commission and the Global Fund’s health policy council for Uganda, the elected representative of the country’s sexual minorities urged those groups to oppose the current version of the NGO Bill. On behalf of the country’s most at-risk Key Affected Populations (KAPS) in the fight against HIV, KAPS representative Kikonyogo Kivumbi stated:

Kikonyogo Kivumbi (Photo courtesy of the Global Fund)

Kikonyogo Kivumbi (Photo courtesy of the Global Fund)

“If passed in its current form, we have a founded fear that the bill would make LGBTI and sex workers organisations and safe spaces closed down and leaders jailed.  It will also make KAPS groups that are not registered, unable to reach out to vulnerable and undeserved populations. This is particularly important because both registered and , unregistered KAPS  groups help in reaching out to hard-to-reach Key Affected Populations in Uganda’s fight against the HIV pandemic.

“The  proposed bill in its current form, calls for closure of NGOs in ‘public interest,’ a clause so vague that it can be  used to  harass and close down KAP groups through which health services are delivered in Uganda.

“The bill  also seeks to subject independent groups to extensive and unjustified government control and interference and violate basic rights. The new Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) bill would grant Uganda’s internal affairs minister and the National Board for Non-governmental Organisations broad powers to supervise, approve, inspect, and dissolve all nongovernmental, community-based, and faith-based organizations, and impose severe criminal penalties for violations.

“Among several troubling, broad, and vaguely worded provisions, it would require organizations to ‘not engage in any activity which is …contrary to the dignity of the people of Uganda.’ ”

“Vulnerable and isolated communities including men who have sex with men, typically experience higher HIV Infection rates as stigma and bigotry deter them from accessing essential medicines, prevention services, counselling, and public health information.

“This endangers not only them and their communities but also the Ugandan population at large. The NGO bill would criminalize further NGOs trying to reach out to help with service provision to LGBTI and sex workers by claiming they are violating the dignity of Ugandans in supporting outlawed people, based on sexual orientation and, or gender identity.”

BuzzFeed reported:

Clare Byarugaba in Los Angeles (Photo by Joe Kohen courtesy of The Daily Beast)

Clare Byarugaba (Photo by Joe Kohen courtesy of The Daily Beast)

LGBT activists say [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni’s political party is able to generate support for the bill in part because it promises to allow them to close LGBT rights organizations. And doing so as part of a far broader proposal may be attractive to lawmakers because Museveni has already staked out his opposition to passing a new law targeting LGBT rights because it would alienate the country from Western powers.

“These guys are cunning,” said Clare Byarugaba, who co-chaired the coalition of human rights groups that fought 2014’s anti-LGBT law. “They understand that having a stand alone anti-gay law shall be met with backlash and resistance and they shall be accused of targeted discrimination…. On the surface [the NGO bill seems] to be affecting broader civil society space but have very targeted consequences towards LGBT organizing.”

Dr. Vinand Nantulya, chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission

Dr. Vinand Nantulya

KAPS representative  Kivumbi wrote to Prof. Vinand Nantulya, who chairs the health panel known as the Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) health panel, asking him, “Being at the forefront in the HIV  pandemic fight, I am requesting that your office as Board Chairperson of Uganda Aids Commission and the Global Fund CCM Board advise Parliament and government  on the implications of such clauses in the bill; and also help us reduce the renewed fear among KAPS that they are going to all be arrested.”

Representatives of more than 80 NGOs met in May to discuss the proposed NGO Bill. They concluded that nearly half of the provisions of the bill were unacceptable:

“The draft Bill is littered with problematic clauses that undermine the very essence of some of the stated positive objectives of the proposed law,” their report stated. “In its current form, the NGO Sector cannot support the bill.”

“The analysis that informed this position is collated from consultations with representatives from NGOs and networks across the country that met for two days in a retreat and went through the bill clause by clause. …

“[A close] inspection of the proposed bill reveals that it is a roll-back on the Constitution and major human rights guarantees and its intentions are largely to control rather than facilitate the NGO sector. …

“The Bill is littered with broad and vaguely worded provisions which open the door to silence peaceful government critics and activists. Provisions such as ‘public interest,’ ‘act which is prejudicial to the security of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda,’ ‘at any reasonable time,’ ‘opinion of the Board,’ ‘for any other reason that the Board may deem relevant,’ ‘any other disciplinary action that the Board may deem fit’ violate the principles which guide establishment of limitations to the freedom of association and other related human rights.”

The NGO group also objected to provisions that would “criminalise legitimate behaviour of people exercising their freedom to associate. The section provides that any person who ‘contravenes any provision of this Act’ would amount to a criminal offence and is liable, on conviction to a fine of up to 4 million [Ugandan shillings, valued at about US $1,100] or imprisonment of up to 4 years or both … [and] further provides for up to 8 years imprisonment terms for directors or officers of organisations.” They stated:

“The section further criminalises right to freedom of association by providing that it is an offence to carry out any activity ‘without a valid permit’ or deviate from ‘the conditions or directions specified’ in the permit.

“The section places personal liability for insignificant administrative actions or omissions committed during official duties yet at the same time, penalises the organisation by revoking the permit or ordering for its dissolution. The offences that this section seeks to criminalise are civil in nature and must not be subjected to the criminal code. If any individual commits a cognizable criminal offence, the established criminal legislation can deal with that more effectively.

“Criminal sanctions must not be smuggled into a law that seeks to regulate exercise of legitimate human freedom.”

Although NGOs provide nearly 11 percent of Uganda’s jobs and up to 40 percent of its health care, the group said “the NGO sector is still viewed as a threat and that must be controlled rather than allowed to flourish.”

They vowed to challenge the law in court if the bill is enacted in its current form.

5 thoughts on “In Uganda, new bill threatens LGBTI advocates

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