By Paula Gerber
Since 2009, Uganda has been threatening to pass legislation further criminalising homosexuality and imposing even harsher penalties. The threat has finally become a reality with President Yoweri Museveni announcing, on Valentine’s Day, that he is now ready to sign the Bill into law, after initially expressing some reservations about it.
Although the death penalty provision that was in earlier drafts of the Bill has been removed, there is still the prospect of life imprisonment for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality”, which is defined to include, among other things, homosexual acts committed by a person who is HIV-positive, and repeated sexual offences by consenting adults.
Unfortunately, Uganda is not alone in persecuting sexual minorities in Africa. There are currently 36 African countries that criminalise homosexuality, including some that impose the death penalty. Uganda is, however, the most recent example of a significant escalation in the brutality of the laws and intensification of enforcement.
If we needed any more evidence of the harmfulness of laws criminalising homosexuality, Columbia University has just released the results of a study that found that lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals who live in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice have an average life expectancy 12 years lower than sexual minorities in the least prejudiced communities. Dr Mark Hatzenbuehler found that suicide, homicide/violence, and cardiovascular diseases were all substantially elevated among sexual minorities in high-prejudice communities.
The legislation has received international condemnation. US President Barak Obama has warned the Ugandan President that signing the Bill into law would complicate relations between the two countries and would be a “step backward for all Ugandans”.
British church leaders have written to the presidents of both Nigeria and Uganda condemning their anti-gay laws on the basis that “the victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us.”
So what, if anything, should the Australian Government be doing in response to this latest escalation in the persecution of gays in Uganda? There are a number of options.
First, Tony Abbott could follow the lead of Obama and others in unequivocally condemning Uganda’s new anti-gay law. This would be consistent with Australia’s prior position on these laws.
In 2011, we were one of 10 countries that urged Uganda to decriminalise homosexuality, during the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review. Australia should now seize the opportunity to again urge Uganda to strictly comply with its international human rights obligations to respect the rights and dignity of gay persons.
Australia could also take practical steps to protect Ugandan gays by prioritising asylum seeker applications from members of this vulnerable group. There is precedence for this. Many will recall that in 1999, then prime minister John Howard provided temporary refuge for nearly 4000 Kosovo refugees. A similar initiative for gay Ugandans having to flee their country would be a practical and compassionate response to the enactment of laws that put their lives in danger.
Another step the Australian government could take would be to refuse to invite the Ugandan High Commissioner, Enoch Nkuruho, to any official functions, and decline any invitations to attend any events hosted by the Ugandan High Commission. This sends a clear message that Australia will not condone Uganda’s persecution of sexual minorities.
Finally, the Australian government should revise its advice on the Smart Traveller website. Currently the website states, in relation to Uganda, that “draft legislation has been proposed that would further criminalise homosexual activity.”
This needs to be updated as a matter of urgency, and include a strong warning that gay travellers should not go to Uganda.
I am not confident the Australian government will embrace any of these recommendations. After all, we do not have a good track record of offering refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not only have we frequently refused to believe asylum seekers when they say they are gay, but we have also sent them packing on the basis they will be safe in their country of origin if they just “conducted themselves in a discreet manner”. And now we are sending gay asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their own country, to PNG, where homosexuality can be punished by imprisonment for up to 14 years.
Although there is no shortage of human rights violations in Australia that need addressing, we also need to be a good international citizen, which means speaking up and taking action when grave human rights violations occur in other parts of the world. Uganda presents us with an opportunity to do just that.
This article was originally published on The Drum. Read the original article.