Uganda’s Horrific Anti-LGBTIQ+ Bill Returns: The Stakes Are Higher Than Ever

On March 21, 2023, 444 of Uganda’s 557 parliamentarians voted in favor of the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill. President Museveni, after consulting the attorney general, returned the bill to parliament for amendments, allegedly to bring it more in line with Uganda’s constitution and it passed again on May 2.

But in real terms, little has changed—the blatantly discriminatory and vaguely worded bill goes well beyond the criminalization of same-sex conduct already in Uganda’s colonial-era penal code. Parliamentarians passed a bill whose provisions still cannot stand up to constitutional scrutiny and the bill remains regressive and discriminatory.

Uganda’s LGBTIQ+ rights activists have not been surprised that this bill passed in March and May. The 2023 bill is largely a regurgitation of a February 2014 law, which Uganda’s constitutional court annulled in August of that year on the technical grounds that there was a lack of quorum in parliament during the vote.

The 2014 court ruling was a convenient way out for the judges. It left open the possibility that such hateful and discriminatory measures were worthy of further substantive consideration. Given the clear parliamentary quorum this time around, the fight for the explicit protection of the fundamental rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals in Uganda are now at stake. President Yoweri Museveni now has a critical decision to either assent to or veto the bill.

This draft law is the latest example of Uganda’s backsliding on democracy and human rights norms. Uganda is a longstanding recipient of significant foreign assistance, and several countries, including the United States, have viewed President Museveni as strategic to their own security interests in Central Africa despite the deteriorating space for free expression and civic activism over his 37 years in power. Over 40 percent of Uganda’s national budget is foreign subsidized, particularly for key sectors such as health and education. The United States provides over $950 million per year to Uganda, a figure which likely does not include all of the support to the Ugandan army’s presence in the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia.

While Uganda’s homophobic parliamentarians and their Western extremist backers have not changed their agenda since 2014, Uganda’s LGBTIQ+ movement is more experienced than ever in how to fight back. Whether key donors, such as the United States, the World Bank and others, will effectively and positively leverage their influence and experience from 2014 remains to be seen.

The New, Pernicious Bill

There is no doubt that this bill will have far-reaching and terrible implications in Uganda. If signed into law, LGBTIQ+ Ugandans risk loss of employment, evictions from housing, and ostracization by their families. LGBTIQ+ people and anyone suspected of same-sex sexual conduct could lose access to safe, affirming, and life-saving healthcare services, and face life imprisonment or the death penalty as a “repeat offender.” NGOs, or any individual or organization, providing healthcare and other services to LGBTIQ+ individuals could face revocation of operating permits, eviction from offices, and possible arrest and prosecution of their staff for “promotion of homosexuality.” Potentially, anyone who affirms the inherent human rights of LGBTIQ+ people could face a 20-year prison sentence for “promotion.”

In light of these provisions, on April 25, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, which funds a significant portion of Uganda’s HIV/AIDS response, announced that it was postponing the final country operational plan “to assess the legal and programmatic implications” of the bill. Healthcare workers, such as those implementing PEPFAR programs, could face prison time simply for doing their jobs. This could include those implementing the U.S. Department of Defense’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Program Uganda, which works to reduce HIV transmission in the military. Development partners who voice support or fund programs supporting advocacy related to LGBTIQ+ rights in Uganda risk incarceration. LGBTIQ+ individuals in Uganda, who have always been at risk for blackmail, witch hunts, extortion, and mob violence, will be living under a darker cloud of fear orchestrated by state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia. In a context of deeply partisan law enforcement, anyone—including the very same opposition parliamentarians who voted in favor of the bill—could face specious allegations of having “engaged in homosexuality” and therefore risk incarceration.

Just since February 2023, human rights groups have registered over 150 violations, including two hate crime fatalities against individuals perceived to be LGBTIQ+ and over 15 incidents of arrests and detention of people suspected to be LGBTIQ+ have been reported in the media. Schools have also not been spared the rising vigilantism. A state minister arbitrarily closed a boarding school educating over 350 children following unsubstantiated reports of homosexuality. LGBTIQ+ Ugandans are fleeing the country to neighboring Kenya to escape the consequences of the law.

Human rights activists and their allies, despite the odds, continue to fight against the bill through strategic advocacy. In a poignant open letter to President Museveni, parents of LGBTIQ+ individuals spoke up publicly for the first time in Uganda’s history out of concern for their children’s safety in the volatile environment created by the bill, imploring him not to sign it. The parents’ courage and the LGBTIQ+ community’s defiant and resilient opposition against the bill has been met with glaring silence and complacency from key Ugandan human rights institutions, including from the Uganda Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to scrutinize each bill for compliance with national and international human rights norms.

Many other civil society organizations in Uganda, some of whom will inevitably be impacted by the law, have also opted for silence. This complacency provides stark contrast with the collective vibrant allyship—which admittedly took time to develop—in the fight against the 2014 law.

The 2014 Blueprint?

In early April, Uganda hosted a suspiciously timed inter-parliamentary conference on “family values and sovereignty” cosponsored by the U.S. evangelical Christian organization Family Watch International, which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. At the conference, President Museveni praised Ugandan parliamentarians for passing the anti-LGBTIQ+ bill. President Museveni has indicated that he intends to assent to the bill after amendments as he did in 2014.

After the 2014 bill became law, several donors cut and restructured their funding to Uganda. The United States expressed that the law complicated the bilateral relationship and announced a series of changes, including nonpublic visa bans, discontinuing a $2.4 million community policing program, shifting support for salaries for government health officials to NGOs, and canceling an Air Chiefs Conference, among other steps. The Netherlands cut $9.6 million in aid to the Ugandan government that was originally planned to help improve the judicial system. Denmark and Norway each withheld several million dollars in government-to-government aid and redirected it to civil society. The impact of such actions remains debatable, but the constitutional court scheduled a hearing for the petition against the law within a few months, whereas such petitions routinely take more than five years to get before the judges.

After the court annulled the bill in 2014, Museveni advised his ruling party caucus not to rush back to vote on the bill. He expressed his displeasure with the position of the United States and other foreign governments but argued that such a law was not a priority for Uganda’s development. He publicly and privately pressured the parliamentary speaker at the time, an outspoken proponent of the bill, not to retable it for a vote. For almost a decade, the bill was shelved.

Abuse, Brutality, and Punishment

Over that period, Uganda’s human rights situation has blatantly deteriorated, with more abuses and more attacks on civic activism. Elections have been more violent each time around—the police and the military have cracked down with increasing brutality on protests led by those critical of Museveni’s long stay in power. During the 2021 presidential campaign, opposition candidates bounced between prison and house arrest. The government refused to accredit election observers and prevented scrutiny of the electoral process in virtually every way. Security officials arrested hundreds of opposition members and held them unlawfully without trial. Many were beaten and some were killed. Some remain behind bars to this day, with others’ whereabouts unknown.

After the 2021 elections, the government became increasingly critical of funding for Uganda’s domestic human rights groups, and government paranoia was laid bare. On February 17, 2021, less than a month after the election, the government suspended and later closed the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), an EU donor fund of 100 million euros (110 million USD) for governance and human rights earmarked to both government and nongovernment entities, saying the government lacked oversight over the fund. Uganda’s regulatory body for NGOs, known as the NGO Bureau, then halted the activities of 54 NGOs, including those working on human rights, good governance, youth rights, and environmental protection, without notice. While some eventually restarted operations, many faced months of bureaucratic interference with their work, and some paid heavy and arbitrary fines.

In August 2022, the NGO Bureau halted the operations of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a network of LGBTIQ+ organizations, arguing that it was not a legally registered entity. SMUG had faced years of legal challenges trying to register the name of the organization, as government actors claimed the phrase “sexual minority” was an unlawful term. Then, in January 2023, a leaked NGO Bureau status report listed 22 NGOs that were being “investigated on suspicion of involvement in the ‘promotion’ of LGBT activities in the country.” In such a deplorable context, the bill was ripe for a comeback. There are now well-founded fears that the NGO Bureau intends to de-register every organization in the report (all of which are members or affiliates of SMUG) if the Anti-Homosexuality Act is implemented.

International Response

Since the March 2023 vote, human rights and LGBTIQ+ organizations around the world, as well as several of Uganda’s key donor countries, have expressed their deep disdain for the bill’s draconian contents. Six different parts of the U.S. government issued statements condemning the bill. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the bill would “infringe on universal human rights, jeopardize progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, deter tourism and [investment] in Uganda and damage Uganda’s international reputation.” The European Union highlighted that the bill violates the non-discrimination provisions of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. People have publicly protested the bill in South Africa, Canada, the UK, India and the United States.

Over the past 20 years, public diplomatic engagement around questions of Uganda’s respect for basic human rights have escalated around the time of elections and then dwindled thereafter, an approach that has largely failed to have an impact and has left such engagements appearing superficial. The ascendancy of the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill and accompanying rhetoric provides an inflection point that should not be lost. The act should be viewed within the broader context of the rollback of basic human rights and government efforts to crush legitimate political opposition. Such laws, which blatantly criminalize legitimate human rights work, in this case under the guise of “promotion,” do not occur in a vacuum.

Museveni’s long stay in office is marked by increased internal agitation and disquiet within his party and more pressure to use political patronage to maintain basic loyalty. This sordid mix of domestic political agendas and foreign-funded homophobia allowed the space for the dangerous bill to return to the legislature. Parliament overwhelmingly passing the bill a second time on May 2, with insignificant amendments, illustrating their steadfast commitment to prioritize state-sponsored homophobia over many other pressing socioeconomic priorities.

Donors committed to Uganda’s democratic trajectory, including the United States, now face critical decisions. They need to be prepared to rapidly implement significant emergency measures, including legal support, for those conducting public health and human rights programs, and have a clear plan for strategic sanctions, funding review and reallocations. Copycat bills are already emerging in other countries on the continent. As autocratic governments continue to prey on marginalized individuals to buttress their own power, the effectiveness of stakeholders’ response to Uganda’s recent moves will have long-term and potentially life-altering consequences.

Clare Byarugaba works with Chapter Four Uganda. Maria Burnett is a senior associate (non resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Clare Byarugaba

Chapter Four Uganda