In October of 2009, Ugandan MP David Bahati submitted a private member’s bill targeting Uganda’s 500,000 gay and lesbian population. Labelled “Kill the Gays” bill, this draconian piece of legislation would have not only criminalized homosexuality but, in certain cases, mandated the death penalty.
Understandably, there was condemnation from many Western nations, not to mention threats to cut off aid to Uganda if these barbaric measures were approved. President Yoweri Museveni managed to stickhandle Mr. Bahati’s bill to the point of obscurity, doing what many governments do when they need to gain time: He established a commission to investigate the implications of such legislation.
This put the bill on the backburner for two years. But, last October, the debate was reopened and, in February, Mr. Bahati reintroduced his legislation.
During a recent visit to Canada, Ugandan lawyer Adrian Jjuuko, head of the legal team for the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said the February bill is identical to the one introduced in 2009. While there was some talk of minor changes, it still includes the death penalty for “aggravated” homosexual acts, and lengthy prison terms for those who don’t report their homosexual friends or family members and those who advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The anti-gay legislation has strong support in Uganda’s parliament. The parliamentary speaker has called for a committee report in 30 days. The last committee report, in which Mr. Bahati wielded much influence, changed little, and there’s grave concern that the current committee will simply recycle the same report.
What are the options? Mr. Museveni can refuse to sign the bill – in which case, it will automatically become law after 30 days without his signature. The President can veto the bill and send it back to parliament for reconsideration. If it’s passed again, he can veto it again. But if it’s passed a third time, it automatically becomes law without his signature.
Alternatively, the President could sign the bill and make it law.
It seems that Mr. Museveni wants to do the right thing. But, last time, he was harshly criticized by MPs for pressing parliament to “go slow.” Today, Uganda’s parliament is in a nationalistic mood and may wish to flex its legislative muscle to defy Mr. Museveni and the international community, especially given that large oil revenue is expected.
Time is of the essence. In October of 2010, a popular Ugandan tabloid published a list of names of gays, urging they be executed. In January of 2011, David Kato, an LGBT activist in Kampala, was killed during a brutal attack in his home.
As a human-rights leader, Canada has an obligation to speak out. As individuals who honour human life and dignity, we, too, have a responsibility to advocate for those less fortunate than us. We know that strong reactions from respected rights activists can have a salutary effect, and we’ve been able to make change when we work together for the common good. Silence is not an option.
Bernie Farber is the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress.