Uganda's president shouldn't sign anti-gay legislation

Learn more about David J. Kramer.
David J. Kramer
David J. Kramer
Executive Director, George W. Bush Institute and Vice President
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Learn more about Deborah L. Birx, M.D..
Deborah L. Birx, M.D.
Senior Fellow
George W. Bush Institute

Update to this post: 

On May 29, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, over strong objections of many in Uganda and among the international friends of the country, signed into law draconian penalties on anyone who identifies as gay and requires their friends and family members to report anyone in a same-sex relationship. The Anti-Homosexuality Act puts those in consensual same-sex relationships at risk of life imprisonment, and even the death penalty in special circumstances for “aggravated homosexuality” which includes HIV-positive intercourse. Those who provide life-saving HIV/AIDS treatment are now at risk of serving up to 20 years of imprisonment for supporting LGTBQ populations that defy the law. That, in turn, will jeopardize sustaining the major gains Uganda has achieved in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Critically, these laws will result in young people not testing and not seeking treatment for fear of being labeled as part of the LGBTQ community and risking imprisonment. Progress in preventing new infection in Ugandans under 30 years old is already eroding, and this will accelerate this expanding gap.

The Ugandan law has generated harsh condemnation from various parts of the globe, including from the U.S. administration and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. It is essential now the Ugandan Supreme Court rule on the new law within the context of the Ugandan Constitution. The new law is in direct violation of the universal human rights of expression and association as well as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and yet its enactment risks setting a precedent in other African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania that have been considering similar legislation.

Uganda is on the verge of imposing draconian penalties on anyone who identifies as gay and requiring their friends and family members to report anyone in a same-sex relationship. 

The Ugandan parliament passed legislation last month that would prohibit “advocacy for LGBTQ rights and mandate people to report the community to law enforcement,” according to the Washington Post. It awaits the signature of President Yoweri Museveni, who has supported past anti-LGBTQ legislation and made disparaging remarks in the past about those who are LGBTQ.   

The measure reflects a growing pattern in parts of Africa to target members of the LGBTQ community. In fact, same-sex intercourse is illegal in 32 countries in Africa, including Uganda.   

President Museveni shouldn’t sign this violation of the universal human rights of expression and association. It singles out a minority population – the LGBTQ community. While it should be opposed on that basis alone, it also could be exploited to go after any critics or opponents of the government by accusing them of engaging in what would be illegal behavior in their personal lives. Equally jarring, it would exacerbate Uganda’s HIV/AIDS situation by furthering the stigma and discrimination of an already victimized segment of the Ugandan population. Marginalizing any population vulnerable to acquiring HIV will ensure Uganda does not reach the critical Sustainable Development 2030 Health Goals President Museveni and governments across the globe committed to in 2015. 

Uganda has previously tried to implement similar legislation, but the country’s courts rejected it, albeit for procedural reasons, not on the merits of the case. When Uganda tried to enact a similar law in 2014, the United States held direct funding to the Government but not to nongovernmental partners. Effective national level policies that promote health access for everyone are critical to responding effectively to pandemics including the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We should consider doing the same thing this time if this discriminatory and punitive law is enacted. Any steps we take should focus on those responsible for the legislation, not the people of Uganda.   

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched 20 years ago by President George W. Bush, has saved more than 25 million lives in Africa and around the world, including many Ugandans.  The United States has invested over $5 billion in Uganda through PEPFAR for HIV prevention, care, and treatment services and must continue to ensure these resources support effective and impactful programs that improve the outcomes of all Ugandans and don’t marginalize communities or violate human rights.  

PEPFAR’s impact has been possible due to deep partnerships with both communities and governments that provide everyone with access to prevention and treatment services – everyone. The program has the responsibility to ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars are used to fund effective programs with clear outcomes and impact. PEPFAR must guarantee those most at risk for acquiring HIV are seen, heard, and have access to essential services not driven into the shadows out of fear. It must also continue to use data so that all people are reached, that Government policies support comprehensive programming, and that gaps are addressed. This approach has not only saved lives but changed the very course of the HIV pandemic.   

President Museveni historically has done an admirable job in leading his country through the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but there are already worrying signs beginning to emerge in Uganda. The last comprehensive community survey, in 2020-2021, showed increasing evidence those at greatest risk for HIV – marginalized populations and young men and young women—are falling through the cracks when it comes to testing and treatment. Nearly 20% of Ugandan adults don’t know their HIV status.  

Progress in reaching underserved groups has been minimal over the past five years, and the Ugandan government and communities must come together to address this gap. This anti-gay legislation threatens to further divide them instead: For example, young people afraid that people will assume that they’re participating in this criminalized behavior could be frightened away from HIV testing sites.   

The last thing we need is to further stigmatize an already victimized segment of the Ugandan population and exacerbate the problem of HIV/AIDS by driving same-sex activity further underground and discouraging and creating clear barriers to critical prevention services, HIV testing, and treatment for the virus. 

The proposed law would violate the concept of treating individuals with equality, respect, and dignity; target and discriminate against even more those in the LGBTQ community; and aggravate Uganda’s HIV/AIDS situation. President Museveni should do the right thing and listen to those urging him not to sign the legislation.