Uganda’s Constitutional Court today struck down – on procedural grounds – a package of anti-gay policies signed into law this February by President Yoweri Museveni, but left room for lawmakers to attempt to pass the law, or another version of it, again.
Ten petitioners, including activists, academics, advocates, and MPs, challenged the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act in court, claiming that it was passed improperly and violated the constitutional rights of Ugandans to live free from discrimination and with privacy and dignity. Although the five-judge panel ruled that the legislation was “null and void” because it had been passed illegally – without a proper quorum in the Parliament – the Court did not address the claims that it violated Uganda’s constitution.
“The ideal situation would have been to deal with the other issues of the law, to sort this thing out once and for all,” said Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan lawyer and one of the petitioners.
The decision was met with cheers in the courthouse. Frank Mugisha, a gay-rights activist Uganda, said the ruling was a “step forward.”
The government has not yet determined whether it will appeal the ruling. The Anti-Homosexuality Act expanded the scope of a colonial-era law, still in place in Uganda, that criminalized “sex acts against the order of nature.” The now defunct law included lesbians for the first time and implemented extreme punishments for anyone who engaged in “aggravated homosexuality” or “attempted to commit homosexuality.” It also imposed punishments of imprisonment and fines on organizations that promoted or supported the LGBTQ community.
The court’s ruling comes in advance of next week’s US-Africa Summit in Washington. Activists and legislators from the United States had asked President Obama to speak out against anti-gay laws in Nigeria and Uganda at the Summit, which will be attended by Uganda’s President. Several European countries and the United States restricted or ended aid programs with Uganda after the Anti-Homosexuality Act became law.
Uganda saw an increase in discrimination and violence against gay people directly after the Anti-Homosexuality Act was proposed. As reported by Jeanne Clark in “Unholy Alliance” in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. magazine, David Kato, a leader of the gay rights movement in Uganda, was beaten to death shortly after the introduction of the bill. In addition, “The attacks against gays in the country have further demonized condom usage,” Clark writes – a tragedy in a country where HIV prevalence rates for gay men, in the capital of Kampala, is at 13 percent. The bill has also interfered with HIV/AIDS programs. The AP reports that Ugandan police raided a US-funded HIV/AIDS clinic after the bill was passed.
Commenting on the Ugandan Court’s decision, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the UNAIDS, proclaimed, “This is a great day for social justice.”
Media Resources: NPR 8/1/14; BBC News 8/1/14; Associated Press 8/1/14; ABC News 8/1/14; The Guardian 8/1/14; New York Times 8/1/14; Feminist Newswire 2/25/14; Ms. Magazine Fall 2013