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Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act must be stopped. Now.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema (2nd R) Uganda queer activist Papa De (C-L) picketing protesting anti homosexuality bill outside high commission Pretoria South Africa
PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

Even with certain restrictions against government leadership and international aid, more must be done to prevent Uganda's anti-LGBTQ+ law and the harm it will inflict on queer people, writes the Williams Institute's Ari Shaw.

By some measures, LGBTQ+ rights took a dark turn globally in 2023. Take Uganda: In May, the government enacted the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), considered among the most draconian restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights in any country. It extends the punishment for consensual same-sex activity, which was already criminalized in Uganda, to life imprisonment and introduces the death penalty for a new crime of “aggravated homosexuality.”

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It also requires that all people, including healthcare workers, teachers, and family members, report any person they suspect of violating the law or face a substantial fine and up to five years in prison. In other words, anyone who knows that someone is LGBTQ+ must out that person or face punishment.

It is this last provision of the law that is potentially most insidious and far-reaching in its impact, because it effectively pushes LGBTQ+ people back into the shadows. We are already seeing the effects in two key areas of U.S. foreign policy: global health and democracy.

Through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the U.S. has invested $3 billion since 2004 in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in Uganda, helping to avert nearly 600,000 HIV-related deaths. Since the passage of the AHA, HIV/AIDS treatment centers have seen a precipitous drop-off in the number of people using services. Gay men and other groups disproportionately affected by the epidemic are unable to access lifesaving medical care because they are afraid to leave home.

While the government has stated that HIV prevention programs will not be affected by the reporting burden imposed by the AHA, recent developments belie this claim.

On October 27, the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology issued formal guidance on conducting research in light of the AHA. Among other things, it asserts that researchers are fully subject to the provisions of the AHA and therefore obligated to report any person, including research participants, who are suspected of committing a crime under the law.

The directive contravenes accepted international standards of ethical research and data collection built on confidentiality and privacy. More importantly, it puts in jeopardy critical research on at-risk populations that has been instrumental to generating evidence-based approaches to stem the rise of HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

Beyond the impact on public health, the passage of the AHA is profoundly troubling for what it says about the underlying health of the Ugandan state. In a recent study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, my colleagues and I found that attacks on LGBTQ+ people and their rights can signal and even contribute to democratic backsliding. Here’s how it works: homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and policies are used to divide the nation and cast LGBTQ+ people as a threat to a core national identity, setting a pretext for authoritarian activities seen as necessary to “protect” against that threat, whether that’s cracking down on civil society, moving to restrict judicial independence, or other measures.

Following international outcry in response to the AHA, the World Bank in August announced that new loans to Uganda would be halted until safeguards are implemented to ensure that no funds are used to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And earlier this month, the Biden administration took a series of actions, including imposing visa restrictions on Ugandan officials, issuing sanctions against the head of Uganda’s prison system, and ending Uganda’s eligibility for benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

But more needs to be done as LGBTQ+ Ugandans endure arrest, eviction, and escalating violence, and more people go without critical healthcare as a consequence of the law.

In December, the Constitutional Court of Uganda heard a legal challenge to the AHA, and a ruling is expected soon. Despite its own domestic regression on LGBTQ+ rights, including a record 510 anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed by state legislatures, the U.S. has an opportunity to strengthen its commitment to advancing LGBTQ+ rights globally.

Uganda has received more than $280 million in security assistance and training from the U.S. since 2011. The Biden administration, in consultation with LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in Uganda, should use this leverage to push for a repeal of the AHA. It should also ensure the foreign assistance is redirected to support civil society organizations rather than gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Ugandan government. President Biden has made the defense of democracy a central objective of his foreign policy and recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of PEPFAR along with a renewed focus on ending the global HIV epidemic. Now is the time to ensure that two longstanding foreign policy goals are not undermined by cynical attacks on LGBTQ+ people.

Ari Shaw is the Senior Fellow and Director of International Programs at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Ari specializes in international human rights, LGBTI politics, and U.S. foreign policy. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University, an M.Sc. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a B.A. in government from Harvard College. His analyses and op-eds have appeared in Chatham House, Council on Foreign Relations, World Politics Review, Global Americans, New America, and El Espectador in Colombia.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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