Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed into law one of the world’s strictest anti-homosexuality measures, drawing widespread condemnation from within the country and internationally.
“I now encourage the duty bearers under the law to execute the mandate bestowed upon them in the Anti-Homosexuality Act,” Speaker of Parliament Anita Among said in a post on Twitter on Monday.
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“The people of Uganda have spoken, and it is your duty to now enforce the law in a fair, steadfast, and firm manner.”
Same-sex relations were already illegal in Uganda, as they are in more than 30 African countries, but the new law goes much further in targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
It imposes capital punishment for some behaviour including having gay sex when HIV positive, and stipulates a 20-year sentence for “promoting” homosexuality.
The approval of the law comes in defiance of criticism from Western governments, businesses and human rights activists.
Museveni’s office said the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023 was among six pieces of legislation the president signed into law on Sunday.
Lawmakers passed a new draft of the legislation earlier this month, vowing to resist what they said was outside interference in their efforts to protect Uganda’s values from Western immorality.
The amended version said that identifying as gay would not be criminalised but “engaging in acts of homosexuality” would be an offence punishable with life imprisonment.
Human rights activist Pepe Julian Onziema told Al Jazeera from Kampala that he is “horrified” for himself, for the community and for human rights in the country.
“This act is a repeat of legislation that already exists, only this one takes it a notch higher in legalising hate, homophobia, transphobia and alienating a section of Uganda’s citizenry, so that worries me on many levels,” Onziema said.
“This makes the already existing fear worse,” he added. “It has triggered a lot of traumas of many LGBTIQ community members who have faced violence even before this law and in the whole passing of this law, there’s already been violence. This has already caused a lot of paranoia, fear and people reliving traumas of what this could mean.”
‘Tragic violation of universal human rights’
United States President Joe Biden called for the immediate repeal of the law, slamming it as “a tragic violation of universal human rights” and threatening to cut aid and investment to the East African country.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the measure goes against international human rights law and will impact the country’s ties with its global partners.
“This law is contrary to international human rights law and to Uganda’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, including commitments on dignity and non-discrimination, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment,” Borrell said in a statement.
“The Ugandan government has an obligation to protect all of its citizens and uphold their basic rights. Failure to do so will undermine relationships with international partners,” he said.
The United Kingdom’s government said it was “appalled,” adding that it was firmly opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances.
“This legislation undermines the protections and freedoms of all Ugandans enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution,” Andrew Mitchell, a minister in the UK’s foreign office department, said in a statement.
“It will increase the risk of violence, discrimination and persecution, will set back the fight against HIV/AIDs, and will damage Uganda’s international reputation,” he added, describing the law as “deeply discriminatory”.
Museveni previously advised legislators last week to “look into the issue of rehabilitation” and make changes to the bill.
In a letter to the Parliament of Uganda in April, he said it needed to be clear and distinguish between someone who professes a homosexual lifestyle and someone who actually commits homosexual acts.
“The proposed law should be clear so that what is thought to be criminalised is not the state of one having a deviant proclivity but rather the actions of one acting on that deviancy,” Museveni wrote in the letter.
“The bill should be reviewed and include a provision that clearly states… a person who is believed or alleged or suspected of being a homosexual who has not committed a sexual act with another person of the same sex does not commit an offence.”
A less restrictive 2014 anti-LGBTQ law was struck down by a domestic court on procedural grounds, after Western governments had initially suspended some aid, imposed visa restrictions and curtailed security cooperation.
Uganda receives billions of dollars in foreign aid each year and could now face another round of sanctions.