Ugandan President Museveni’s decision to sign a law which makes ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by life imprisonment and criminalises gay rights activists has drawn sharp condemnation from around the world. It will affect Uganda’s international relations and rightly so. Sadly however, this latest clampdown on human rights and civil liberties in Uganda is just the tip of the iceberg.
Repression of activists and civil society is not a new phenomenon in Uganda. Peaceful protests at chronic high-level corruption in Uganda have been violently suppressed for several years now, with police shooting protestors dead on several occasions. Human Rights Watch and other organisations have documented these trends in detailed reports. Meetings on controversial issues like oil governance or LGBT rights are broken up, activists beaten by police and civil society organisations regularly impeded from doing their work. Opposition politicians and supporters are regularly locked up and charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ or ‘incitement to violence’. If passed, a draft NGO law currently being considered by parliament will further silence civil society.
The government entrenched its position in August 2013 when it passed the Public Order Management Law. Described by Amnesty International as ‘a serious blow to open political debate’, the law allows authorities to shut down “public meetings” of three or more people where politics is being discussed, even if these gatherings happen in private homes.
Things are no better for journalists. In May last year, the government shut down two national newspapers and associated radio stations after they published a story about an alleged plot to assassinate senior officials standing in the way of the President’s son’s path to succession. Several people were taken in for questioning while the police used tear gas and beat journalists outside the newspaper offices. Radio show hosts are reported to have been arrested for hosting ‘rebel MPs’ in their studios, while security forces beat and harass journalists who cover demonstrations.
Uganda is at a critical stage in its development. It stands on the verge of a huge windfall from its fledgling oil, gas and mining sectors, money which could help lift the population out of poverty if properly managed. It could also entrench corruption and concentrate power in the hands of an increasingly repressive elite. Upholding basic rights and freedoms is crucial to avoiding the resource curse that has blighted so many other African countries.
The Anti-Homosexuality law is a particularly troubling example of the persecution of individual and minority rights in Uganda but, sadly, it’s not the only cause for concern. The international community should take robust action to uphold all universal human rights in Uganda and make it clear to the government that it will not stand by and watch as the elite tightens its grip on power and the economy.