/ 16 January 2010

UN urges Uganda to scrap anti-gay legislation

The UN’s top human rights official has called on Uganda to drop a proposed ­anti-homosexuality law that would impose the death penalty on some gay and lesbian people.

Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, joined a growing ­chorus of opposition condemning the Bill as ­discriminatory and called for homosexuality to be decriminalised in the country.

“The Bill proposes ­draconian punishments for people alleged to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered — namely life imprisonment, or in some cases, the death penalty,” she said.

“To criminalise people on the basis of colour or gender is now unthinkable in most countries. The same should apply to an individual’s sexual orientation.”

Pillay called on the Ugandan ­government to put the draft Bill on hold because it breaches international human rights standards.

The UN said Uganda’s Parliament may discuss the Bill as early as next week. It has provoked criticism from Western governments and gay rights groups and protests in London, New York and Washington.

­Pillay said Uganda had a generally “good track record” of cooperating with human rights mechanisms but the Bill “threatens to seriously damage the country’s ­reputation in the international arena”.

A Ugandan preacher said he was planning a “million-man” march to support the legislation.

Pastor Martin Ssempa, who has close ties to US evangelicals and to the family of the president, Yoweri Museveni, said the demonstration was being organised for 17 February.

“We want to show how many people support the Bill,” Ssempa told journalists in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Ssempa, one of the East African country’s most prominent anti-gay campaigners, criticised Western countries as “failed states” for supporting gay rights.

“We want to give a postcard that [Museveni] can send to his friend Barack Obama,” Ssempa said in front of posters saying “Africans Unite Against Sodomy” and “Barack Obama Back Off”.

Museveni has distanced himself from the Bill. In his first public comments on the issue, he told a meeting of his ruling party that their handling of the Bill “must take into account our foreign policy interests”.

He said: “When I was at the Commonwealth conference, what was [the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper] talking about? The gays. UK prime minister Gordon Brown … what was he talking about? The gays.”

Nsaba Buturo, the ethics and integrity minister, has said a revised law would now probably limit the maximum penalty to life in prison rather than execution.

Homosexual acts are already punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Uganda. The private member’s Bill, tabled last year, would raise that penalty to life in prison.

It proposes the death penalty for a new offence of “aggravated homosexuality” — defined as when one of the participants is a minor, HIV-positive or a “serial offender”.

It could also lead to a prison sentence of up to three years for anyone failing to report within 24 hours the identities of any lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered person.

A local independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, quoted Parliament’s speaker as saying the legislative body would debate the Bill despite Museveni’s call for more talks. Edward Ssekandi said: “There is no way we can be intimidated by remarks from the president to stop this Bill.” – guardian.co.uk