By Liz Ford and Emma Pomfret
If Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill becomes law, it will be little short of state-sponsored "genocide" against the gay community, a prominent member of the Ugandan Anglican church said this week.
Canon Gideon Byamugisha said the bill, which recommends the death penalty for anyone repeatedly convicted of having gay sex and prison sentences for those who fail to report homosexual activity to the police, would breed violence and intolerance through all levels of society.
"I believe that this bill [if passed into law] will be state-legislated genocide against a specific community of Ugandans, however few they may be," he said.
The bill, which will strengthen Uganda's existing laws against homosexuality under its Penal Code Act, has been widely condemned by world leaders and human rights groups, who fear it will trigger a witchhunt against the gay community. Activists have raised concerns that the bill will hinder the country's fight against HIV/Aids among the gay community and legal experts have said it will undermine freedom of expression and association.
Yesterday, Uganda's Daily Monitor news website reported that Sweden will cut aid to Uganda if the bill is passed. Canada has also condemned the bill and the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, took the matter up directly with the Ugandan president, who has given tacit support for the bill, at the Commonwealth summit last weekend. Britain is Uganda's fourth largest donor.
But James Nsaba Buturo, the minister of state for ethics and integrity, told the Guardian last week, that the government was determined to pass the legislation, even if meant withdrawing from international treaties and conventions or losing donor funding.
Exploiting traditional views
Byamugisha said gay people were being used as "scapegoats" for Uganda's social problems, such as the breakdown of the family unit and rising HIV infection rates, and politicians were using the bill to tap into the prevailing anti-gay mood in the country in the run up to the 2011 elections.
"They [politicians] are exploiting the traditional and cultural abhorrence to same-sex relationships to their advantage. They know that if they criminalise homosexuals, homosexual tendencies and homosexual acts, they stand a better chance of winning votes from the majority of religious followers and leaders, because most of us may not be able to distinguish what may be considered 'unacceptable', from the point of view of religious and cultural belief and opinion, from what is 'criminal', from the point of state law that is meant to keep peace, order and justice," he said.
"What makes this proposed law truly distasteful is the amount and level of violence that is being proposed against suspected, rumoured and known individuals who are gay, and their families and community leaders in their places of worship, residence, education, work, business and entertainment."
He added: "When you say that parents of homosexual children, and that pastors and counsellors who extend spiritual guidance and psycho-social support to homosexuals, will be regarded as 'accomplices' in promoting and abetting homosexuality if they don't report them to police, then you take the law a bit too far."
Byamugisha's stance will put him at odds with many in Uganda. But the minister has a track record of speaking against a prevailing mood. In 1990, after the death of his first wife, he discovered he was HIV-positive. Two years later he became the first practising African priest to publicly declare his status, not an easy thing to do in a country that, for all its efforts to significantly lower infection rates, has not shaken the stigma associated with the disease.
Since revealing his status, Byamugisha, who is a Christian Aid goodwill ambassador on HIV/Aids, has campaigned for the rights of people living with the disease. In 2003 he established the Friends of Canon Gideon Foundation to end the stigma of diagnosis, encourage safe sexual practices, improve access to treatment and support orphans or vulnerable children who have lost parents. This year he was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize for his work.
Taking a gamble
But while Byamugisha took a risk over his HIV status, speaking out against the bill could prove a bigger gamble. The church in Uganda, as in other African states, takes a clear view that homosexuality is a sin and is something that can be cured. Some will no doubt see the bill as a way of curbing an "evil" practice. But the minister hopes the ferocity of the bill will deter religious leaders from throwing their weight behind it.
"I sincerely hope that my fellow religious leaders will comprehend my stand against the level of violence proposed in the bill," he said. "I hope that they will not translate my hesitation to support the bill as a moral surrender to behaviours and practices that we regard as 'unacceptable' and 'sinful' in our ethics and morality frameworks. I hope that they will translate my hesitation as shying away from endorsing a bill that will institutionalise violence and death to a minority group simply because the majority do not like them."
Regardless of opinion from faith leaders, though, Byamugisha believes he has an obligation to speak out. "I realise that if I am happy to speak out against discrimination and stigma in relation to HIV, then I should also be happy to speak out against paralysing homophobia, sexism, tribalism, Puritanism, fundamentalism and against anything else that reduces and diminishes our love, care and support for each other as we travel the road of faith and belief."