Uganda law proposes death penalty for homosexuality: can international reaction and vulnerability of treatment access programmes help?

Simon Collins, HIV i-Base

Growing publicity and concern over the proposals for Uganda to legislate even more severely against human rights on the grounds of sexuality have drawn widespread condemnation, but it currently remains unclear whether this will be sufficient to halt this shocking and depressing move. [1]

The proposed new laws, linking political opportunism, nationalism and religious extremism are particularly shocking for the devastating impact such discrimination has on the lives of gay men and women in Uganda and the impact this has on other African states.

It is also likely to contribute to reducing the effectiveness of HIV testing and treatment programmes on many levels. The discrimination faced by African men who have sex with men, and the link to HIV prevention was discussed in detail in an article last year in the Lancet which is available to view without subscription. [2] It is difficult to understand how this new legislation could help the currently fragile nature of international funding for treatment programmes. More depressingly, is the likely probability that the real impact on the lives of HIV-positive people is of no concern to those involved in the drive to impose the new legislation.

On the 14 October 2009, MP Bahati tabled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan Parliament. The Bill is currently before the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee.  The stated objective of the Bill is to establish a comprehensive law to supposedly protect the traditional family by prohibiting any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and to penalise homosexual behavior, including a death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, to prohibit ratification of any international treaties, conventions, protocols, agreements and declarations which are contrary or inconsistent with the provisions of this Act, and to prohibit the licensing of organisations which promote homosexuality.   The Bill makes it an offence not to report homosexual practices to the authorities and even seeks to criminalise Ugandans who commit homosexual acts outside of Uganda.

Uganda’s Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law was established in October 2009 in response to the tabling of the notorious  Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan Parliament. The membership of the Coalition stands at 28 Ugandan civil society organisations.  Its initial campaign is to see the Bill dropped from the Parliament’s agenda. [4]

The website provides the most up-to-date information on the Bill, including the perspectives of the many Ugandans who are opposed to this draconian legislation. [4]

The story has been covered by mainstream media globally. In Uganda, BBC reporter John Simpson confronted the preacher Martin Ssempa saying “I have never heard so much hatred inside a church”.

The US Senate passed a motion condemning the action [5] and numerous online petitions and letters had been sent in protest.

A letter from Southern African HIV Clinicians Society to Uganda Parliament included the following comment on the impact this would have on HIV. [7] An excerpt from this letter is reprinted below:

  • The measures proposed by the Bill will lead to the persecution of people who engage in same-sex relations.  There is a large amount of international research which demonstrates that when specific groups are subject to victimisation, stigma and discrimination, they are less able to access health care services, which is particularly detrimental to public health measures in the context of the HIV pandemic.
  • By specifically targeting gay, lesbian and bisexual people who are living with HIV, the Bill will discourage such people from testing for HIV, knowing their status and accessing treatment. This will inevitably result in an increase in new HIV infections.
  • The Bill seeks to criminalise “the promotion of homosexuality”, which includes funding organisations that work with lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, and the publication of material relating to these groups.  In effect, this will mean that civil society organisations will not be able to provide outreach and health information to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community in Uganda.  Preventing the dissemination of information on HIV prevention to a vulnerable group such as men who have sexual relations with other men will inevitably lead to a higher incidence of HIV in Ugandan society.
  • If the Bill is passed into law, Uganda will necessarily have to withdraw from international human rights conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  Since the protection of human rights is an important aspect of reducing stigma regarding HIV, any deterioration in the human rights situation in Uganda will seriously undermine the work that has already been done in promoting openness and preventing new HIV infections.

We therefore strongly believe that the Bill will have profoundly negative impact on Uganda’s efforts to combat HIV, and we call on all Members of Parliament who are committed to public health and human rights to ensure that this Bill is not passed into law in any form.


1. Summary of Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009.

2. Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009. Proposed bill in full (PDF).

3. Smith A et al. Men who have sex with men and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The Lancet, Volume 374, Issue 9687, Pages 416 – 422, 1 August 2009. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61118-1 9)61118-1/abstract


5. US sentate resolution.

6. Online petition and further information on Internation Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission /1088.html

7.  Letter from SA HIV Clinicians Society to Uganda Parliament Itemid=59&task=doc_download&gid=65

Links to other websites are current at date of posting but not maintained.