New anti-homosexuality laws raise international concerns

The East African country of Uganda has become the latest to increase the penalties for homosexual behaviors, raising strong concerns among international aid organizations, and HIV/AIDS groups in particular, that the new legal framework in the country could have devastating effects on public health efforts, in addition to violating human rights.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act, as the bill in Uganda is called, allows for life sentences for HIV-infected men who have sex with other men and criminalizes the “promotion” and “recognition” of homosexual relations by individuals and groups. This policy, signed into law by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on February 24, passed the Uganda Legislature with broad support from political leaders and the public.

Laws prohibiting homosexual behaviors are hardly unique—homosexual activity is prohibited in 38 of 54 countries in Africa, according to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, and according to estimates by the United Nations, in 78 countries worldwide.

Both Russia and the West African country of Nigeria have recently passed new anti-homosexuality legislation. Nigeria’s law, passed in January, carries up to 14-year prison sentences for anyone entering a same-sex union, and 10-year sentences for persons or groups that support gay-related activities or organizations. Last December, India’s Supreme Court reinstated a colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime, while Australia’s high court recently overturned laws allowing same-sex marriages.
However, the Ugandan law is particularly disconcerting to HIV/AIDS researchers as the country is a major recipient of both international research and development money. Uganda’s response to the AIDS pandemic was highly lauded internationally and was often cited as an example for other African countries. The country was one of the original recipients of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and is slated to receive around US$324 million in PEPFAR money this year.

The US, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and the World Bank have already announced they are withholding or diverting some foreign aid from Uganda, and the US National Institutes of Health—the largest public provider of research funds in the world—is reportedly contemplating whether it is too risky in these countries to fund research that involves people engaging in “criminalized” behaviors, said Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

For now, it is too soon to discern just how the Anti-Homosexuality Act will impact HIV/AIDS funding in Uganda, or the long-standing research projects that have been established in the country.

Uganda’s Parliament first introduced the amended bill in 2009, but withdrew it over objections that the penalties, which then included the death penalty, were too harsh. A revised version was finally passed by the Parliament in December 2013. Initially, President Museveni declined to sign it, but changed his mind after reviewing the findings of a committee appointed by the Ugandan Health Ministry to review the scientific evidence about the causes of homosexuality. “Their unanimous conclusion was that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioural and not genetic. It was learnt and could be unlearnt,” Museveni wrote to US President Barack Obama on February 18, according to a recent article in Science magazine. However, some scientists on the 11-member committee said their findings were misrepresented, according to the Science article.