Uganda’s parliament has rushed through legislation in just one day, toughening the punishment for homosexual acts to include up to life imprisonment. The law also makes it illegal not to report gay people.

The Ugandan prime minister opposed the vote, saying not enough MPs were present, but just as likely because he realised that there would be an international outcry and lead to many countries suspending aid.

Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson commented: ‘The UK is concerned about the potential impact of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill approved today by the Ugandan Parliament on the country’s human rights. While recognising Uganda’s sovereignty, we believe that this Bill is incompatible with the defence of minority rights and would increase persecution and discrimination of ordinary people across Uganda. We have and will continue to raise our concerns.’

Obama: law is ‘odious’

US President Barack Obama called it ‘odious’ when the law was first proposed in 2009, which originally called for the death penalty. Ugandan MP David Bahati, who was behind the bill, was quoted by BBC News as saying, ‘I am glad the parliament has voted against evil.’

Bahati told the AFP news agency: ‘This is victory for Uganda. Because we are a God-fearing nation, we value life in a holistic way. It is because of those values that members of parliament passed this bill regardless of what the outside world thinks.’

‘I am officially illegal,’ Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha said after the vote.

Bill can still be vetoed

Human Rights Watch called on president Yoweri Museveni to veto the Bill. Africa director Daniel Bekele said: ‘President Museveni should avoid the trap of scapegoating a vulnerable minority in the interests of short-term political gain. He should recognise that this repugnant bill is of no benefit to Ugandans – that it only serves to jeopardise basic rights.’

The approved bill establishes life sentences for any form of penetration or sexual stimulation of a person of the same sex, as well as for ‘aggravated’ homosexuality, which would apply to ‘serial offenders’ among others, according to sources present during the parliamentary debate. Article 145 of the current penal code already punishes ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’, a colonial-era term used across the former British empire which understood to refer to sex between men, with life imprisonment. The new text would extend the punishment to sexual relations between women.

‘Promotion’ of homosexuality

The bill further criminalises the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality – similar to Russia’s new laws which also ban any ‘promotion’ and have also drawn condemnation from across the world. Human rights groups and other organisations that seek to promote tolerance and put an end to violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as organisations providing health services to LGBT people could potentially be shut down, and their directors face prison sentences.

A group of Ugandan politicians and religious leaders has sought to manipulate public sentiment and mobilise popular support for the bill by propagating the false claim that LGBT people are ‘recruiting’ children into homosexuality, but supporters have provided no evidence to justify those claims.

Tatchell: ‘violation of constitution’

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who demonstrated outside the Ugandan Embassy against the Bill in December 2012, pointed out that the new law violated Article 21 of the Ugandan constitution and Articles 2 and 3 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. He also said that the penalty for anal intercourse has always been life imprisonment – the new law increases the penalty for other same-sex acts – including mere sexual touching.

‘This bill is in some respects even more draconian than the extreme homophobic laws of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran,’ added Tatchell.

Lawyers protest

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) – the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies – was also quick to condemn the law.

IBAHRI’s director Dr Phillip Tahmindjis said: ‘The IBAHRI is extremely disappointed by the adoption of such a draconian law, which represents an attack on human dignity and freedoms. Discrimination against people on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity is contrary to the fundamental principles of human rights.

‘Furthermore, the Ugandan Constitution provides for equality, privacy, freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination, all of which is in direct contradiction to the provisions of the new law.’

Amnesty International: ‘mockery of Ugandan constitution’

Deputy Africa Director at Amnesty International Aster van Kregten, said that the law ‘amounts to a grave assault on human rights and makes a mockery of the Ugandan constitution,’ adding: ‘Uganda’s Parliament has made some important progress on human rights in recent years, including criminalising torture. It flies in the face of the Ugandan government’s stated commitment to ensure all legislation complies with human rights.’

Although the Bill had been in planning since 2009, according to Ugandan NGOs it was only tabled on Friday, without prior notice. Despite objections from the floor, the Bill was swiftly adopted after its second and third readings took place on the same day, and now only requires presidential assent within 30 days for it to take effect.