Published: Feb. 24, 2014

Uganda anti-gay law major human rights violation, scholar says

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949 Andy.Henion@cabs.msu.edu, Christina DeJong Criminal Justice office: 517.432.1998 dejongc@msu.edu

A new law in Uganda criminalizing same-sex relationships is a major human rights violation yet sadly does not meet the International Criminal Court’s threshold for a “crime against humanity,” a Michigan State University scholar said.

The law, signed Monday by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, includes a provision for life in prison for “serial offenders.” (Read more about the new law here.)

Christina DeJong, MSU associate professor of criminal justice who studies genocide and international crimes, said incarceration is included as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court. However, international law protects people based only on their political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender group.

“So if a government started to round up and imprison all members of an opposing political party, for example, that would be illegal according to international law,” DeJong said. “But because sexual orientation is not included in the list of protected groups, the ICC cannot bring charges.”

In addition, DeJong said, anti-gay laws tend to equate same-sex relationships with pedophilia, as is the case in Russia. There is sometimes little distinction in the law between consenting acts between adults and sexual victimization of children.

Anti-gay laws such as the new one in Uganda are overwhelmingly used against men, but rarely used against women, she noted.

Anti-gay laws also can encourage violence against those in the gay community. Those wishing to do harm against a minority group find justification in the law.

Uganda's law contains a provision against “promotion of homosexuality,” which is similar to Russia's “gay propaganda law.” These laws restrict free speech in countries where they are passed, and make it more difficult for human rights groups to help victimized groups.

The leaders of several countries including the United States and United Kingdom, along with human rights activists such as Desmond Tutu, have spoken out about the law. While this is useful, DeJong said, international pressure is best exerted through economic means.

Previously, the Ugandan government attempted to pass legislation mandating the death penalty as punishment for “homosexuality.” That provision was taken out of the new law.

Read more about the history and potential implications of the anti-gay movement in Uganda in this book chapter by DeJong and Eric Long from the University of Maryland.

DeJong can be reached at 517.432.1998 or dejongc@msu.edu

Although Uganda's new anti-gay law is a major human rights violation, it sadly does not meet the threshold of a 'crime against humanity' under international law, says Christina DeJong, associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

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