Democracy Against Human Rights in Uganda–an initial outlook

By Tim O’Hair

It’s impossible to go anywhere without preconceived notions of your destination, conjured up by readings and stories of others who have visited before you.  Perhaps there is some accuracy in these stories, but it seems to me that it forms a more grandiose picture of the place than reality would have, highlighting the stereotypes of a culture while ignoring the subtleties and intricacies that make it unique.

This was my first time in Uganda and after reading all about the recently passed anti-homosexuality bill, it was hard to separate “Uganda” as a whole from that very small facet of the country.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll spare readers the details of the law itself, which I largely find irrelevant for this blog; suffice to say that homosexual conduct is severely penalized in this country, by law.  That being said, this is largely an abstract point, as there is virtually no enforcement of this law.  What is relevant for this short writing, I find, is the mindset that this law conveys.  Being the touchy subject that this is, I’d like to establish a disclaimer up front (perhaps this is a cop-out): I completely disagree with this law and were I to have voted on it, I would have been with the 4% that opposed it.

But that disclaimer should speak volumes, I think.  Only 4% of the country opposed it.  A legitimate law is one that is accepted by the majority, and I am hard pressed to find a law in any part of the recent Western world that is this legitimate.  Legitimacy is the foundation of democracy; John Locke said legitimacy is derived from popular consent of the governed (being that this is just a blog, I’ll consider Wikipedia a sufficient source for these little informational nuggets).  This sounds a lot like the primary foundation of democracy, something the Western world touts as absolute gold, and I have no reason to disagree, I love democracy.

So I think we must face an insurmountable moral dilemma before asking Uganda to change this law.  How can we, on the one hand, use democracy as an unshakable staple and “trump-card” justification for so much of our foreign policy, while on the other hand, when we find a law that shocks our conscience (not theirs), we issue sanctions by suspending funding (I think this may be a point for a solid counter-argument, as we were giving aid in the first place, but, then again, Uganda has relied on it and the effect is a sanction; regardless, the point I’m making is that we are putting forth the idea that sanctions may at times be a reasonable response to an extremely legitimate law).  So my question is, alas, if you can’t have both (legitimacy and something we consider a human right), which do you go with and why?

It’s exponentially easier for us to answer from afar, knowing we will never feel the wrath of denying our people what they overwhelmingly want—we’d likely justify our support for intervention (which is a broad term that encompasses soft and hard power to effect change) with a form of the “democracy isn’t a suicide pact” argument—you must always go with fundamental rights.  On the other hand, doesn’t not going with democracy make the country extremely vulnerable, and perhaps is suicidal in itself for the country?  Doesn’t acquiescence to international pressure, against your own people, indicate weakness and frailty?  Setting aside the allegations of corrupt politics for now, what an unenviable position President Museveni is put in.  To this, my opinion is that the President (Museveni) handled this situation with extreme grace, yet all along realizing that the global hammer may fall: he said that if homosexuality is proven to him to be found in nature, he will strike down the law, but if not, he will accept the law (and it was apparently not proven to him since it was signed into law last February).  So, sitting here in my apartment in Kampala, overlooking the beautiful but very poor metropolitan capital of Uganda, two days before beginning my externship in the anti-corruption division of the judiciary, I feel morally bound to recuse myself from this political debate: I just don’t know which is more important to the greater good, and, with that in mind, I’m not prepared to protest or seek change here regarding this law, despite how much I despise this law.  Putting this aside, I’d like to come full circle and acknowledge how wonderful my first three days in Uganda have been.  The people couldn’t be nicer, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous, there seems to be hope for a better future, and my only goal is that in my 8-weeks I can do something, anything, to bring that optimism closer to reality.

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One Response
  1. Lorella Hess Reply

    I cannot agree that a law is extremely legitimate merely because it is extremely popular. Pure democracy is not the defining standard; there are real issues, always, with subjecting the rights of a minority to majority vote. In Uganda, the super-majority supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Act is particularly suspect in terms of legitimacy because that majority has been subject to such vigorous and horribly distorted propaganda against homosexuals.

    Also, I am much less concerned about the impact of prosecutions under the new law than about the chilling effect the law is having on local human rights activists and the potential that it could embolden police abuses and even mob violence.

    However, I agree that withdrawing foreign aid is not the appropriate response to Uganda’s new law. I’m here because I believe it is important to stay engaged with the country. The campaigners for this law were wrong when they proclaimed that so-called human rights are just a smokescreen for a sinister worldwide homosexual agenda. With our presence here, we can help to prove that we believe human rights are for everybody.

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