Is Uganda Plotting a War on Foreign NGOs?
Uganda’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, has launched a scathing attack on detractors of the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and on foreign NGOs, saying in an interview with the African Independent, as seen here on AllAfrica, that NGOs are working to undermine the Ugandan Constitution by pushing rights for homosexuals.
The interview offers a desperately troubling insight into how Lokodo and many Ugandan ministers consider their international obligations to human rights to be optional, saying:
Human rights are not absolute and you cannot impose your own way of seeing things into another culture. … For example the constitution and the Penal Code is very clear that people in the public should be decently dressed; they should cover the most intimate parts of their bodies which manifest the loose sense of dignity, morality, modesty and decency. For homosexuality, the Ugandan laws are very clear; marriage between people of the same sex cannot be allowed and therefore we condemn it. When they come and say it is a human right we say that it is bestiality in the African culture.
Specifically on the question of human trafficking and child exploitation in Uganda, which continues to be a serious problem the government has yet to properly tackle, Lokodo is challenged that the government should be focusing on issues like trafficking and not “controversial” bills — the inference being the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 or the “Kill the Gays” bill as it is more commonly known.
The Bills are part of the bigger agenda. How do we implement our mandate if we do not put up laws? For example we want to ban homosexuality and the way to do it is to come up with laws, sooner or later homosexuality will be unacceptable in this country, and whoever misbehaves will face the courts of laws, not me going to chase them with police.
As a reminder, Lokodo isn’t being figurative with his “chase them with police” comment. He and his predecessor have literally raided gay rights and sexual health conferences, most recently in 2012, with the express purpose of preventing such meetings despite the Ugandan Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of assembly.
The interview continues with Lokodo glossing over victim blaming comments one of his colleagues made about women who “provoke” “weak minded” men with their immodest attire, and then Lokodo’s attack on foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) for their supposed corruption and their homosexual agenda:
I denounce those NGOs that are not honest and are using Uganda’s poverty situation to enrich themselves and get more opportunities for their luxuries. Two, I don’t admire a number of NGOs which come with an intention of promoting the social, economic development of this country but inject in wrong cultures from the west such as homosexuality and pornography.
There are some which are here to fight government. Instead of helping our children grow up with a culture of positively behaved persons, they are going to schools to tell these children that it is not bad to get a same sex partner.
It’s highly doubtful any NGO representative would risk going into a Ugandan school and advocate to children that they should have a same-sex partner precisely because they would be subject to Uganda’s already overreaching anti-homosexuality laws. Lokodo has, however, shown a propensity to stretch the truth in the past, and this seems to be no different.
What is interesting about these latest remarks is that the practice of defaming foreign NGOs seems to be a tactic that is gaining popularity, especially when governments wish to attack minority rights.
Russia is currently waging a war on foreign NGOs, both legislatively and through administrative crackdown, as part of a thinly veiled attack on foreign influence and particularly in the area of minority rights. The thinking is clear: remove NGOs and foreign oversight is severely hampered, allowing governments that are so inclined a greater scope to penalize minorities and disenfranchise women.
To be clear, Uganda cannot survive without foreign aid, but it could conceivably further restrict the freedoms of NGOs working within the country without necessarily risking its aid being withdrawn. We’ve already seen motion to do that as part of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, where provisions would make offering sexual health care for men who have sex with men — a key demographic for HIV/AIDS awareness outreach — almost impossible because the bill demands that knowledge of someone engaging in same-sex practices be reported to the police or that person would face criminal charges themselves.
Could Lokodo and colleagues conceivably do this, though? Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) told Gay Star News that Lokodo would have a fight on his hands:
“He would not have any evidence that what they are doing is against the law. Our constitution is very, very clear on the rights of freedom of expression and assembly. But given his stand and what he has been doing, he is very irrational right now and he could try to do it. If he dares to do that, we will go after him in the courts of law.”
Raids on NGOs are certainly not new and they don’t just occur because of gay rights support, as evidenced by attacks on NGOs in Egypt surrounding women’s rights and other rights battles. Also, NGOs are by no means above fault or, even in some isolated cases, grave abuses, such as evidence of NGOs exploiting women in the Congo.
Nevertheless, NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch can play a vital role in keeping human rights abuses in the public spotlight and working with local rights campaigners to offer support and guidance, in particular for minority populations facing persecution from the country’s presiding administration.
It’s easy to see why Lokodo and his aligned politicians would be wary of NGOs, however. If a country’s main way of distracting a population from unbearable poverty and rife government corruption is to demonize foreign influence, useful and even vital NGOs pose a significant threat.
So do Lokodo’s words signal the start of a concerted crackdown on foreign NGOs in Uganda? Most likely that attack has already begun but the elevation of Lokodo’s rhetoric should be a red flag, not just for gay rights campaigners but everyone concerned about Uganda’s human rights situation because, by Lokodo’s own admission, and as quoted above, he believes human rights are not absolute and that Uganda can pick and choose whose human agency it honors. That’s not just dangerous. That’s potentially deadly.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.