On August 1, 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court overturned the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) on procedural grounds, holding that the Act’s passing was unconstitutional because the necessary quorum of lawmakers was not present in parliament to vote on the bill. This controversial legislation, which was passed on February 24, 2014, imposed a life sentence for certain homosexual conduct and criminalized the “promotion,” “aiding,” and “abetting” of homosexuality. The Act’s harsh penalties elicited strong international criticism, U.S. sanctions, and the withholding of over $120 million in assistance funds by Western donors. The Constitutional Court’s uncharacteristic speed in reaching a ruling concerning the AHA may reflect the considerable diplomatic controversy and economic consequences that resulted from the Act’s severe provisions.
The retaliatory actions of Western donors against the AHA had a relatively mild impact on Uganda’s fast-growing economy, yet recent developments indicate that lawmakers will be slow to initiate a similar bill in the near future. Pursuant to a presidential directive, Uganda’s Attorney General cancelled plans to appeal the Constitutional Court decision that invalidated the AHA. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, reportedly stated that the reintroduction of the Act is “not a priority,” and declared that if a new version of the law was to be initiated, it would not criminalize the homosexual acts of consenting adults. One Ugandan lawmaker claims that a new law would penalize the promotion of homosexuality and the “recruitment” of children to homosexual acts, but that the legislature has “agreed to come up with a new version that doesn’t hurt our Western friends but also protects Ugandans.”
Uganda’s current hesitation to reintroduce the Act seems to be influenced, at least in part, by the potential for intensified economic consequences and additional diplomatic tension that new anti-gay legislation could create. Most notably, President Museveni expressed concern regarding a July 14, 2014 letter signed by ten U.S. Senators, petitioning U.S. President Obama to remove Uganda and Nigeria from the list of U.S. trade partners under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) if these countries do not make “continual progress” in upholding the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. AGOA requires signatories to uphold certain human rights standards. As the AGOA legislation provides the foundation of U.S.-Africa trade relations and permits duty-free treatment of certain imports from Uganda and Nigeria to the U.S., the Senators’ proposed approach would have significant economic ramifications for Uganda. The petition may have significantly influenced President Museveni’s approach to the pursuit of additional anti-gay legislation; recently, he reportedly warned Ugandan lawmakers that Uganda’s “exports to [the] American market risk being rejected because of” the AHA.
The World Bank, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the U.S. were among Western donors that withheld assistance to Uganda because of the AHA’s provisions. Sweden resumed its financial support of Uganda several days before the AHA’s nullification. Despite the Constitutional Court’s recent decision, homosexual acts continue to be illegal in Uganda under a seldom enforced law that has existed since colonial times. Like the AHA, this provision permits the imposition of a life sentence for homosexual acts.