Members of Uganda's gay community attend the funeral of David Kato, the gay rights activist murdered in 2011. Photo: Getty.
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Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signs anti-gay bill

The new law will make it virtually impossible to be openly gay in Uganda, and follows the stricter anti-gay laws passed in Nigeria last month. So what is driving this increased homophobia and anti-gay legislation?

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has said he will sign into law a new bill which increases penalties against gay people, punishing first-time offenders with 14 years in jail. Under the new law, it will also be a criminal offence not to report someone for being gay, which makes it virtually impossible to be openly gay in Uganda.

Museveni had indicated earlier that he would delay assenting to the law pending scientific research conducted in America as to whether being gay is the result of nature or nurture, but today he presented his change of heart as a desire to assert his “independence” against Western countries.

This development is part of a broader trend, as homophobia is on the rise in some African countries, often bolstered by anti-gay legislation. In January this year, Nigeria passed legislation banning same-sex displays of affection, same sex marriage and gay groups. Earlier this month, a mob in the Nigerian capital of Abuja attacked a dozen gay men, dragging them from their homes and beating them with whips and nail-studded clubs. According to the New York Times, some of the men were shouting “we are working for Jonathan” referring to Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan and indicating how political decisions can shape reactions on the street.

According to Amnesty, it’s illegal to be gay in 36 out of 54 African states, and in Mauritania, Sudan, Northern Nigeria and Southern Somalia homosexuality carries a death penalty. In South Africa, where being gay is not criminalised, a disproportionate number of the LGBTI community are victims of rape and murder.

Of course, it’s not only in Africa that attitudes towards homosexuality have hardened – Russia has come under fire in recent months for its law banning gay “propaganda”. In Iran and Saudi Arabia homosexuality is punishable by death and 70 countries worldwide imprison citizens for their sexual orientation. In April 2013, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described homophobia as “one of the great neglected human rights challenges of our time”.

So why are countries like Uganda introducing these cruel and discriminatory laws? It could be that governments are using conservative and anti-gay legislation as a way of detracting attention from their failures to address unemployment, poverty and other social issues. Another problem, according to Amnesty, is the rise of US evangelical churches who “actively fund and promote homophobia in Africa”. Museveni might see his anti-gay stance as a way of asserting independence, but many of the laws discriminating against gay people in Africa are part of the continent's colonial legacy.  

It might play to Museveni's "independence" argument, but the US, UK and other donor nations need to use their diplomatic and financial powers to exert pressure on governments intent on strengthening anti-gay legislation. Using the threat of withdrawing aid as a way of promoting domestic reform is controversial, but there are few alternatives if you believe that love should never be a crime.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.