Christmas fear in Uganda

A proposed new law takes state homophobia to new and sinister levels in East Africa.

The Ugandan Speaker of Parliament’s suggestion that the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill would be passed "as a Christmas gift" to Uganda is deeply chilling. Hearing the developments in the news, it feels like we’ve been here before - and remembering the murder of human rights activist David Kato, concerns about where this will go are acutely real.

Friends and colleagues in Uganda, and other countries, face an on-going emergency. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender means discrimination, denial of basic human rights, and criminalisation. It doesn’t go away just because the headlines stop for a while.

The LGBTI community in Uganda is facing harassment and persecution, made worse by hate-speech and the fanning of homophobic flames by those in Uganda and abroad. We know the impact that this has on their physical, sexual and mental health, and it’s unacceptable.

In its current form, the Bill proposes, among other serious penalties, that a parent who refuses to denounce their gay son or lesbian daughter could face up to three years in prison - or a fine of up to roughly twice the average yearly household income for a Ugandan family. And we’ve heard this described as protecting the family. The list goes on – proposing a systematic denial of the most basic rights – to health, housing, education, freedom.

Talking to gay friends in East Africa I’m sometimes taken in by the relaxed way we talk about their security. I’m tempted to believe that she doesn’t mind moving house every few months to keep her profile low; that he’s happy to travel always with a friend and not alone. It can be easy to forget how difficult it is for him to access healthcare, or not to notice when he downplays the end of his last relationship, which ended not because they stopped loving each other, but because the pressure became too much. Or that their family and friends have cut contact.

It’s easy to do all this because the friends I speak with are resilient, courageous. They’re just trying to get on with their lives, and spend very little time complaining about what is often a daily reality. But just as the story doesn’t go away when the news cameras stop rolling, the reality is that this Bill has already taken its toll by legitimizing hatred and discrimination. And while the re-tabling of this Bill is disturbing for what it might bring, I’m disturbed by the menace it has inflicted since it was introduced in 2009.

This reality will continue as long as this Bill languishes in Parliament: because the stigma, harassment and denial of rights that people experience today does not exist in a vacuum. It’s shocking to see MPs, and others holding positions of authority, use this Bill and the media furore to distract attention from critical issues: like the growing concerns over corruption that have resulted in the UK halting its aid to the Ugandan Government.

As long as those with the power to reject the Bill hold back from doing so decisively and completely, they carry part of the responsibility for threats to the safety, security and health of all Ugandans affected.

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the international sexual and reproductive health and rights charity, Interact Worldwide

Protesting outside the Ugandan embassy in London. Source: Getty

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the sexual and reproductive health charity, Interact Worldwide.

 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.