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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.