The decision this week by the Ugandan Parliament to pass a wide-ranging sexual offences bill that enshrines the criminalisation of consensual same-sex relations, sex work and those living with HIV is deeply troubling.
While we note efforts to tackle sexual violence overall, including by enhancing punishments for sex offenders and strengthening protection for victims during trials, the Sexual Offences Act raises serious human rights concerns.
Although the punishment for engaging in consensual same sex relations has been reduced to 10 years in jail instead of life imprisonment, the fact remains that such relations are still criminalised. Stigma, discrimination and violence against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity are already widespread in the country, and often committed with impunity given that victims are frequently too afraid to report any attack against them.
We are alarmed that certain offences in the Act include mandatory and forced HIV testing of defendants and treat HIV status as an aggravating factor when a person is accused of specific sexual offences.
Such provisions violate Uganda’s human rights obligations and risk undermining public health, leaving people afraid to come forward for essential testing and treatment, and so affecting critical HIV prevention and treatment efforts. They also risk further fuelling the spread of HIV in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa.
We are also deeply concerned that the Act prescribes the death penalty for certain offences, including what is termed “aggravated rape”. The application of the death penalty to crimes, including sexual offences that do not involve intentional killing, is a violation of the right to life and of Uganda’s treaty obligations.
The definitions of rape and consent in the Act are also deeply troubling. An important clause that recognised a person can withdraw consent before or during sex was deleted after Members of Parliament failed to reach agreement. The Act also criminalises people for procuring sex, which can drive sex workers underground and significantly increase risks they face.
We urge Uganda to amend provisions that do not conform to international human rights norms and standards, to decriminalize consensual same-sex relations in all legislation and to combat violence, discrimination and stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers and against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
We further call for a legal framework that can support victim-centred approaches in the investigations and prosecution of sexual violence, including rape, in compliance with international law and standards.