Sadly in some African countries, human rights that we in Britain consider to be fundamental are often not respected and frequently denied. This is particularly the case for gay rights. In most African countries homosexuality is still outlawed. Gays and lesbians face everything from social ostracism and institutionalised discrimination to extreme violence, sometimes resulting in death.
In the past year the European Parliament has debated and approved resolutions on a number of specific cases relating to the persecution of LGBTs in Africa. The latest such case is in Uganda, where some local MPs are backing a draconian and repugnant piece of draft legislation that would mandate capital punishment or life imprisonment for homosexuals accused of certain 'crimes'.
There are three particularly alarming aspects to this case from my point of view, beyond of course the outrageous nature of the legislation itself. The first is the fact that the European Parliament first passed a resolution a year ago condemning the law. However, the MP sponsoring the bill, David Bahati, has in fact made it even more extreme than it was originally.
My second concern relates to the way that this bill is being supported – and allegedly bankrolled – by extreme fundamentalist Christians in the United States, who have found in Uganda a useful outlet for their intolerance of gays.
Third, I am appalled at the fact that this is happening in Uganda, a major recipient of UK and EU development aid. Uganda can be considered a relative economic success story by African standards. Does Uganda really want to become an international pariah like Iran, which executes homosexuals? In a country where the majority of people survive on less than a dollar a day, haven't Uganda's politicians got more important things to focus on than persecuting gays?
To my mind gays and lesbians have become a convenient scapegoat for African governments unwilling to face up to their own failures of transparent and democratic governance and lack of respect for human rights in general. In Uganda's case, the persecution of gays unites a society otherwise full of tension, caused mainly by the lack of genuine democracy and economic opportunity under President Museveni, who, for much of his quarter-century in charge has instituted a system of one-party rule.
It's certainly true that African societies are generally socially conservative. Many African leaders and their media mouthpieces loudly resent Western efforts to export more liberal and tolerant values to their countries. I certainly do not believe it is our place to impose all of our values on Africans, and indeed such an approach is likely to be counter-productive.
However, in our dealings with African countries we cannot compromise on our belief that criminalisation of sexual orientation is not the mark of a civilised society. The UK and EU should make explicitly clear to African countries receiving aid that we expect them to improve their respect for and protection of human rights, not least those related to sexuality. We are generally far too timid in voicing our views on this subject because – perhaps from the perspective of post-colonial reticence – we fear being accused of cultural imperialism. We need to remind Africa's leaders that successful, prosperous countries are all characterised by a profound respect for human rights and equality between people of different sexual orientation.
As for this law, when it was first tabled President Museveni intervened and established a committee of review, which recommended scrapping the law. Now that the legislation has been retabled I hope Museveni will once again step in and use his political authority to promote principles of freedom and equality in Uganda, rather than allowing hatred and prejudice to flourish. The African Union should also take a proactive and vigorous stance against this scandalous law.