Ugandan Appeals Court Shutters LGBT Rights Group

Decision Threatens Civic Space, Reinforces State-Sponsored Homophobia

  • By: Larissa Kojoué | Researcher
  • Photo: Pepe Onziema (L), Frank Mugisha (C),  from SMUG and UNAIDS representative Tseday Alemseged before the hearing of the petition challenging the Anti Homosexuality Act, Kampala,Uganda, December 13, 2023.  © 2023 Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

Last week, in another blow to freedoms of association and expression in Uganda, a Ugandan court rejected a petition brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a leading group advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, to compel the government to register the group’s name. The petition was rejected on the grounds that the organization’s name is against “public interest.” Without registration, SMUG, which was shut down in August 2022 for failing to register with the NGO Bureau, cannot operate legally.

Today marks the first anniversary of the adoption of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), one of the harshest anti-LGBT laws in the world, signed by President Yoweri Museveni on March 21, 2023. The Supreme Court is currently examining petitions by human rights activists, journalists, academics, and religious leaders, who are challenging the repressive and controversial law. The attacks on LGBT rights have been part of a broader crackdown on civil society, including with respect to environmental rights activists.

SMUG, which has provided education on sexuality and advocated for health services since 2004, has been fighting to be legally recognized for more than a decade.

Their first attempt at registration was rejected by the Uganda Registration Services Bureau in 2012, also on the ground that their name was deemed to be against public policy. The Bureau also deemed them a criminal organization under section 145 of the Penal Code Act because “sexual minorities” are referenced in the group’s name and because they engaged with people whose sexual activities are criminalized. A lower court upheld this decision in June 2018, which SMUG appealed.

Last week’s ruling affirmed the previous judicial decisions. Although the court focused primarily on the naming issue, the judge noted that SMUG is associated with the promotion and protection of the rights of LGBT people, who, according to the AHA, are breaking the law.

Several human rights advocates have expressed their disappointment in the decision and view this ruling as a missed opportunity to protect the basic human rights of LGBT people, like freedoms of association and expression.

“This is invalidating all the advocacy work that has been done for years and gives the Anti-Homosexuality Act and all homophobes more power over people’s lives, bodies, and rights,” a Ugandan queer and feminist advocate told Human Rights Watch.

SMUG’s case is yet another reminder of the unjustified and arbitrary restrictions on human rights defenders in Uganda. Ugandan authorities should stop targeting LGBT people and groups and instead pass laws to protect vulnerable minorities and uphold fundamental rights.

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