Spring has sprung and much has happened since the swap of seasons. A few weeks ago I had a nasty encounter with a gang of kids who hurled a rock through my second-story window, sending shards of shattered glass all over my bed and pillow. My Irish roommate broke my bicycle after he and his friends decided to “make love” to it one morning at 5AM, for lack of ever seeking out real live people. And how can I forget the toy dog ran into my feet on the promenade, nearly causing me to wipe out?
But I’m not going to focus on those things at all. Just happy thoughts…think happy thoughts…
Happy thought number 1: Lady Gaga. March marked the month of Gaga in Ireland, and the Mitchells and I went to see her in Belfast. I also saw her in Dublin two days prior to her Belfast concert, which either makes me a stalker or an obsessed, googley-eyed fan. Sadly Plan A for meeting Lady Gaga – sneaking backstage – was foiled, but no need to worry, for Plan B has gone into effect, which entails auditioning for American Idol and winning by singing nothing but Lady Gaga songs.
Second happy thought: Monaghan Castle. After our mid-year retreat in Belfast, the Mitchells spent a few days on the estate of Sir John Leslie. We were given a tour of the castle by Sir John himself, the sprite, 94-year-old concentration camp survivor who can remember the color of Rose Kennedy’s dress the night he danced with her (though we never heard what the color actually was…my money’s on purple). To thank Sir John for his hospitality, the Mitchells treated him to a delicious Indian meal and danced the night away with him at his favorite club, the Forum.
Third happy thought: my program! Academically things have been very exciting this semester, and I’ve been able to engage more with the diverse, international group of people studying at the Irish Centre for Human Rights. One of my more interesting interactions occurred after I circulated an Avaaz petition against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill to our department’s Google group. Most of the students were supportive of the initiative and expressed interest in signing it. However, I received a disconcerting response from a Ugandan student who accused me of having no idea what Uganda was. He informed me that Uganda has one of the most religiously tolerant cultures but is incredibly rigid when it comes to “behavior.” He said that demanding rights for LGBT people is perceived as “western” and as “a sign of selfishness and greed.” He also felt that any lobbying on behalf of the LGBT community would only make matters worse.
I was shocked since I thought a Ugandan lawyer like my peer would have been able to see that the Bill does not constitute justifiable law in a democratic and free society. In essence the Bill stigmatizes an enormous sector of Uganda’s population (500,000 to 3.2 million people) and threatens it with a host of violations, including the prospect of capital punishment and/or arbitrary arrest and detention. Further, because the mere act of speaking for the rights of LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS would be compromised, those people would have no hope of mobilizing themselves without some form of highly clandestine resistance.
The response I framed to my Ugandan peer, with the help of my gurus of all things Uganda – Lauren and Jon Parnell-Marino – inspired me to write about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill for my minority rights term paper. Throughout the paper I touch upon the notion of derogations given that non-compliance with international human rights law must be justified in any argument structured in favor of the Bill. As highlighted in the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, restrictions on human rights can be justified for the maintenance of peace and security. However, such limitations are required to be both necessary and proportionate to the aim, with necessity implying that derogations be based on grounds that justify limitations recognized by the relevant articles of the Covenant, that they respond to a pressing public or social need, and that they pursue a legitimate aim. As I show in my paper, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill outlines fundamentally flawed aims that run counter to international and domestic law and compromise peace and security rather than preserving it.
Perhaps the most disconcerting truth with respect to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the mass support in Uganda for it. What the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is doing is mobilizing a large portion of the Ugandan population that is concerned with stabilizing its identity in extremely narrow terms – one where religion, conceptions of the family, and sexuality are supposed to conform to a single, exclusive, and majority-based norm. Even in a place with so many diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, Ugandans on the whole have not adopted an attitude that views sexual minorities as a rights-deserving group of people. Unfortunately this phenomenon is not unique to Uganda, and even in “western” countries the struggle for LGBT rights remains ongoing.
However, it is important recognize that there are exceptions to the anti-gay norm in Uganda who do support the civil rights struggle that LGBT Ugandans continue to wage. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is something that seeks to diffuse and silence the voices of these exceptions in a deliberate attempt to condemn an innocent portion of the human population to both the shadows and gallows.
So perhaps this third point didn’t end up being a happy thought after all, but I remain hopeful that the combined work of activists in Uganda and the international community will bring about the defeat of the Bill. I also hope that this debate will lead to a wider understanding that egregious human rights violations cannot be allowed, especially when they are directed against vulnerable segments of the population that are already subject to State-sponsored suppression and abuse.