Tales from Uganda: Working With Those Who Protect LGBT Human Rights

Long-Horned Ankole Cattle along the road in Uganda

A few years ago I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Washington, D.C. Since that time, I have become familiar with a lot of international business and diplomatic types and have had the honor of being invited to several embassies.

Having lived in Africa for three years (Rhodesia during the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, South Africa, and Ghana during the ’60s) and visited numerous times as an adult (hitchhiking through the Chefchaouen Mountains of Morocco in the ’80s, wildlife safaris in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, hiking around Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls in the ’90s, and incredible windsurfing in mast-high waves off Cape Town’s Bloubergstrand in the 2000s), I have been particularly interested in meeting people from that continent whenever I have the opportunity to learn more about professional, philanthropic, and recreational opportunities; and, working alongside my fellow legal professionals, to make things better for them.

Two fisherman with fishnet near a river in Jinja Uganda.
Two fisherman casting a fish net into the White Nile near Jinja, Uganda.

Recently, l learned about Probono Publico: a Ugandan Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) established in 2017 to promote human rights and access to justice through free legal aid for those who are most at risk, including LGBT people, sex workers, young girls, women, and political activists. The NGO specifically provides free legal aid in criminal law, constitutional law, land law, and gender-based law; unfortunately, it’s limited by both financial and technical logistics.

Here is the scene in Uganda: Article 31 of the Constitution forbids the marriage between persons of the same sex. The Constitution stops there on the issue, but the penal code says that having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” is punishable by life in prison, and an attempt “to commit unnatural offences is punishable as a felony with up to seven years in prison (see sections 145 and 146 of the code).

The code is a bit vague on the carnal knowledge issue and the Constitution does not directly forbid gay and lesbian sex, so there is room for advocacy on behalf of clients, especially with the potential for prison sentences. Few members of the local bar are willing to take such cases, so Probono Publico’s existence is kind of a big deal in that country. For example, what does a lesbian woman do who wants a divorce, but cannot assert her homosexuality as a reason for the divorce (Uganda does not have no-fault divorces)? That is one of the kinds of cases that Probono Publico takes to make sure that LBGT folks do not end up imprisoned for life.

Uganda has been cited as one of the most dangerous and difficult places for LGBT people. In late 2017, The Guardian listed the country as one of “the most difficult places in the world to be gay or transgender.” In 2014, when the Ugandan Parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which included penalties of up to life imprisonment, the United Nations agency leading the global HIV/AIDS response said it would have “serious human rights implications”—the legislation was later overturned by the Ugandan Constitutional Court. However, according to my friends at Probono Publico, lobbyists are looking to re-introduce a similar law, and Probono Publico is doing its own lobbying to educate legislators on the effects such laws can have on clients.

Probono Publico has dedicated much of its resources to fighting for the promotion of equal rights. The NGO has already established relationships with organizations like Barefoot Law, whose main project is to give people online access to Ugandan law. It has also worked with the U.S. Department of State on its AIDS initiatives. But having met with some of the principals and telling them about the various legal aid groups in the U.S., they would like to expand their network and partner with a local U.S. bar association, human rights organization, law firm, and others who have a passion for the promotion of human rights generally—and particularly LGBT rights.

Uganda is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and would be an excellent place for someone studying the subject as it relates to Africa or wanting to donate their time to live and learn more about these issues. The country has a common law English system, so Washington lawyers would find researching and understanding the law fairly easy. Because so few local lawyers are willing to look at these issues, the impact of a visiting Washington lawyer would be enormous on the individual clients served by groups like Probono Publico. On the other hand, Washington lawyers willing to host human rights lawyers from Uganda to teach them about the U.S. system and LBGT advocacy in this country would find enthusiastic advocates who would love the opportunity to work with like-minded people and enterprises in the U.S.

Anyone interested in learning more or wanting to get involved can check out the NGO’s website at pro-bonopublico.org or send correspondence to info@pro-bonopublico.org or:

Plot 93 Price Charles Drive
P.O. Box 20057
Kampala, Uganda