In its latest effort to strip away the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, Uganda has shut down civil society group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). SMUG is a leading organization working to protect and advance the human rights of LGBTQ+ people in Uganda, where consensual same-sex relations are illegal.
The Ugandan National Bureau for Non-Government Organizations said that SMUG had not complied with registration requirements. In fact SMUG had previously sought to register, only to be told that their name was “undesirable and un-registrable” and that they could not register because they sought to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ persons, who are according to the Ugandan authorities, “engaged in activities labeled criminal.”
SMUG strongly condemned the decision. “This is a clear witch-hunt rooted in systemic homophobia that is fueled by anti-gay and anti-gender movements that have infiltrated public offices aiming to influence legislation to erase the LGBTQ community” said Frank Mugisha, executive director of SMUG.
The Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch Initiative has previously documented how the Ugandan authorities use a wide variety of laws to target the LGBTQ+ community.
“By seeking to dismantle organizations that stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, the authorities are encouraging the targeting of those who identify as or are perceived as LGBTQ+, through the courts and in their daily lives,” said Stephen Townley, Legal Director of CFJ’s TrialWatch initiative.
The shutdown of SMUG appears to be part of a broader and growing effort by the state to intimidate Ugandan civil society. In December 2020, prominent civil society activist Nicholas Opiyo was arrested on money laundering charges—charges that were ultimately dropped. In August 2021, 54 civil society groups were abruptly shut down by the NGO bureau. In May 2022, a court ruled that the decision to shut down at least one of the groups was “irregular” and ordered reconsideration.
Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, which partners with CFJ on its TrialWatch initiative, also works alongside Ugandan human rights and LGBTQ+ defenders to advance wellbeing and resilience, as part of the Human Rights Resilience Project.
“This decision to shut down SMUG, unless reversed immediately, will have long-term ramifications for the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda, who rely on SMUG for vital support, protection and care,” said Sarah Mehta, Director of the TrialWatch Project at Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. “This action against SMUG may only exacerbate the climate of fear and hostility LGBTQ+ persons face in Uganda.”
The shuttering of SMUG not only leaves LGBTQ+ people more vulnerable to persecution and violence, it diminishes the support available to them when it comes to fighting discrimination. CFJ and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute condemn the shut-down of SMUG. In Uganda, LGBTQ+ rights need more, not less protection.