Thursday, 10 January 2013

Humanism & Human Rights In Uganda: An Interview With East African IHEU Representative Deo Ssekitooleko

IHEU East African region representative Deo Ssekitooleko.
Just weeks ago, Uganda narrowly missed passing a barbaric and oppressive anti-homosexuality law that had the potential of sending gays and lesbians to jail or even a death sentence and even promised stiff penalties for those who witheld information concerning the identities of hidden gays and lesbians - making it a true witch hunt.
Furthermore, if passed, the bill will require anyone who is aware of an offence or an offender, including individuals, companies, media organisations, or non-governmental organisations who support LGBT rights, to report the offender within 24 hours. If an individual does not do so he or she is also considered an offender and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 250 "currency points" or imprisonment up to three years.
Although the parliament speaker Rebecca Kadaga promised to pass the bill as a Christmas present to the country, the bill was never taken up last year.  It's due to be taken up in parliament sometime after  February 4th of this year.

Given the precarious situation of human rights in Uganda for homosexuals and the rise of extreme Christian Fundamentalism across the country, I was interested to discover what the Uganda's Secular Humanist organizations thought about the situation.  Furthermore, I wanted to know what they were doing to protect the rights of gays and lesbians and the state of Human Rights in their country and what we can do in the rest of the world to effect change in Uganda from afar.

I was able to catch up with Deo (Deogratias) Ssekitooleko over e-mail and he was gracious enough to answer my questions.  Deo was the original founder of the Ugandan Humanist Association and is the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) representative for the East African region.

I have taken some liberties with Deo's responses to make them more natural English.  Rest assured that Deo has reviewed this final copy to ensure I didn't alter the meaning of any of his original responses.

GP: Tell me a little about yourself.
DS: I am a Humanist and social welfare activist who believes in tolerance and a secular, scientific and rational way of life. 
I attended several Ugandan Universities, including Makerere University which is the oldest university in both Uganda and East Africa.  I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany & Zoology, a post graduate diploma in Education (Biology & Teacher Education) and a Bachelor of Arts in Democracy and Development Studies and a Master of Arts in Diplomacy and International Studies.
GP: What brought you to become a Humanist and when did it happen?  What are your past duties and achievements within the Humanist movement?
DS: I founded the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO) to oppose superstition, promote human rights and social welfare, oppose all forms of discrimination and promote the scientific understanding of  the  world. The process of this struggle started in September 1993 when I was a student at Makerere University. 
I also organized the first International Humanist conference and General Assembly of IHEU in Uganda, Africa in May 2004.

In addition to all this, I have promoted Humanism in the East African region (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania) and I've worked to attract European and American Humanists to sponsor East African groups.
GP: What are you responsibilities as IHEU Consultant/East African Consultant?
DS: My responsibilities are to promote Humanist Groups and projects and the message of Humanism  through conferences, seminars and Humanist literature.
GP: Do you consider yourself a social activist for change?  If so, what are some of your experiences as an activist?
DS: Yes, I do.  I have helped to found several Humanist groups in East Africa.  However, because of limited funding they move at a slow pace.   I have been invited to speak on Humanism in Africa, Europe and America.
GP: What is the situation in Uganda for gays and lesbians - open or closeted?
DS: Uganda is an extremely homophobic country.  Religious groups which promote homophobia are strong, well-funded and have a lot of influence.  People in same-sex relationships are undermined and scorned.  Such relationships are regarded as abnormal and illegal here.
GP: What is your opinion about the Anti-Homosexuality bill that is now making its way through Ugandan Parliament and was destined to be passed by Christmas by Rebecca Kadaga?  Do you think there was a reason it wasn't passed at Christmas and what do you think its chances are in February?
DS: The Bill is un-constitutional because it interferes with various articles in the Ugandan constitution and it will have to be amended before it's brought back for discussion. 
The failure of the bill to be passed is precisely because of its being un-constitutional.  There is also a fear that the country will lose outside donors as well as concern over the local and international campaign against it.
GP: What is the position of the IHEU and humanist organizations in Uganda and neighbouring African countries to this bill?  What is being done in these areas by these organizations and what are the obstacles?
DS: The IHEU and other Humanist organizations in Uganda are all opposed to the current bill.  Various Human rights organizations are not well coordinated but are campaigning against the bill.   Above all, there is a need for better coordination of resources.
GP: What could people in other countries - especially Europe and Americas - do to help?
DS: They should push their governments pressure the Ugandan Government not to pass the bill. 
They should facilitate, through funding human rights organizations, to form a strong coalition that can form a unified force to oppose the bill and sensitize Ugandan society about tolerance of minorities and respect of human rights. 
In particular Humanist organizations should fund the newly formed Secular Coalition for Human Rights (SECOHURI)*.
GP: Is there any opposition to this bill in the Parliament?  If not, why do you think it is?
DS: No other opposition is being heard.  But whenever the bill is up for debate many members opt to be absent.
GP: Was the climate always this bad for homosexuals in Uganda?  Or has it gotten worse in the last decade and why do you think this is?
DS: It has not always been like this.  The emergence of strong Pentecostal religious groups has escalated the situation.
GP: What are some of the other interesting ongoing projects humanist organizations are undertaking in Uganda and surrounding African countries?   How can we all help?
DS: Some ongoing projects are Humanist schools (so far three in Uganda); Women's Rights groups which help minority groups; Social welfare projects for poor people; Groups that promote a scientific outlook (e.g. fight witchcraft in places like Malawi); Conferences and Symposia which bring Humanists together in East African countries. 
You can best help by contacting these groups.
Editor's note: The first place to look for contact information for these organizations is the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO) website.  Sites include:

GP: What role do you see organizations like IHEU taking in the future on the Ugandan, African and World stage to advance causes important to Humanists and to make the world a safer place for people of non-belief?
DS: Empower established groups through capacity building projects and  seek to establish more groups throughout Africa.
GP: Do you have any further comments?
DS: We wish to see strong collaboration with you on how to promote SECOHURI as a first stage of our Interactions.

I thank Deo for his time answering my questions and hope to hear more from him in the future on this blog!

*After the interview I asked Deo how to best get information about SECOHURI and he let me know that the initiative is still very early on in its development.  He will share more information as it progresses and I'll be sure to pass it on here or you should check out the Uganda Humanist Association website for updates!

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