Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Uganda and its ethics minister

Uganda, apparently, has a Minister of Ethics and Integrity. The story that lead me to this interesting discovery was about a sex worker conference, sponsored by NGOs from the United States, Kenya and Uganda, that the Ugandan government recently cancelled. The Minister of Ethics, Nsaba Buturo, was on hand to explain the ethics of this decision to the press. In his words, the government position is that "... we don't take any delight at all in the idea that prostitutes are coming together to devise ways of spreading their vice." Explaining further what he means by the concept of vice, the Minister went on: "We call it a vice because in Uganda it's an illegality which is punishable by seven years [in jail]". Warming to the theme of the officially impermissable, the Minister waxed on further: "Uganda's made a decision that homosexuality, prostitution and those things are not our way of life. Anyone who violates them really will deserve what they get." In the case of homosexual conduct, that can mean life imprisonment. It is not surprising that the Minister has a high opinion of the official government view of such things -- it is not just that it pays his salary, but he also believes that God installed it.

The news agencies -- operating under their strictures of neutrality -- did not evaluate or question the validity of the Minister's statements. But it does seem unlikely that the workshop, organized by the (George Soros) Open Society Institute East Africa Initiative, had the theme How to Make Every Ugandan Woman a Sex Worker and Every Ugandan man a John, rather than (say) how to protect sex workers from the usual exploitation, disease, violence and government harassment. A Minister of Ethics -- of all people -- should know that something being illegal does not entail that it is morally wrong, given that many immoral practices or policies (think of say, colonial ones) were once legal. And there would be no need to condemn or criminalize prostitution or homosexuality if they did not form at least some part of Ugandan life, and East African observers will point out that sex work is a longstanding part of the informal economy in the region, and who knows, maybe Uganda government employees have been clients over the years.

The Minister seems to be a principled deontologist of a special sort -- one that is little concerned about the human rights of sex workers and apparently not concerned about whether his government's crackdown is likely to improve their lot. In the end, the Minister is not offering an ethical judgment based on reflection and analysis; it is simply the condescending voice of a protected elite being visited on the vulnerable poor.


Blogger Francis Masiye said...

Stuart, I think you do not understand fully why the Ugandan government cancelled the Sex Worker Conference. Of course, you have highlighted the justification given by the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity for the government's decision to cancel the Conference, but you missed his point. He clearly stated that prostitution is both immoral (vicious) and illegal. He used the term "vice" to imply that prostitution is immoral (unethical). You may wish to know that virtue ethics is at the centre of most African traditional moralities. In these societies, prostitution is not allowed - it is culturally not accepted and it is considered as a vice. In fact, people expext that a normal woman should have a husband and lead a normal family life. It is for this reason that prostituion is illegal in most African countries.It is therefore morally wrong and illegal for one to practise prostitution in such countries. So, the law against prostitution in Uganda is stemming from people's morality. Hence, the Ugandan government would bite herself on the foot if she allowed the Sex Worker Conference to take place in her soil. This could anger the Ugandan society and it would mean the Ugandan government allows prostitution.
You may also wish to know that it is the West which is championing the rights of prostitutes - you call them sex workers but we still call them prostitutes because we do not accept such an immoral trade. This is why we do not respect the so called human rights of sex workers. In this regard, it is wrong to impose Western conceptions of "prostitution" on African societies which consider prostitution as immoral and illegal.

11:23 AM  

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