The state of human rights in Uganda: A question of law interpretation or predetermined violations?

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Artist's depiction of police brutality in Uganda. Photo Credit: Chapter four Uganda

Human rights can’t wait! Without them, there is no freedom… there is no liberty.

If only we recognized that everybody is born free and equal, then everybody else would appreciate human rights. The need to respect human rights can be traced as early as on the 10th December 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly after World War II. Subsequently, the human rights revolution spread across the globe with the signing of International and National commitments to protect human rights. Uganda has ratified most of the international commitments: the International Convent on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on 21 April 1987, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) on 26 June 1987, Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDWA) on 21 August 1985, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR-OP1) on 14th February 1996, among others.

The 1995 Constitution of Uganda (in Chapter four) further provides for the respect of fundamental human rights and freedoms. There are other provisions in the laws of Uganda that call for the protection of human rights such as the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act, 2012. On the 13th February 2019, Uganda Police Force launched a Human Rights Policy that aims at promoting democratic, accountable and human rights sensitive policing in the country.

Cases of human right infringements in Uganda

Despite the aforementioned commitments and provisions, the violation of human rights in Uganda has remained at its zenith. Just in the last three years, there have been a number of scenarios that clearly portray a lugubrious status quo as far the respect of human rights is concerned. They pose to us a question of whether the laws are not well interpreted or if there are deliberate syndicates in the legal system to curtail some people’s rights.

Dr. Nyanzi was arrested by Police on 8th April 2017 for insulting the President on social media. She was charged under the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 and detained for 33 days in Luzira Maximum Security Prison in the capital, Kampala, before being released on bail. The charges against her, however, were later dropped.

On 27 September 2017, the Ugandan Communications Commission threatened to revoke or suspend licenses of media outlets which broadcast live parliamentary debates on a proposed constitutional amendment to remove the presidential age limit of 75 which was passed by Parliament in December and, according to the government, became law in the same month. On 10 October 2017, the Police summoned editors Arinaitwe Rugyendo of the Red Pepper newspaper and the online Daily Monitor, and Charles Bichachi of the Nation Media Group which owns the Daily Monitor, about stories they published on the age limit debate.

On 20 September 2017, approximately 20 Police officers and security officials raided Action Aid Uganda’s offices in Kansanga, an area of Kampala, preventing staff from leaving the premises for several hours.

In November 2018 Hon. Semujju Nganda was locked in his home and blocked by the Police and Army from holding a rally in Kira. Several gatherings by the political parties in opposition have been frustrated by the Police.

Several times the Police Force has arrested and detained Bobi Wine— a singer and also a Member of Parliament for Kyaddondo East on grounds of holding unlawful gatherings. In December 2018, he was prevented from holding and attending music concerts by police and security agencies. One was on 26th December where his concert in Busabala was cancelled by the Police on the event day even when he had informed the Police about his concert. Once more, on Easter Monday this year, his concert which was planned to take place at his beach in Busabala was truncated by the security organs. This manifests itself in the violation of his economic rights, in particular, the right to work.

Presently, the enjoyment of the freedom of association and facing an arbitrary dentation are in balance to the extent that even a mere thought to hold a peaceful gathering can cause arrests.  Whereas the Constitution and the International Covenants that Uganda ratified call for the respect of freedoms such as; to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition, the Public Order Management Act 2013  (POMA) dissimilarly provides for the regulation of public meetings. The Act defines a meeting as a “gathering, assembly, procession or demonstration in a public place or premises held for the purposes of discussing, acting upon, petitioning or expressing views on a matter of public interest.”

Section 8 of this Act gives the Police a wide range of powers to prevent and stop public meetings and gatherings to take place. On several occasions, some public gatherings have been cancelled by the Police Force while others of the same kind are endorsed. It should be remembered that Section 5 of POMA requires the organizers to notify the authorized officer for the intention of the public meeting but not asking for permission, and Section 9 calls upon the Police to ensure fairness and equal treatment of all parties by giving consistent responses to the organizers of public meetings. How the law is interpreted in some instances remains sardonic to me.

Why should the same law be implemented selectively?!

I think there is an incongruity in Uganda’s legal framework itself and law implementation in regard to the protection of human rights. Some laws directly contravene the provisions of the constitution and international instruments that we ratified. Some of the laws which were meant to bring about tranquility have been manipulated by some individuals to curtail other people’s rights, a case in point is the POMA. This has to some extent ‘legitimized’ the threats, detentions, torture and arrests of people who get involved in peaceful assemblies— especially the activists. There is a need for collective efforts to push for the amendment of the POMA to repeal the sections that infringe on human rights rather than putting up futile lamentations.

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