Uganda: A clarion call to ensure the protection of Human Rights Defenders

Robert Kirenga addresses the media on situation of Human Rights Defenders

(Kampala, June 27th 2019) The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD-U) decries the continued attacks on Human Rights Defenders across Uganda by both state and non-state actors.

Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) are often mis-understood and misrepresented, so it is important to define who and what an HRD is before addressing emerging concerns:

Human Rights Defender is an individual acting in his or her own capacity or under any Organisation or in association with others, does acts or actions that contribute or lead to the protection and promotion of human rights in a peaceful manner. Examples of such actions may include speaking on the situation of human rights, assisting citizens to access justice, writing articles on human rights, creating awareness or informing the citizenry about their rights and responsibilities, speaking out against evils that affect the realisation of human rights in society such as bad governance, impunity, corruption, nepotism, sectarianism, poor service delivery, unemployment and all such other acts that could constitute bad governance, etc. HRDs derive their legitimacy and the right to do such work from the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda under Article 38 that provides for civil rights and activities hence:

  • Every Ugandan citizen has the right to participate in the affairs of government, individually or through his or her representatives in accordance with the law.
  • Every Ugandan has a right to participate in peaceful activities to influence the policies of government through civic organisations.

HRDs continue to face challenges including: abuses of freedom of press, violence, increased surveillance, discrimination, and injustice. HRDs in Uganda are actively involved in the protection & promotion of all human rights such as civil, political, economic, social & cultural, and as a result, they face risks.

We continue to note with concern the unabated break-ins to offices of NGOs/HRDs. In our report released in December 2018 entitled “Until an NGO Serving you is Targeted”, we highlighted the continued break-ins into NGO offices without any conclusive investigations from the state. On 1st May, 2019 a minority rights group in Lira, Health and Rights Initiative, was broken into by unknown assailants bringing the toll to 35 since 2014.

We are also drawn to the recent wave of allegations of corruption and accountability challenges within the NGO sector. While HRDs are at the forefront of holding government and other agencies accountable, it is incumbent that we also walk the talk. The coalition has previously invested highly in legal compliance for HRDs and implores HRDs at all levels to maintain the highest degree of accountability.

Robert Kirenga addresses the media on situation of Human Rights Defenders
Robert Kirenga addresses the media on situation of Human Rights Defenders

Equally, we are drawn to the worrying clampdown on the legitimate assemblies of HRDs. On 17th May, 2019 Chapter Four Uganda a civil rights group and Sexual Minorities Uganda, an umbrella organisation advocating for the rights of LGBTI individuals in Uganda, had organised an event to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. However, on orders of the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Uganda Police Forces raided the event venue and stopped it without giving specific reasons for their actions. This is the 12th time such raids and closures are happening. This is despite the fact that Article 29 of the constitution guarantees the protection of the freedom of conscience, expression, movement, religion, assembly and association of all Ugandans.

Citizens’ attempts to exercise their civil liberties to peacefully demonstrate routinely come at a huge cost. On 24th April, 2019, when Nana Namata Annette, a Woman Human Rights Defender, attempted to meet the Police Leadership at Uganda Police Headquarters to protest the continued attacks on fundamental freedoms, she was brutally assaulted and dumped at a health facility in Naguru.

In the Albertine Region where the oil and extractives sector is taking shape, HRDs in those communities are equally facing challenges restricting their freedoms to assemble, associate, and express themselves. As HRDs organizations move to sensitize people on land compensation, state agents continue to be inquisitive on who is building capacity of the locals. AFIEGO has been singled out by government and district officials for allegedly inciting the project affected persons. There has been intimidation and threats of closure of AFEIGO. Individual HRDs in the region continue to cite harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrests.

In May 2019, the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) released their annual press freedom index entitled “Impunity: A Cry for Freedom” that decried the escalating trend in attacks against journalists. The report profiled 163 cases of abuse and violations of journalists’ rights. At the heel of these attacks is the Uganda Police Force which was implicated in 87 cases. The UPDF with 27 cases, predominantly during the Arua post-election violence, surfaced in the Index. Cases involving the UPDF were largely related to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders takes particular exception to the continued attacks towards journalists and is particularly concerned with the re-emergence of torture cases involving the UPDF during the Arua bi-elections and on the streets of Kampala during protests that are generally peaceful. We hope this doesn’t in any way set the tone for the recently launched 2021 electoral roadmap by the Electoral Commission.

As a Coalition whose mission is to protect and promote the work of HRDs in a safe and secure environment, we wish to remind both the state and non- state actors to refrain from the continued violations and abuses against Human Rights Defenders in Uganda and specifically:

  1. We urge all state actors, especially the police and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, to live up to their obligation of respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights.
  2. We demand that the police leadership, through its various disciplinary structures, to conclusively investigate cases relating to attacks on media professionals and have perpetrators produced in courts of law for criminal prosecution.
  3. We also call upon Parliament of Uganda to consider prioritization of the proposed law on protection of Human Rights Defenders
  4. We urge the media to highlight and advocate for the protection of HRDs by reporting on and recognizing the work of HRDs.
  5. We urge the judiciary to promote and protect the rights of HRDs by fairly and promptly adjudicating the cases of violations of the rights of HRDs by holding perpetrators accountable.

For more information please contact:

Robert Kirenga, Executive Director +256-414-699-373

Edward Serucaca, Advocacy & Networking Officer +256-702-488-612