Communiqué: Claiming Spaces for Ugandan Human Rights Defenders

  1. In commemoration of International Human Rights Defenders Day and International Human Rights DayDefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) in partnership with the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (NCHRD-U) convened over 100 human rights defenders (HRDs) from across Uganda for the ninth edition of its annual flagship event, Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders. The opening ceremony was moderated by Memory BanderaDirector Programs and Administration, DefendDefenders.
  2. In his welcome remarks, Robert Kirenga, Executive Director NCHRD-U noted that the work of HRDs in Uganda is continuously under pressure despite protection guaranteed under Article 38 of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution. Article 38 allows Ugandan citizens to participate in the affairs of government either individually or through representation, provided it is within the framework of the law. It further recognises the right of every Ugandan to participate in peaceful activities to influence government policies. 
  3. Hassan Shire, Chairperson of AfricanDefenders (PanAfrican Human Rights Defenders Network) and Executive Director of DefendDefenders recalled the historic commemoration oInternational Human Rights Day and the adoption of the UN Declaration on HRDs. He noted that for 15 years, DefendDefenders strives to enhance the safety and capacity of HRDs in the East and Horn of Africa. He emphasised that despite the pandemic, DefendDefenders continued to support HRDs and to reach out to the most at risk and vulnerable. Additionally, Hassan Shire recalled that Claiming Spaces was launched in 2000 in Kenya and held in Uganda in 2011. He stated that it is a unique event, designed to provide HRDs with practical tools that they can use in their day-to-day work.
  4. The event was graced by Ms. Rosa Malango, United Nations Resident Coordinator who delivered a keynote address and encouraged HRDs to continue doing their tremendous work. She however expressed concern about the political climate ahead of Uganda’s upcoming elections including the preceding electoral violence and called for peace pacts between those involved in the electoral process.
  5. In his official remarks, H.E Per Lingärde, Ambassador of Sweden to Uganda, reiterated Sweden’s commitment to support HRDs for their vital role in supporting victims of injusticesvulnerable peoples, and conflict prevention. He was concerned about the challenges faced by HRDs, particularly women human rights defenders, and called for their protection. He noted with concern the decline of democracy, restrictions of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association globallyHe noted that in response, the Swedish government has initiated dialogues to provide space for interaction between governments and their citizens. In Uganda, it has supported three such dialogues– on the role of media in electoral process, impact of disinformation and misinformation on democracy, and human rights for vulnerable groups during the COVID19 pandemicHe concluded by urging Uganda to respect national laws and international standards.
  6. Rosa Malango launched DefendDefenders’ new report, Open the doors, Towards Complete Freedom of Movement for Human Rights Defenders in Exile in Uganda,which examines the difficulties and concerns HRDs living in protracted exile in Uganda face in relation to exercising their right to freedom of movement. The report also serves as an educational tool for HRDs, to navigate through the identified challenges. Malango appreciated DefendDefenders’ effort to take stock of issues pertinent to HRDs exiled in Uganda.
    DefendDefenders’ report launch
  7. The opening day also featured a panel discussion on accountability within civil society organisationsPanellists included Nicolas Opiyo, Executive Director Chapter FourIda Nakiganda, Director Complaints, Investigations and Legal Services Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC)Jacqueline Asiimwe, Chief Executive OfficerCiviSource Africa and Morrison Rwakakamba, Global Senior Director of Policy, Fenix International. The discussion focused on setting standards, measuring performance, highlighting challenges, and sharing lessons learnt. The discussion was followed by a plenary conversation with relevant contributions from the audience.
  8. Throughout the week, the HRDs took part in parallel workshops focusing on: strategic advocacy and communication; sustaining activism through resourcing resilience; accountability mechanisms and legal compliance of CSOs; and critical thinking, documentationand report writing. They spent time learning from these sessions, sharing their experiences and best practices, and creating strong networks. 
  9. On 9 December participants celebrated International Human Rights Defenders Day in an event moderated by Sheila MuwangaDeputy Executive Director Programs Foundation for Human Rights Initiative. In his welcome remarks, Robert Kirenga emphasised that 9 December is set aside globally to celebrate the achievements of HRDs and discuss long-standing challenges they face with a view of finding solutions.
  10. In his remarks to mark International Human Rights Defenders DayHassan Shire encouraged HRDs to memorise the UN Declaration of human rights defenders because it recognises their work, guarantees their rights, and provides them with protection. He urged HRDs to utilise the African Commission and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders mandate as a vital protection mechanism. Shire also paid tribute to fallen former Chairperson of UHRC– Al-Hajji Meddie Ssozi Kaggwa.
  11. Hassan Shire beckoned the participants to a spontaneous celebration dancing to Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. The song speaks to the importance of speaking up against human rights violations- which is core to the work of HRDs globally.
  12. Nicole Bjerler, Head of FacilityDemocratic Governance Facility, acknowledged the diversity of HRDs present and the issues that were being discussed. She encouraged the HRDs to use the workshops as a learning platform, and as an opportunity to share best practices as well as strengthen solidarity.
  13. Pheona Wall, President Uganda Law Society, recognised the resilience of HRDs present. She further welcomed the Human Rights Enforcement Act as a milestone for HRDS and encouraged them to utilise the free legal aid services of Uganda Law Society.
  14. Robert Kotchani, Country Representative– Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) appreciated the fundamental role of HRDs and reiterated the continued support of the OHCHR. He called on HRDs to advocate for the appointment of a substantive chairperson for UHRC.
  15. Her Excellency Karin Boven, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Netherlands in Uganda highlighted the Shelter Cities initiative of Justice and Peace, Netherlands as a mechanism to protect HRDs.  The initiative builds resilience of HRDs to continue their work. She further urged HRDs to demand for accountability from duty bearers.
  16. The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Donald Rukare, Chief of Party Freedom House Uganda who noted that the life of an HRD is fraught with pitfalls and obstacles, but these should not deter them from fighting for the protection and promotion of human rights. In his call for solidarity, he further stated that a violation against one HRD is a violation against all.
  17. NCHRD-U presented key findings of its report, Silencing Defenders: Human Rights Promotion and Protection in the Context of Uganda’s Extractive Industries, which assesses the situation of HRDs working in Uganda’s extractive sector. The report examines the risks, vulnerabilities and threats faced by the HRDs and serves as an advocacy tool for their enhanced protection and support. Hassan Shire invited H.E Karin Boven and Nicole Bjerler to launch the report.
    NCHRD-U report launch
  18. DefendDefenders and NCHRDU acknowledged the contribution of outstanding HRDs to the advancement of human rights in Uganda and awarded each finalist an impact award. Congratulations to the finalists: Jane Francis Oling (Northern Uganda)Kizza Eron (Central Uganda)Rose Amongin (Eastern Uganda), Faith Tushabe (Southern Uganda)Charles Masumbuko (Western Uganda), and James Rukampena (HRD of the year).
  19. Additionally, DefendDefenders and NCHRD-U honoured the memory of Al-Hajji Meddie Sozzi Kaggwa for his contribution to strengthening civic space in Uganda and AfricaMargaret Sekaggya, Executive Director Human Rights Centre Uganda officially presented a posthumous impact award in recognition of his work to the Late Kaggwa’s family.
  20. The third day of Claiming Spaces featured a panel discussion titled A human rights defenders’ perspective: public participation in the electoral process. The panellists included Dr. Patricia Achan Okiria, Commissioner UHRCAbdul Salim Waiswa, Head Legal Affairs Uganda Communications Commission, and Perry Aritua, Executive Director Women Democracy Networkwho raised key issues including the need for civic education, importance of speaking out against violations, and emphasised the need to educate young people on principles of democracy. Hon. Lyandro Komakech delivered closing remarks highlighting developments in the advocacy for a national law to protect HRDs. He noted that the HRD Bill was gazetted and that a certificate of financial implication would be ready in two weeks. He called for consolidated efforts within civil society organisations to move forward.
  21. On International Human Rights Defenders’ day, DefendDefenders and NCHRD-U hosted a talk show on NTV Uganda under the theme Putting human rights at the core of recovery. The discussants included Hassan ShireRobert Kirenga and Brenda Kugonza, Executive Director-Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda. The issues of discussion included the role of HRDs in the context of elections and the COVID19 pandemic. Panellists also identified coping strategies amid all challenges.
  22. On the final day of Claiming Spaces, participants received certificates for a successful completion of all scheduled activities of the human rights week, including their participation in the thematic workshops. The closing ceremony was presided over by Dr. Zahara Nampewotreasurer of DefendDefender’s Board of Directors, who congratulated all HRDs and urged them to prioritise self-care as they carry out their work.

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