Uganda: The Human Rights Defenders operating landscape in the recently concluded 2021 Electoral cycle; Lows and Highs

(Kampala/February 1st ,2021). The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Uganda and its strategic partners express concern with the patterns of attacks on HRDs and a worrying erosion of fundamental human rights that are basic tenets of a functional democracy as evidenced in the last general election 2021. While we recognize the relative peace and calm on polling day, there were visible and significant human rights violations and abuses pre-election day and we would wish to highlight the same.

The Coalition deployed Human Rights Monitors designed as roving teams in 9 regions; Central 1 and Central 11, Albertine, Rwenzori, Southern, Karamoja, Northern, Busoga, Bugisu. The teams were integrated with National partners under the coalition’s National Referral Network.

The teams were working with the NCHRD-U focal persons at district level-present in each district in the country and were capacitated and equipped with tools such as recorders and mobile phones.

At the secretariat, we had an inclusive and structured rapid response taskforce to provide emergency protection support to HRDs; and to this effect 58 HRDs have been supported in the electoral process. Total Number of HRDs received is 58 HRDs (36 men and 22 women) who were supported to access legal, medical, transport and solidarity visits

Aware that an election is not an event but a process, it is worth noting that the NCHRD-U observed the pre-polling period and issued several statements on the campaign process that was marred by arbitrary arrest of candidates, intimidation of voters, limitations in terms of campaign time and venues especially on the side of mainly the opposition candidates, extrajudicial killings, and media censorship. The effect of these towards HRDs was self-censorship and traces of fear while they engaged in the electoral process as we will elaborate below.

While the January 14 elections took place against the backdrop of the pre-election environment with significant electoral challenges, this press statement mainly focuses on HRDS and the polling days with a major focus on the day’s events and the tallying up activities until the 26th of January when the declaration of results of municipal elections was done.

Uganda: The Human Rights Defenders operating landscape in the recently concluded 2021 Electoral cycle; Lows and Highs

Preliminary concerns targeting Human Rights Defenders arising out of the 2021 electoral cycle.

  • Delay and deliberate denial of accreditation: Due to deliberate-late communication from the Independent Electoral Commission, the NCHRD-U failed to secure accreditation for her monitors. This affected the level of vigilance on the part of monitors of the entire electoral processes and kept a distance on the tally centres as they could not be allowed in without being accredited by the Electoral Commission.
  • Freezing of NGO accounts; Four NGOs had their accounts frozen prior to polling days and this significantly polarized their ability to meaningfully and in a timely manner to engage in their prior-planned legitimate activity. Todate investigations into their organisations haven’t been concluded and this affects their lawfully fundamental freedom to exercise their civic rights.
  • Targeted arrests and trumped up charges: The arrest of legal professionals Nicholas Opiyo, Anthony Odur and Esomu Simon came at the height of the polling environment and todate they continue to await trial. A cross-section of Human Rights Defenders inclusive of 25 CEWIT data entrants and 2 Executive Directors of Women Democracy Network and FEM-FORTE; Perry Aritua and Isabella Akiteng respectively were arrested and detained on election day for allegedly running a parallel tally centre.
    • The CCEDDU Executive Director Charity Ahimbisibwe was briefly detained at Wandegeya police station on the 15th January,2021 a day and later released without charge
  • Clampdown on expression rights: Internet shutdown affected grossly the work of HRDs frustrating communication and information flow. Freedom of expression a very vital ingredient for a democratic and just society was under attack. 3 cases of brutalization of journalists were recorded in Nebbi, Mityana and Wakiso on election days
  • Coordination challenges for monitoring teams: The government decision to switch off mobile money services substantially affected coordination activities of HRDs whose resourcing was mobile money based. Various national and regional groups stated the same. Facilitation (transport/meals) of local monitors proved difficult since mobile money had been shut down.
  • Intimidation due to the heavily visible military deployment: Some HRDs had challenges with deployment because of the heavy military presence and active surveillance. There was observable fear among the monitors and the Roving Team members on what would befall them in case security decided to question their activities.
    • An HRD/monitor was brutally arrested in Gulu after questioning alleged ballot stuffing at Parlonyo polling station
    • 5 HRDs were beaten up and battered by security agencies prominently men in UPDF uniform in Isingiro and Ntungamo districts where alleged voter rigging was reportedly ongoing.
  • Access restrictions: Denying HRDs to stay at the polling station affected their capacity to observe in detail the tallying processes at polling stations. As such, getting statistical data in places we monitored became a problem. The statistical data from the field is scanty in our general assessment of the general election. Refusal to take photos at polling stations further inhibited evidence collection of any anomalies observed by HRDs/monitors.
  • Confiscation of HRDs assets by security personnel at polling stations: In Kasese district, a camera belonging to one of the HRDs was confiscated by government security forces but later returned.
  • Mistrust of HRDs by political agents who thought that HRDs were from Government and perhaps had a sinister motive.
  • Surveillance and security incidents A car of one of the HRDs deployed in Kasese was knocked and damaged by a numberless Police Patrol vehicle. He reported the case at Police (Ref. 06/14/01/2021). RDC Bududa surveilled the NCHRD-U monitoring team and at some stage commanded them to leave the district
    • In Adjumani, HRDs claim to have had a rise in threats against them since all the losing candidates attribute their losses to activism around Zoka Forest.
    • In Amuru a cross section of women land rights activists reported to Gulu Women Economic Development and Globalization (GWED-G) as having received threats from candidates losing in the parliamentary contests.
  • Polling Set-up Challenges: The setup of some polling stations was not properly done. In reports submitted by our monitors in Masindi, Hoima and Kasese, these reports cited some polling stations in their areas of being too compacted that might have compromised the secrecy of the vote. It therefore affected access for HRDs and transparency in monitoring any emerging concerns.

Call to Action

To the Executive:

  1. Fully constitute the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) to fully execute its core mandate of protecting and promoting human rights.
  2. Facilitate meaningful dialogue with the Minister of the presidency towards improving the working relationship between RDCs and Human Rights Defenders.

To the Parliament of Uganda

  1. Immediately consider and expeditiously debate Human Rights Defenders law to explicitly recognise the legitimate work of HRDs and provide them a protection mechanism.
  2. The Human Rights Committee of Parliament should take keen interest in the challenges faced by human rights defenders during electoral processes.

To the Electoral Commission:

  1. Relax the cumbersome and often laborious accreditation process for CSOs both at National and local levels to facilitate meaningful engagement of Human Rights Monitors in the electoral process and also provide for a grievance mechanism.
  2. Prioritise and Scale up civic education to widen civic competence and participation in electoral processes in as far as human rights defenders are concerned
  3. Structure a framework with the Uganda Police Force that reigns in on errant security agents that have been cited in the electoral process for faulting the law.

To the Uganda Communications Commission

  1. Ensure that the Internet restrictions is lifted with immediate effect to ensure free flow of information and protection of the fundamental expression rights for both citizens and HRDs
  2. Explore innovative ways of addressing misuse of internet by some sections of society as opposed to a blanket shut down that affects all members of society.

To the Uganda Police Force:

  1. Re-emphasize the call to Uganda Police to hold their officers accountable for errant actions against HRDs during the electoral processes.
  2. End brutality, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and attacks on journalists and other HRDs who monitor and report on human rights issues during electoral contests
  3. We urge the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to prevail over the police to stop arbitrary arrests and stop sanctioning trumped-up and frivolous charges often used in reprisal attacks against HRDs in electoral contests and strictly abide by the Human rights Policy of the force.

To the Uganda People’s Defence Forces

  1. Audit involvement of security officers faulted for brazen attacks on individual HRDs while undertaking their legitimate human rights monitoring with a view of holding them accountable.

To Civil Society Organisations

  1. Purpose to a more structured and coordinated civil society engagement on the electoral process inclusive of coordinated emergency response
  2. Scale up complimentary efforts around civic awareness on the important role of human rights defenders in the elections

To Development Partners

  1. Providing sustained and comprehensive funding to NGOs participating in the Electoral Process in Uganda towards civic awareness

For further information please contact;

Robert.R. Kirenga Executive Director +256-787-498-984

Edward Serucaca Advocacy Officer +256-702-488-612