The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda (NCHRD-U) has expressed concern over the escalation of human rights violations across 2019, specifically targeting Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). As we start the New Year – and a new decade – we wish to reflect on major incidents that shaped the year, available opportunities, and issue a call to action for the year 2020.
This year precedes the year when Uganda will hold the general elections – 2021 general election. It, therefore, presents heightened political rights activity in the country as citizens and political actors seek to exercise their right to participate in political affairs.
During the process, HRDs play a crucial role to stand up for the human rights of others by informing, documenting, reporting, campaigning, monitoring electoral processes, and advocating for the respect of rights for all.
As we will highlight below, already indications of a charged atmosphere that ties in both state and non-state actors involved in the electoral processes are already forming. Over the last week, one presidential hopeful, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi (Kyadondo East MP) has been pre-occupied with running battles with the Uganda Police Force in an attempt to carry out his nationwide consultations.
During these running battles, actors such as Journalists, private citizens including children equally haven’t been spared with close to 16 journalists under attack in separate incidents in Kampala, Gulu and Lira.
Highlights of attacks on HRDs in 2019:
NGO break-ins continue unabated. In one of the incidents during the year, the offices of Doing Good, a Dutch women-led organisation in Bulange Zone A, Rubaga, Kampala was broken into on September 26, 2019, by unknown assailants.
At least 8 laptops, 9 mobile phones and a sum of Uganda Shillings 26m were stolen. In a meeting with the Minister of Internal Affairs Hon. Obiga Mario Kania on August 28, 2019, there was a commitment from the Uganda Police Force to release findings from investigations into the dozens of NGO office break-ins. To date, nothing has materialised.
HRDs’ right to assemble equally remains under attack. In one of the recent incidents in October 2019, when Makerere University students demonstrated against the university fees increment policy, police and other security forces violently clamped down on the peaceful assemblies that were largely led by female students.
Over 100 students were arrested and detained beyond 48 hours. Most of them were only released from police on orders of the court. Journalists who tried to cover the attacks and demonstrations were attacked by soldiers and beaten up. Teargas canisters were shot directly at journalists.
On November 4, 2019, in a demonstration to the police headquarters to protest brutality against journalists, 8 journalists were arrested in a brutal and demeaning manner. The arrests followed police interception of a peaceful protest in a bid to submit a petition against sustained attacks and brutality against journalists to the police leadership.
Over time, despite various engagements on the Public Management Order Act, the police continues to misapply this law to unfairly restrict legitimate assemblies of HRDs and other actors in complete disregard of the Constitution, the Act, and related decisions of the Constitutional Court.
HRDs also experienced illegitimate restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression and press freedom. Most attacks were seen as a deliberate move by the perpetrators to cover up their unlawful acts. For instance, journalists were targeted for covering the Makerere University students protest.
Journalists and media houses were also targeted by the Uganda Communications Commission for covering the arrest of Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi.
On September 13, 2019, human rights lawyer Mr. Eron Kizza was summoned by the Media Crimes Division of the police to record a statement in a criminal investigation. The summons came on the backdrop of critical posts he had posted on his Facebook page protesting the conduct of a trial judge in a land case where he is representing over 3,000 people in a forced eviction case.
Human Rights Defenders and Elections:
Across 2020, HRDs working on elections faced numerous challenges in the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. In our 2019 report titled, “Democracy on Trial”, we extensively documented the pattern of human rights violations suffered by HRDs working in the context of elections in Uganda.
One of the on-going cases is the arrest of election monitors. On 10th July, 2019, William Anyolitho, the Executive Director of Life Concern Uganda (LICO-U) and the Board Chair of the Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM), and 3 other accredited election observers operating under ACFIM were condemned and ordered to apologise at a stakeholders meeting in Nebbi district for appearing on a local radio evening talk show to narrate their ordeal in police detention.
The observers were arrested in Erussi Sub County in Nebbi district on 8th July 2019 on the orders of the Electoral Commission for allegedly engaging in election observation activities without accreditation. They were detained for one night at Nebbi District Central Police Station.
After the closure of the notorious Nalufenya facility, no meaningful action was taken by police to ensure that perpetrators of torture at the facility are brought to justice. As a result, torture and incommunicado detention continued to be carried out in other ‘safe houses’ in Kampala, Wakiso and some Islands under the control of the various security forces. Many victims have recounted their torture ordeals in the facilities.
In September 2019, MPs on the parliamentary committee on human rights were blocked from accessing suspected ‘safe houses’ in Nkokonjeru, Kyengera, and Nalukolongo – generally described as secret torture sites used by Ugandan security forces.
Opportunities for a better operating environment for HRDs:
In 2019, the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act 2019 came into force. In 2020, HRDs across the country need to use the law to hold individual perpetrators to account in magistrates courts.
Avenues for dialogue, like we have seen happen last week between the Electoral Commission, Uganda Police Force, and Presidential hopeful Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi must be made available for various actors inclusive of HRDs for meaningful participation in the 2021 electoral process.
Across 2019, efforts to call for an HRD specific law gathered momentum with various initiatives. NCHRD-U and other strategic partners seeking a law for the protection of HRDs convened a national benchmarking meeting. If passed into law, this bill would advance the protection of HRDs in Uganda. In 2020, we will step up efforts towards the law.