Saturday, 18 July 2009

Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Uganda

Uganda flag 300Image via Wikipedia

Political context

As part of the peace talks carried out under Sudan mediation and known as the "Juba process", the Government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) signed on February 19, 2008 an important annex to their agreement dated June 29, 2007. This annex includes a cease-fire and principles for disarmament, demobilisation and reconciliation, as well as the adaptation of the judiciary system in order to prosecute war crimes. Following the signing of the peace agreement, the security situation improved.1

However, a final peace agreement should have been signed in April but LRA leader Joseph Kony failed to appear, thus raising questions on his commitment to the peace negotiations. Mr. Kony was given a second chance to sign a peace agreement on November 29, 2008 but, again, he made no appearance. On December 14, 2008, the situation worsened, when the military from Uganda, southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo lodged a joint attack, known as Operation "Lightning Thunder", on Mr. Kony and the LRA rebels. Some journalists reporting on this operation were harassed, as was the case of two journalists from The Monitor newspaper, summoned on January 7, 2009 by the police and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), and questioned about an article they wrote on Operation "Lightning Thunder", which the Government considered prejudicial to the country's security. These journalists were held on police bond, which was cancelled after three weeks.2

Impunity was one of the issues that remained in 2008 at the heart of human rights debates in the country. Human rights defenders would like to see justice prevail, whether through the International Criminal Court (ICC) or through the traditional justice system (mato-put), to ensure that victims and survivors have an access to full and effective reparations. However, the search for domestic alternatives to ICC prosecutions to support the peace agreement initiative was criticised by the international community as undermining arrest warrants issued by the ICC against four LRA leaders3 on charges of crimes of the utmost gravity: crimes against humanity including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, and rape; and war crimes, including murder, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, incitement to rape, and forced enlisting of children. Moreover, civil society organisations have raised serious doubts regarding the cooperation of Ugandan authorities with the ICC.

Legal obstacles to the work of human rights defenders

In 2008, independent civil society organisations continued to raise awareness on some provisions of the NGO Registration (Amendment) Act adopted in 2006 by Parliament, which could threaten their autonomy and independence. However, this Act had still not been implemented by the end of 2008, since the guidelines for its implementation have yet to be adopted.4

Under the terms of the 2006 Registration (Amendment) Act, NGOs have to renew licences on a regular basis and must provide writtenrecommendations issued by two entities deemed "acceptable" to a NGO Regulatory Body established within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, called "NGO board", composed of a very limited number of members from civil society, the majority of the board members coming from different ministries including of Internal and External Security ones. Without a clarification on the concept of acceptability, this provision could be used to silence more critical NGOs. Another provision of the Act stipulates that organisations are prevented from making direct contact with local people in rural areas without giving a seven days notice in writing to the district authorities. This is likely to further undermine their work, particularly activities of human rights monitoring. The Amendment Act also expands the powers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to regulate the dissolution of NGOs.

After a meeting held in January 2008 between Government and NGO representatives, a committee composed of representatives from both sides was formed to renegotiate the final text of new guidelines, which are designed replace the existing ones in order to implement the 2006 Registration (Amendment) Act. The Committee met three times in 2008. Despite efforts made by NGO committee representatives to address concerns, the latest version of the text still gives broad powers to the "NGO board" to control the operations of NGOs in Uganda. At the end of the year, the new regulations were forwarded to the Minister of Internal Affairs for his signature.

Sedition laws and other criminal laws also continued to be a tool against journalists who were seen as critical of the authorities. In particular, the provisions of the Anti-Terrorist Act of 2002, which criminalises any attempt by a journalist to meet or speak with persons or groups regarded as terrorist and punishes such initiatives with death penalty, still seriously hinder the capacity of journalists who wish to denounce human rights violations in particular in northern Uganda, where the Government continued to use the war on terrorism to curb its internal conflict and rebellion.

Human rights defenders at risk when denouncing torture and extrajudicial killings

In a context where security and war on terrorism continued to prevail, the space for human rights defenders remained limited in 2008, and the latter still faced legislative obstacles, in particular when touching upon issues such as torture and extrajudicial killings. Indeed, the legislation criminalising torture had still not been adopted by the end of 20085 and individuals and NGOs denouncing such cases continued to be at risk in 2008. For instance, in October 2008, the Coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists, Mr. Sebagala Wokulira, escaped a kidnapping attempt after an interview at Metro FM, during which he had asserted that hundreds of people were being detained and tortured in military "safe houses".6 At the end of the year, he was still hiding as he feared for his security.

Harassment of human rights defenders working on LGBT rights

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists continued in 2008 to be exposed to arbitrary arrests and judicial proceedings, as well as to be subjected to ill-treatment whilst in detention, primarily at the hands of the Ugandan police due to homophobic attitudes. For instance, in June 2008, three activists, Usaam "Auf " Mukwaya, Onziema Patience and Valentine Kalende, were arrested by the police force at the 2008 HIV/AIDS Implementers' Meeting during a peaceful protest to highlight the current failure by the government to offer HIV/AIDS prevention programmes and treatment to LGBT persons in Uganda. They were released on bail after having been charged with "criminal trespass" on June 6, 2008. On August 15, 2008, the prosecution withdrew the case. In September 2008, two other defenders, George Oundo, Co-chairperson of the Sexual Minorities in Uganda (SMUG), and "Kiiza" Brendah, were arrested and arbitrarily detained for a week and then released on bail, after being charged for "involvement in indecent practices". They were mistreated whilst in detention and interrogated by the police in order to identify other LGBT individuals, thus raising serious concerns about the security of other LGBT human rights activists.

On a positive note, on December 22, 2008, the High Court of Uganda gave its final judgement in the case of Ms. Victor Juliet Mukasa, President of SMUG. In the night of July 20, 2005, her house had been illegally raided by Government officials without a search warrant. The High Court ruled that the Government had violated the rights of Ms. Victor Juliet Mukasa and Ms. Yvonne Oyoo (a guest at her house), and declared that Ugandan constitutional rights apply to LGBT people regardless of their sexual identity or orientation. The Government will consequently be required to pay damages to both Ms. Musaka and Ms. Oyoo for violating their rights and seizing Ms. Musaka's documents. This Court ruling gives hope that Government and law enforcement agents will better respect LGBT human rights and their defenders.

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