Kampala, Uganda | AGNES E NANTABA | Dr Livingstone Ssewanyana is the Executive Director of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative. He spoke to the Independent’s Agnes E Nantaba about implications of the vivid torture incidents in the country.
Comment on the recent torture incidences of torture including DP’s Yusuf Kawooya.
The recent arbitrary arrests of Yusuf Kawooya and subsequent treatment is a clear indication of a growing culture of impunity in the conduct of state affairs. Not only does it speak volumes about the lack of respect for human dignity but it also shows the lack of professionalism in the law enforcement system. Like many other previous ones, it is becoming increasingly difficult to apportion responsibility and blame. While some may put the blame to CMI, SFC, police or any other security organ, none of them comes out to clearly claim responsibility. This mix up indicates a country that is characterised by a democratic backlash; that the state institutions now abdicate their responsibility of being guardians of the law and become abusers of the law creates a sense of hopelessness in the population and leads to increasing cases of disappearance and killings which can’t be explained. That leaves the duty of the state to protect people and their property hanging because when all these senseless murders occur, it just means the state is under siege, is not functioning properly and this is not by accident, but by design. We started expressing our discomfort with the arbitrariness in the maintenance of law and order some time ago when we expressed disappointment with the militarisation of the police; the army deals with enemies of the state and the police is supposed to protect people but when the two roles are mixed up, the lines of responsibility are lost. We expressed discomfort in the continued emergency of militia groups like Kifeesi, Boda-boda 2010 and as of now, you can’t know who is exactly arresting people. Other times, people have complained about police having many uniforms which makes it hard to apportion responsibility and hold them accountable. The creation of crime preventers who are now being deployed as reserve force and just recently LDU’s which were created much earlier and proved a problem. The state is using fear as an instrument of management of state affairs that if you dissent then you must be mindful of the consequences. So no one can argue that the state is inept or has no capacity. For instance, when it comes to dispersing an opposition rally, they are very fast and effective but when it gets to rescuing people, the police does not turn up. It is an unfortunate and worrying trend but also creates the feeling that Ugandans are capable of moving on irrespective of the abuses going on.
Often times, the police and other security agencies like the army have been accused of engaging in massive cover-ups of the true suspects in crimes of torture. What is your take on that?
They don’t want to be held responsible for acts of abuse. They are mindful of the existing legal framework; especially ever since we enacted the Prohibition Against Torture Act 2012 where one is held individually liable. Initially, it was the Attorney General who was held liable on behalf of the state which has since changed. In an effort to avoid that responsibility, they all claim knowledge of who is responsible for the act, parade people to try to show their attempts at dealing with the problem but they don’t go far enough. They also know that the law states that you are innocent until proven guilty. Many of the existing state practices are diversionary.
To what extent have the provisions of the Prohibition of the Torture Act been implemented since it was passed in 2012?
There were attempts; for instance to have the DPC who tortured Andrew Lwanga the WBS TV journalist tried under the Act but it was not successful. There have also been attempts to bring to book former Inspector General of police Kale Kayihura but the charges brought against him in Makindye court were not successful. There have been no attempts to implement the law. The people who are supposed to implement the law are actually the targets of the law and that explains why they are reluctant to implement this law.
Where do the increasing incidences of torture leave a country that is party to the United Nations Torture Convention?
It is misleading today to argue that Uganda has respect for international obligations with the open admissions on many occasions that rights don’t matter and that human rights defenders are a pain the neck. Going by the outcome of the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that Uganda underwent, Ugandan declined to uphold issues to do with implementation of Torture Act. The whole question of the death penalty, electoral reforms, and freedom of association and assembly were noted to be unaccepted by the Uganda government. In practice we are yet to appreciate the importance of upholding these international norms and values.
What can be done to reduce or put an end to the increasing torture in the country?
We should not view torture in isolation; what we are witnessing is part of a broad governance challenge. You can’t expect the police to treat you humanely when they work under poor conditions or when the lines of authority are not clear. You can’t expect that we can uphold the law when the institutions of the state are not independent or when there is no culture of constitutionalism. It would be too idealistic and optimistic that these problems can disappear today. The broad agenda is transition, fair play, equity, independence of institutions like judiciary and legislature. Ideally there exist people who are not held accountable for anything so they continue to abuse rights and walk free. There has to be a renewed commitment to respect for human rights, rule of law and democracy. This is a commitment of not only the citizens but the leadership. The NRM government in 1986 set out to commit to the respect of the rule of law, democracy and human rights but when they abdicated that, their behavior speaks to another context. There is also a challenge of increasingly trading off liberties in search for economic advantage which makes it difficult to prioritise rule of law and respect for human rights.
Where does that leave human rights defenders?
It means that the rights are increasingly being relegated to the periphery; that the rights discourse is in danger and that there must be renewed efforts for the rights discourse to gain prominence. It is not new since there have always been periods globally when rights have been under threat, at the lowest and there were renewed struggles to bring them back to moments of peace and stability worldwide. There is a very clear connection between instability, insecurity and abuse of rights; when abuse of rights gains more prominence, peace and security suffers. We need to renew the struggle for us to enjoy these freedoms.