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Constitutional review should not stifle human rights

By Ronald Musoke

Human Rights Network Uganda recently celebrated 20 years of human rights advocacy in the country. Mohammed Ndifuna, HURINET-U’s Chief Executive Officer talked to Ronald Musoke about the long journey and the current state of human rights in the country.

Congratulations on the EU Human Rights Defenders award you recently won considering that it coincided with HURINET’s 20th anniversary of human rights advocacy in Uganda. How has been the journey?

It has been worth the walk because we set out to grow, develop and enhance the capacity of civil society organisations in the country and this meant looking at crucial areas in terms of mastering the capacity to deliver human rights programmes. HURINET’s core business is strengthening or building the capacity of human rights organisations.

What have been some of your most successful programmes?

HURINET has facilitated knowledge transfer and replication of best practices by organizing learning journeys and exchanges for human rights activists within the country and in Sub-Saharan Africa.HURINET has also facilitated collective action by supporting coalition building. At the moment, we host up to eight coalitions. One of the coalitions we are hosting is the Uganda Coalition for the International Criminal Court (UCICC) to generate more informed public opinion on the ICC. Through another campaign, the Coalition on Freedom of Information (COFI), we drafted the Access to Information Bill and now we have the Access to Information Act. The other coalition that we have spearheaded and triggered is the National Coalition on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Last year the government submitted an initial report on how far it had gone in operationalizing or fulfilling the provisions of the covenant. So we can say that was a direct outcome of our pressure. The other national coalition that we have triggered is the national stakeholders on the universal periodical review mechanism—a new mechanism under the UN. The UN Human Rights Council arranges that each member state is assessed for its human rights record on the basis of three reports by three other states. So HURINET again provided the opportunity for civil society to be part of the assessment of the state’s human rights record.

You have also been working towards police and security reform?

That’s through another coalition, the Police Accountability and Security Sector Reform Coalition. The police that we have is still entrapped in regime policing as opposed to democratic, accountable, and responsive policing that respects human rights. HURINET worked together with police to ensure that public opinion is sought and a report was generated with very good recommendations on what needs to be done to improve the police. In other words, the public was able to define what kind of police they want.

What kind of police did the public say they want?

They want a police that is professional, accountable, and responsiveand respects human rights. The public was quite insistent that police positions should be got as a result of career progression and specialised training in policing and that police leadership should be civilian and career-guided rather than militarized. We would like to encourage police to be resolute, determined, and humble and adopt these recommendations.

The 2013 Uganda Human Rights Commission annual report still ranks the security forces at the forefront of violating people’s human rights in the country. What are the reasons behind this?

One of them is lack of awareness on the part of certain actors within the police and other security agencies. They find themselves with immense power and think they can act with wanton recklessness.  But also some of these institutions consider themselves to be part of the regime support structure. Sometimes where the regime is pressed hard by political activists, these institutions either by design or default swing into action to try and deal with what is considered to be treacherous or treason. Of course this is unfortunate because opposing the regime within the law is not criminal. When you listen to the leaders of these institutions speak, sometimes you get a sense that you will not be too surprised when you see what is happening. But also, look at the forces’ welfare. Many of these people are demoralized; they are poorly paid and so, in terms of psychological satisfaction, you can feel that probably they are in it because of few alternatives. So sometimes they vent when there is an opportunity to express what is hidden. But the other reason is the long history and tradition of application of violence in these forces. From colonial times, these institutions were used to press down and stifle resistance which came from citizens. Essentially, citizens wanted independence and they had to stifle it, and by the same token, citizens want liberty and freedom from their governments and they are being stifled using violence. Until that is deconstructed and security personnel are given alternative ideology, the culture of application of violence in forces will not be interrupted.

What in your opinion are some of the stumbling blocks to Ugandans fully enjoying their human rights?

Many Ugandans are still unaware of their rights although there is a devoted national institution, the Uganda Human Rights Commission.We had anticipated that the government would do a good job in translating and disseminating the national constitution but this has not happened. But the other challenge is that we now have restrictive laws including the NGO Act and the Public Order Management Act which have a bearing on the work of human rights organisations and the media.

What do you make of the NGO Registration (Amendment) Bill, 2013 that seeks to expand government powers to monitor NGO work in the country?

This Bill is not well-intentioned because when the government passed the NGO Act, we did a good job engaging the state to work out possibilities of cooperation and also deal with the concerns that the government could have through mechanisms that are well tried and tested worldwide, including self-regulatory mechanisms which we had developed. Government was not responsive and passed a bad law and very obnoxious regulations. For instance, regulation 13 provides that no NGO would be allowed to make direct contact with the rural community unless with written permission from the Resident District Commissioner (RDC), given a week ahead of such encounter. We have continued to contest this and that is why we took the NGO Act as amended to the Constitutional Court for interpretation.

What about the argument from the government that these laws and regulations are supposed to help weed out ‘quack NGOs’ and check others being influenced by foreign interests?

There is nothing wrong with an NGO being influenced by foreign interests unless such interests are illegal and illegitimate. Yes indeed, NGOs are part of society, and there could be bad elements but what we need to have is a good law that can deal with the bad elements without necessarily burdening the good ones. What we have is a law that is simply burdening the sector.

How would you assess the state of media freedom in Uganda today?

Uganda prides herself on having established a dispensation where there are many radio and television stations and sometimes this is taken as an index to demonstrate that media freedom exists in Uganda. But one would need to go beyond that and interrogate the ownership of these stations and the practice with regard to basic freedoms and rights of practicing journalists and media people. We know for sure that journalists have borne the brunt of human rights violations out in the field, they have been beaten, sometimes dogs have been let loose onto them, their equipment confiscated; they have  been battered, while others have been harassed, arrested and incarcerated without being produced in court. These are realities which give a different narrative from the known media freedoms.

What are some of the emerging human rights concerns in the country?

The issue of safety and security of human rights defenders, given the wave of criminality that has hit the sector is of grave concern to us. In just the last eight months alone, we are counting twenty organisations in the city that have been broken into and computers taken. The other issue that needs urgent attention is the question of unresolved transitional justice concerns especially in post conflict communities. We need a robust national framework for dealing with resource-based conflicts especially with the discovery of oil resources. History has shown that where resources have been found worldwide, sometimes there are tensions which emerge between the state and the citizens. Land grabbing and land tensions are a real concern now in the country. We have seen conflicts between the frontline communities and warders protecting forest reserves and game parks.

How do you think the issue of transitional justice in northern Uganda has been handled following the end of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in the region in 2006?

In post conflict communities, there are many issues that come to mind when guns go silent. Sometimes, countries get obsessed with physical reconstruction and rebuilding and forget that the psycho-social lives of people need to be reconstructed and a lot of investment needs to be made to ensure that people emerging from conflicts are supported in a holistic manner. The other issue that is of consequence is the question of reparation and compensation. This is something that has not been done. I know that there is a national plan, the on-going Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) which is targeting the whole region but there should be specific situations where the government should take primary responsibility and enable reparations to take place.

Do you agree with other human rights observers who blame the lack of a policy on transitional justice?

In many ways, yes, because programmes and interventions need to be implemented within certain guidelines and a broad policy suit that guides the different stakeholders on the different aspects would be crucial.

How would you assess the current status of access to justice by vulnerable persons like children, victims of sexual and gender-based violence, persons with disabilities and immigrants in the country?

We would like to see further improvement especially in the delivery of justice. The police have made an effort to try and invest in family protection units. We would also like to see the establishment and consolidation of a legal aid fund that makes available legal support to indigents and people who simply cannot access funding to seek formal justice on their own accord because justice can be expensive and the cost can limit access to justice.

What is your comment about the ongoing constitutional review?

This is an important exercise when undertaken but it should be for purposes of strengthening constitutionalism, rule of law, democracy and good governance in the country. Unfortunately, reviews may be made for the opposite purpose. Uganda has had a very turbulent past and the framers of our constitution were quite astute in putting certain provisions in the constitution to ensure that a return to the past is made impossible. If constitutional reviews are done, they should be done to strengthen the frontiers of human rights and freedoms rather than constraining, limiting, undermining, detracting or subtracting the rights we have in chapter four.

What’s HURINET’s outlook for the next 20 years?

HURINET looks to a future where Ugandans will be enjoying their basic rights and freedoms and are able to take pride in their country because their dignity is respected. HURINET’s contribution in the next 20 years will therefore continue to be strengthening human rights organisations and also supporting the emergency of astrong human rights movement.

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