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When governments kill their own people

By Agather Atuhaire

Inter-Parliamentary Union offers lessons from the Arab Spring

If the discussion and the subsequent resolutions reached at at the 126th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Kampala were not just good for the paper as observers say many others have been, Uganda, the host country  benefit most.

Unrest and its causes in the Middle East and North Africa dominated the debate at the just concluded assembly that took place between March 31 and April 5 at Serena Conference Centre under the theme; parliament and the people: bridging the gap.

The causes and the repulsive results of what came to be known as the Arab Spring as discussed at the assembly are exactly similar to the prevailing situation in Uganda that most Ugandans, especially the opposition, have grumbled about for over a year now.

The over 4,000 delegates from 160 countries unanimously agreed that some of the notable catalysts for these uprisings were the concentration of wealth in the hands of autocrats in power for decades, lack of transparency, spiraling  food prices and corruption. These are the major reason Uganda has witnessed unrest with countless protests from traders, civil servants and opposition members resulting in brutal battles with the police.

The delegates also acknowledged that there is need for democratic and legitimate governments based on the will of the people and concurred that for democracy to be attained, extensive changes rooted in constitutions, electoral systems, the judiciary and laws relating to the regulation of political parties, the media and civil society are necessary. The opposition’s advocacy for these reforms in Uganda has resulted in repression, torture and banning of the pressure group Activists for Change (A4C).

A4C, which has been the mastermind of the Walk-to-Work protests since early last year, was announced banned and illegal by Attorney General Peter Nyombi on April 4 as the IPU assembly concluded.

The assembly’s Standing Committee on Peace and International Security, upon this background, recommended that all states and parliaments reflect on the lessons drawn from the Arab uprisings and acknowledge the need for democratic reforms.

The lessons from these uprisings, especially the death of former dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi, showed that danger of using more force and brutality against protestors as has happened recently in Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni.

As if they were aware of what was happening in the country from where they were debating, the assembly also recommended that there was need for political reforms like creation of independent government bodies, electoral system reforms, and amendment of constitutions if necessary.  Advocating for similar reforms in Uganda has been condemned and interpreted as treason and met with extreme brutality.

The assembly also recommended that governments pay attention to the security sector so that forces such as police and the armed forces act within the framework of the rule of law and fully respect the fundamental rights of citizens.

International bodies like Amnesty International and human rights watch have condemned the response of Ugandan police towards citizens demanding economic and political reforms. Police brutality was exposed to the whole world when they manhandled opposition leader Kiiza Besigye on April 28, 2011 when they smashed his car and Gilbert Arinaitwe almost blinded him with pepper spray.  The government could borrow a leaf from these resolutions and advise police on how to handle these demonstrations in a way that will not worsen an already bad situation. Ugandan police has been accused of using excessive force and torturing people, especially members of the opposition, and killing others, including a two-year old baby from Masaka.

At the end of the debate, the Union resolved among others that there be redistribution of power within member countries, which would do Uganda’s democracy a lot of good, to draw world’s attention on the situation in Syria and to ensure that women and children have access to health services.

Syria’s unrest with people protesting against the leadership of President Bashar Al-Assad and his Ba’ath party, which has been in power for almost 5 decades, has been going on for more than a year now with about 15,000 people dead, countless injured and tens of thousands imprisoned.

Although critics say the assembly was of no relevance to Ugandans, observers say, if what was debated is implemented, the situation in Uganda both political, economic or otherwise could possibly change for the better because some of these recommendations are exactly what Uganda needs.

Besigye said the assembly was a waste of time and resources because it did not help Ugandans in anyway. He said the money that organised it to discuss maternal health would take care of all the maternal problems in Uganda. Besigye was of the view that the time and resources spent on the assembly should have been concentrated on rectifying the political and economic situation in Uganda. Leader of Opposition, Nandala Mafabi, said he did not know what went on in the assembly but did not hope anything tangible would come out of it. Other critics said Uganda’s delegates should have used the assembly to draw the attention of the world to Uganda’s incessant troubles.

But speaker of Parliament Rabecca Kadaga said IPU was an international meeting not a meeting about Uganda. She said even if there were other urgent issues in Uganda, they would not be debated because what is discussed is selected a year before the meeting takes place.

“Uganda’s delegation sponsored the item of maternal health and that is what was to be debated together with other selected items,” Kadaga told journalists at the end of the assembly.

When asked why the assembly did not debate factors affecting Uganda, she said political reforms in Uganda is an internal matter that wouldn’t be discussed at an international assembly. Besigye agrees with her on that. He told The Independent he did not expect anything from IPU because Uganda’s problems will be solved only by Ugandans.

Besigye, Kadaga are entitled to their opinion. As for most delegates, the assembly was a success and it discussed matters of importance to member countries.

The president of the union Abdelahad  Radi said in his closing statement that the assembly was extremely successful. “The subjects addressed this week have not only been wide-ranging but are also key issues that cut to the heart of what is happening in the world today,” Radi said.

Shakira Mohammed from Tanzania said the assembly could not have occurred at a better time since this is the time governments need a lot of advice. “Looking at what is happening all over the world,” Shakira said, “With government’s killing their own people and the people using force to attain democratic reforms, parliaments needed to step in to put some things right.”

Mensah Williams from Namibia said everything discussed at the assembly was critical. She said it is high time parliaments did their job of legislating and not to let themselves be stepped on by the executives.

“The issue of maternal health and child malnutrition needed to be tackled because I think governments have not done enough to address them,” Mensah said.

She said there are many factors that have caused malnutrition among children that have not been paid attention to like AIDS, political unrest which has led to famine and climate change.

She added that if all parliaments work together to ensure that what was discussed is executed, most problems the world is facing right now could be solved.

But most Ugandans and experts are pessimistic about the practicability of what was discussed at the assembly saying that nothing substantial has ever come out of it being an assembly of parliamentarians who do little about implementation. But the Union’s Secretary General Andres Johnson assured of close monitoring of the project to ensure results are realised. He, however, declined to promise or give a timeframe with in which these resolutions will be executed. “We can’t be sure of any timeframe,” Johnson said, “change is often a slow process that results from political pressure but we will eventually get there.”

At the assembly in Kampala, the union inaugurated two new member countries; Myanmar and South Sudan. Haiti also joined the union recently.

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