By Ronald Musoke
Karamoja remains Uganda’s most vulnerable sub-region when it comes to human rights abuses by government agencies, a new report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda says.
The report released on Feb. 20 in Kampala says although there has been ‘considerable improvement’ in the security situation ever since the government initiated the disarmament exercise over a decade ago to improve security in Karamoja, there still remain serious concerns.
While launching the report, Birgit Gerstenberg, OHCHR’s country representative added that accountability for human rights violations not only in the sub-region but also Uganda in general remains weak.
The report took into account the human rights situation in Uganda, capturing activities that occurred between Nov., 2011 and Sept., 2013 but it was the Karamoja sub-region where OHCHR said human rights abuses are widely prevalent.
Gerstenberg said the remoteness and isolation of most areas in Karamoja, particularly areas bordering Kenya, render investigations into the abuses more difficult.
“The population’s limited access to the formal justice system restricts the victims’ right to effective remedy and reparation,” she said.
Since 2006, OCHCR has been observing the UPDF’s disarmament exercise and has subsequently issued several reports regarding the human rights situation in Karamoja, with main concerns revolving around extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and the use of torture in UPDF detention facilities.
According to the report, in 2012, OHCHR registered a total of 148 complaints of alleged violations of the rights to life, freedom from torture and to personal liberty implicating UPDF, the police and the Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel in Karamoja.
The report notes that out of this number, 133 complaints were accepted to be followed by the UN agency and 207 meetings and missions were conducted to monitor the complaints; 97 allegations were forwarded to the local authorities of UPDF or the police for further investigation, corrective measures and prosecution.
Last year, the organization further registered 101 complaints in Karamoja related to disarmament and law enforcement operations and out of these complaints, over 70 of the complaints were allegations against UPDF, including the LDU.
“The highest number of complaints received by OCHCR in Karamoja during 2012 and 2013 are related to the right to physical and mental integrity, implicating UPDF (including LDUs) and the police with regard to disarmament and law enforcement operations,” the report reads in part.
According to the report, torture was allegedly used in interrogations to extract confessions of gun possession and involvement in crime in all the seven districts that make up the sub-region.
The agency raised 73 cases [51 in 2012, and 22 in 2013] to which the UPDF responded that it would carry out investigations, however, to date; only nine cases have been investigated, with two of those cases being submitted to the military Court Martial.
In one of the two cases on Oct. 28 in 2012, the Unit Disciplinary Court of the military court martial tried and sentenced two LDU officers and one UPDF soldier for committing torture and for misusing firearms.
Two other investigated cases were handed over by the UPDF and the police while three cases were mediated after the perpetrator agreed to pay compensations for medical costs of the victims.
On the other hand, police has initiated investigations over two cases, and has submitted one of them to the Magistrate Court.
However, the rest of the cases [88%], OCHCR is yet to be informed of any progress.
Gerstenberg said although the UPDF command has assured OCHCR of its commitment to respect human rights, internal investigations to hold perpetrators accountable for violations of human rights are not systematic.
But she quickly noted that despite the challenges, the UPDF’s attitude towards reports of human rights violations has improved although there is further need to investigate such cases thoroughly to discourage unlawful acts and overcome impunity, especially in cases where the right to life and integrity is at stake.
“There have been clear positives over the last few years,” she said.
She said within the UPDF, understanding human rights issues are visible but the challenge is within the LDU.
Gerstenberg said OHCHR will share the report with the authorities including UPDF to investigate these cases.