Uganda was reviewed recently by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The government responded favourably to many of the recommendations made to strengthen freedom of expression, assembly and association in the country. Yet, barely a week later, was civil society once again under threat with a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.Uganda’s review was in the first cycle of UPR initiated under UNHRC, an inter-governmental body within the UN system made up of 47 States responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights in all 192 UN Member states. Uganda was reviewed on 11 October at the 13th meeting of the twelfth sessions conducted from 3-14 October 2011 in Geneva. Many issues were raised on the human rights situation in Uganda during the UPR reporting period. These ranged from the death penalty, education, reproductive health rights, homosexuality rights, discrimination against women, disability rights, and child sacrifice to the focus of this article freedom of assembly, expression and association.
From their preliminary response, the Ugandan government appreciated the spirit of the UPR’s constructive dialogue and unreservedly welcomed the following recommendations related to freedoms of assembly, expression and association among others that were in the Working Group on UPR report adopted on 14 October:
- Amend all laws that are contrary to Uganda’s national and international obligations to respect, protect and promote the freedoms of expression, assembly and association and take further steps to protect the right to assembly as provided for in its constitution and under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Recommended by Sweden, UK, Austria, France, Switzerland and Belgium.
- Punish all excessive use of force by security officers against peaceful demonstrators and train security forces to respect freedoms of expression and assembly. Recommended by France and the United States
- Take immediate measures to investigate the excessive use of force and incidents of torture by the security forces and to prosecute perpetrators. Recommended by the Czech Republic
- Investigate and hold accountable police and security officers who attacked human rights defenders, journalists and civilians during the 2011 post-election violence. Recommended by Norway
- Let the decision to grant or withhold bail remain a prerogative of the judiciary. Recommended by Belgium
- Guarantee freedom of expression, particularly the possibility to express criticism and opinion regarding acts of government, take steps to put in place public order legislation which respects the right of assembly and demonstrations while safeguarding citizen’s rights to protection and safety. Recommended by Chile and Ireland
- End intimidation, threats and physical attacks on journalists and promote open reporting and commentary on issues of public concern. Recommended by the Netherlands
The government also agreed to provide a response to other recommendations related to these freedoms by March 2012. These include:
- Ensure the public order management Draft Bill is fully in line with international human rights standards. Recommended by Austria
- Refrain from enacting the proposed Public Order Management Bill and fully guarantee the freedom of assembly. Recommended by Germany
- Arrange the visit of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and consider positively the request for the visit by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Recommended by Canada and Latvia
- Ease the heavy administrative burden on NGOs, such as yearly registration requirements, and removing the NGO Board from the supervision of security organisations, which was raised by Hungary and United States.
Yet, barely a week after the review, the Ugandan government is once again accused of undertaking a renewed wave of intimidation and harassment, this time against Activists for Change (A4C), a pressure group against rising cost of living. This group is organising demonstrations dubbed “Walk to Work,” that began their second phase on 17 October. According to an article on 18 October in The Monitor News, heavy security deployment saw indiscriminate use of tear gas against demonstrators and 15 A4C activists arrested on 17 October on unsubstantiated charges of treason. If convicted, the activists could face the death penalty. In addition, Uganda’s main opposition leader was placed under house arrest because of his expression of interest to join the renewed demonstrations.
While human rights organisations criticised the demonstration’s organisers because of the poor timing of the event which occurred during the national examinations period, they strongly condemned the arbitrary arrests and use of excessive force against the demonstrators.
The government of Uganda must genuinely implement the recommendations from its peers – United Nations member states – made during the UPR process and guarantee freedoms of assembly and expression in accordance with its own constitution and in line with acceptable international standards of a democratic society.
By the Lobbying and Engagement Unit
CIVICUS: Alliance for Citizen Participation
Johannesburg, South Africa