Uganda’s history has been characterized by gross violation of human rights. In the recent past, the increased narrowing of political space seen in the offing of unconstitutional legislations like the public order and management Act spirited towards limiting the freedoms of association and movement of key opposition figures and anti-government actors affirm that while this country signed and ratified many international treaties to uphold fundamental human rights, she has consistently chosen to abuse them with impunity.
It is highly imperative to note that since World War Two, a broad consensus grew around the importance of an international legal framework to protect human rights, within which states should operate. This ‘human rights framework’ protects a set of rights so fundamental that every person shares them (one of which is the right to assembly and demonstration) – and every state and non-state actor has an obligation to respect, protect and promote them. The obligation to respect these rights remains regardless of political persuasion of the government of the day, or the operating context – whether it a time of tranquility or international or civil war.
This concept of a set of human rights was first encapsulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and was then translated into legal obligations through a series of international treaties for example the Geneva Conventions (1949), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR – 1966); thematic – Convention against Torture (CAT – 1984) with its Optional protocol, and also regional – European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR – 1950); American Convention on Human Rights (1969); African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1981).
The development of this normative framework was also supported by the creation of legal structures at national, regional and international level to provide the possibility of redress for citizens whose rights, protected under these treaties, had been violated. They would also need to meet the test of providing clear processes for appeal, and redress of grievances where rights are found to have been violated.
There’s no doubt that Uganda ratified and signed most of if not all of these chatters and declarations as earlier pointed out. It is therefore not only appalling but also disgusting how the same state violets human rights it is supposed to protect and uphold by law.
The continued reprehensible treatment of activists and opposition kingpins by the Ugandan police all justified by a guarantee of security is simply dictatorial and undirected since the best way to preserve security is through respect of human rights. The closure of some media houses and continued intimidation and ill treatment of journalists can never be justified by any kind of argument either.
Whereas I believe that the preservation of national security is the first responsibility of any government it would be disgraceful to believe that the government of Uganda would achieve this through denying her citizens the inherent human rights and dignity. Therefore even when the stakes are raised, governments should never put a priority on the preservation of security and public order through curtailing rights that they would otherwise respect.
Arguing that police acts to protect the right to life of the populace, the most basic human right of all is an absurdity too since it is only when bullets and teargas canisters are unleashed that we lose lives.
Even when there is a long historical tradition of human rights and liberties coming under strain during periods when national security is threatened by democracies that are otherwise strongly committed to human rights and the rule of law especially in wartime or when facing other widespread security threats, the situation is different in Uganda.
In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) made substantial progress in putting down an insurgency led by the FARC militia group and was however criticized by human rights groups for a series of alleged violations, including the government’s tolerance of right-wing paramilitaries. In Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa put down the insurgency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, despite the global criticism he received for violations of human rights and the laws of armed conflict.
President Kagame in Rwanda has justified limits on human rights including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as necessary to promote the healing of Rwandan society after the genocide of 1994. Despite the criticism the decisions taken by these leaders were necessary at a time.
Uganda’s situation however no close to what these leaders were faced with is. These demonstrations, assemblies and movements are not armed dangerous and pose no reasonable threat to security to guarantee denial of fundamental human rights.
To many of us however, human rights are important in themselves; we believe that it is a fundamental principle of political morality that all people should be treated with respect for their inherent dignity, even when this leads to a slight increase in the security risk that our country faces. Also respecting human rights is good for national security, for instance because it is less likely to lead to the radicalization of minority groups and pressure groups a case in Uganda today.
Lastly to those in power now and those that will come later need to struggle to strike a balance between security and liberty since their importance is equally the same. Just like Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Human Rights activist
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of FES