Uganda could do more in Human Rights Observance
Livingstone Sewanyana, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI).

Uganda could do more in Human Rights Observance

Human Rights are the bedrock of any democracy. Human rights are about respect for the dignity of the person, realization of his or her potential...

By Gerald Businge
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First published: January 26, 2009

One of the goals of the National Resistance Movement Government when it came to power in 1986 was to promote the Rule of law and respect for human rights. Gerald Businge interviewed Livingstone Sewanyana, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), a leading independent Human Rights organization on Uganda's achievements on the human rights front and the way forward. Below are excerpts:

Qn. Why are human rights important?
Human Rights are the bedrock of any democracy. Human rights are about respect for the dignity of the person, realization of his or her potential and creating an enabling environment for him or her to participate in the conduct of public affairs. When human rights are respected, there is peace and stability, economic prosperity and better cooperation amongst people and nations.

Qn: How would you describe the human rights situation in Uganda today?
Uganda's human rights record is still average. There has been some improvement in human rights over the years, but significant challenges remain. Democratic institutions like Parliament and the Judiciary are functional. Constitutional bodies such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the Inspectorate of Government and the Amnesty Commission among others are in place. There are civil society organizations involved in a range of socio-political activities that promote human rights. The media functions although they face legal –political constraints. The political opposition is restored and there is relative peace in Northern Uganda. All these show some improvements in the human rights situation in Uganda.

But the situation of human rights would be better if the opposition freely interacts with the population, if the media regime is free from institutional and legal constraints; if infrastructure like roads and health centers are in proper working condition and peace in Northern Uganda is fully realized with a Peace Accord in place. Other considerations to improve human rights include: reduction of poverty amongst the rural and urban poor, improved performance of Law and Order agencies like the police, prisons and security bodies, eradication of corruption in the body politic and ensuring judicial independence to improve administration of justice in the country.

Qn. What would you say are the achievements of the National Resistance Movement Government in terms of human rights?
The adoption of the NRM 10-point program that emphasized democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights was a good start. Then the NRM Government restored law and order in the Country having come to power against a backdrop of Uganda being more or less a failed state in 1986. The NRM government has also established a macro-economic policy framework that has allowed financial re-engineering of the economy. The promulgation of the 1995 Constitution and its various human rights guarantees, as well as the restoration of state institutions like Parliament, the Judiciary and local government, multi-party political system and cultural institutions, are noteworthy achievements of the NRM.

The other key achievement has been the recognition of Uganda as a key actor in world affairs. Uganda is now Chair of the Commonwealth, has a seat on the UN Security Council, is leading the African Union peace keeping mission in Somalia and active in the East African Community and other regional blocks like COMESA and IGAD among others.

We must also commend the NRM government for putting in place a legislative and policy framework for human rights friendly legislation. Parliament has for example enacted the Ratification of Treaties Act 1998 to ensure Uganda domesticates international human rights standards; the Prisons Act 2006 for Prison Reform, Community Service Act 2000, Access to Information Act 2004 to improve transparency and the Amnesty Act 2000 which is important in peace building.

Qn. What in your view are the challenges or gaps in regard to human rights that need to be fixed?
As NRM celebrates 23years in power, there is a strong need to revisit the 10-point programme in as far as promoting values of tolerance, peace, respect for human rights are concerned. We need better enforcement of Constitutional guarantees. Law, Justice and Order agencies including the Police, Prisons need to be financed adequately and Courts guaranteed more independence. Enforcement of court decisions, awards of Uganda Human Rights Commission and mutual respect among and within institutions of government is essential.

The performance of Law and Order institutions needs improvement. They need to adopt more positive approaches to dealing with conflict, crime and disputes. Use of excessive force in dealing with dissent and application of extra-judicial measures should be a thing of the past.

Qn. If you are to advise the NRM government on human rights, what would you tell them to do?
I would advise the NRM government to create a more conducive environment for the political opposition and civil society to effectively check the government through removing legal, political and financial barriers. I would also advise the NRM to undertake serious measures to eradicate poverty as one way of promoting civic participation. This should include ensuring better employment of the youth and reasonable interest rates for entrepreneurs.

Media freedom should be upheld. Uganda has been hailed for liberalizing the media and needs to strengthen its efforts in that direction so that the media is in position to expose social vices, policy gaps and failures without fear or favour. The government also needs to demonstrate that it can deliver social services; repair the road network, improve health centers and stock them with necessary drugs and staff and improve remuneration for civil servants especially health workers and teachers.

I also advise the government to re-visit legislation that is inconsistent with human rights principles, not withstanding the good intentions of such laws. I'm talking about laws like the Anti Terrorism Act 2002, the Police Act 1994 among others. The Government should also review planned legislation like the Regulation of Interception Communication Bill 2007, the Land Amendment Bill 2007, which need more consultations before they are passed.

The government also needs to end the 23-year conflict in Northern Uganda for good. Measures are needed to ensure full resettlement of people, presence of adequate Law and Order institutions and sufficient investment to re-engineer economic activity in the region.

Government also needs to improve the Prison conditions through implementing the Prisons Act 2006; and address the growing cancer of corruption which is eroding public confidence in the state.

We also need more human rights friendly legislation and implementation of such legislation. For example enactment of the Anti Torture law to check practices of torture; enact a law on domestic violence and family relations, a law to stop child trafficking, child abuse, child labour and child sacrifice and take steps to abolish the death penalty.

I wouldn't also forget to tell the government to be more responsive to divergent views in order to promote more participatory governance.

Qn. How has the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative helped in the promotion of human rights in Uganda?
Over the last 17 years, through our programs, we have created awareness and understanding of human rights values including individual and State obligations within our society. We have supported the Justice Law and Order sector in the area of legal reform and capacity building. Through our research and documentation, we have developed alternative policy ideas for the benefit of law makers and the State; helped to check abuses by state agencies through exposure of violations. We have promoted dialogue between Uganda and the international Human Rights Treaty system. We have kept the State informed of issues that deserve attention and action to improve its performance. We have also re-engineered the debate and current thinking on issues of democracy, peace, conflict management; and added on existing knowledge through our research and publications.

Qn. Any final words to the government?
The Government of Uganda needs to ensure that its policies, programs and actions are people centered, corruption free and social service driven. Promoting dialogue, individual and collective dignity and ensuring peace for all should be an overriding objective of the government. Finally ensure free and fair elections for Ugandans in 2011.

By Gerald Businge
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First published: January 26, 2009
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Gerald Businge is a media practitioner and features Editor at Ultimate Media Consult in Uganda. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and several journalism and leadership certificates. He has been a practicing journalist since March 2001 and has worked at The New Vision as features writer, and has written extensively for different newspapers, magazines, newsletters in Uganda and internationally. He currently does fulltime media communication consultancy work as well as writing and editing at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd where he is a founding member and CEO. You can get his attention so long as you are interested in and you are working for a better world.