27 April 2012

Uganda: Govt Shies Away From Public Order Bill Debate

The fate of a law that seeks to prohibit assemblies and public gatherings remains in balance after the committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs told the House that such legislation would violate the constitution.

The Observer has learnt that Parliament could not debate the committee's report on the Public Order Management Bill (2011) yesterday because the executive had requested for more time to get a formal position on the report. On Tuesday, the deputy leader of Government Business, Gen Moses Ali, requested Parliament to give cabinet more time before the bill is read for the second time.

The Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, ruled that the matter be debated on Wednesday but the following day, the government was still not ready and asked for more time. Yesterday, MPs were surprised when the bill was not included on the order paper, a development Kadaga blamed on time constraints. A section of the lawmakers were not satisfied, reasoning that it was agreed on Tuesday that the bill takes precedence.

In October last year, cabinet introduced the Public Order Management Bill (2011) to provide for the regulation of public gatherings, prescribing the duties and responsibilities of the police, organizers and participants of such gatherings. After scrutinising it, the committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs recommended that the bill be overhauled before being passed into law.

We now understand that consideration of the report on the bill is being put on the backburner because of the unwillingness by the executive to accept the committee's proposals. After scrutinising the proposed law, the committee observed in its report that enacting a law prohibiting assemblies and gatherings would be in contravention of Article 29 of the constitution, which protects Ugandans' freedom of expression and association.

There was also uneasiness with Clause 8(1) of the bill, which empowers the police to stop an organiser of a public meeting for perceived security reasons. Committee members opine that it is in contravention to Article 128 of the constitution, which prohibits Parliament from passing laws that contradict binding court decisions.

"The Constitutional Court had the occasion to pronounce itself on the constitutionality of such powers in the case of Muwanga Kivumbi vs Attorney General, in which it held that the right to assembly is a fundamental right and the police can only maintain law and order in such circumstances," the committee observes.

It further recommends that definition of a gathering as three or more people should be deleted from the bill. Committee members also raised eyebrows about the requirement that an organiser of a meeting must get clearance from the proprietor of the venue of the meeting. Members reason that this will make proprietors reluctant to facilitate public meetings.Parliament will make a final position on the bill today, as it is due for debate.

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