Fahamu (Oxford)

29 November 2012

Uganda: Country's Human Rights Commission Is a Joke

opinion

The commission is mute in the face of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Museveni regime. The political leanings of its officials undermines their commitment to building a just society.

I was awestruck to watch on Television on 26 October that the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) won a continental award as the leading National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).

I would like to state from the outset that if indeed UHRC is a leading NHRI in Africa, all NHRIs are promoting human rights in the breach; for that is what the UHRC does best.

In the wake of the heartless increment of fees in public universities in 2009, I wrote to the president opposing the increment. I ended up in jail on trumped up charges of assault and threatening violence. I also wrote a petition to parliament which I copied to the Uganda Human Rights Commission.

Later, at the launch of the 12th Uganda Human Rights Commission report at Imperial Royale Hotel, I asked the UHRC Chairperson Med Kaggwa whether the heartless increment was not a violation of Article 30 of the Constitution and other human rights instruments that provide for the right to education.

Mr. Kaggwa brashly stated that the increment of fees by 126 percent was acceptable. He further stated that he was on the university council of Kyambogo University and that the council had found it appropriate to have such an increment. Prompted by Kaggwa's response, Kaggwa's close friend, human rights activist JK Zirabamuzale walked out of the function in protest.

Upon the increment of tuition fees, many students failed to enroll, and up today many continue to drop out. Remember Uganda's Universities and other Tertiary Institutions Act states that a public university is supported by state funds.

That notwithstanding, the well-connected students receive state house scholarships whose access is arbitrary. The state house scholarships are only given to sons and daughters of top ruling party members and leaders, children of those that went to the bush between 1981 to 1986, and National Resistance Movement mobilisers. Taxpayers' money used to build capacity for the ruling party. Such a practice, the UHRC cannot decry.

It is a principle of natural justice that justice delayed is justice denied. However, the UHRC takes up to ten years to conclude complaints before it. Yet the awards by the UHRC are rarely paid by the government. Ultimately, the process is a travesty of justice.

The Commission fights human rights defenders who are critical of the government's poor human rights record.

I would like to ask the following questions: How often does the Commission visit police cells? How can it be possible that there are people spending months in the police cells? How often does the commission visit prison farms? Why has the commission never condemned the besieging of Constitutional Square in 2011 by the police and the military?

Why has the Commission never championed the translation of the Ugandan Constitution into local languages as provided for under Article 4? How can the UHRC be the leading NHRI when more than 90% of Ugandans do not know their rights? The registration of NGOs is frustrated by among others, RDCs and ISO operatives who sit on the NGO Board and the UHRC keeps quiet.

In 2009 amid the protests occasioned by the blockage of Kabaka Mutebi's visit to his subjects in Kayunga, the government banned open air radio programmes aka Bimezza. These radio programmes provide a channel through which ordinary Ugandans express their views and vent their sentiments. The commission has never been forthright and upfront in condemning this action.

When I am writing about the Uganda Human Rights Commission, I am writing about an organization that I know inside out. When it comes to prisoners' rights, very many prisoners are maimed and some killed at the prison farms.

In Kitalya prison farm which is just a stone's throw away from the UHRC headquarters in Kampala, prisoners are subjected to the worst forms of torture. If a prisoner digs and gets tired and cannot dig any further, a pit is dug and his entire body, apart from his head, is vertically buried.

I have been a prisoner in Murchison Bay Hospital which is the national referral hospital. Right now if one visited ward one of Murchison Bay Hospital, many patients are casualties as a result of maiming by the prisons staff.

Many, if not all of the people tried by the military courts have their rights flagrantly and blatantly violated. What does the UHRC do? It just looks on. The statement by Martin Luther King Jr. that we shall not remember the oppression of our enemies, but the silence of our friends, comes to mind.

CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS

It is common practice in Uganda for the police to proscribe the activities of opposition political parties. Even non-state actors such as civil society organizations have their activities curtailed.

The Inspector General of Police, General Kale Kayihura has blood on his hands. But the UHRC as usual ranks the police as the leading human rights violator, but never recommends that the General be brought to book. Impunity is the order of the day in Uganda.

I have stated in the Ugandan media that the police force is the 'provocation force' and that the Inspector General of Police is now the 'Inspector General of Provocation'.

There is no single moment when Ugandans have woken up determined to riot. But each time when there are demonstrations that transform into riots, it is as a result of police provocation. It is annoying that the guns that the Ugandan police use to kill civilians, are bought using taxpayers' money.

When it comes to socio-economic rights, one can rightly assert that these rights are non-existent. The national referral Hospital, Mulago, a case in point, is a deathbed. The only people who get quality services are those who are able to afford the private wing. There is a scarccity of drugs in the health centres countrywide; civil servants are greatly underpaid; the few good jobs that are created, are a preserve of Museveni's friends and relatives' children.

Teachers, lawyers, traders, students, university lecturers and may other employment categories have gone on strike saying Twakowa embera embi (we are tired of deprived conditions). Today, university graduates have either turned into tricksters or iron bar hit men in order to survive. Kampala's Executive Director Jennifer Musiisi has destroyed the livelihoods of the ordinary city dwellers who now turn to thieving.

In a recent action, Musiisi burned the property of street vendors. At the Luzira prison facility, the majority of inmates are imprisoned on charges of idling and loitering. That Ugandans who have been dispossessed and deprived, can be labelled as idlers and vagabonds is deplorable.

While in Murchison Bay prison, I decried the fact that people looking for jobs and shelter are charged with idling and loitering. A magistrate who happened to be on remand in the same prison told me that the reason why people are charged with these senseless charges is because the factories that would absorb both the educated and the uneducated were destroyed by the current regime.

He added that the government has driven its citizens into hopelessness and despair, and thus feels that it can only be safe when the unemployed are locked up.

The Foundation for Human Rights initiative under the stewardship of Livingstone Sewanyana far outshines the UHRC when it comes to human rights work.

The newly formed Human Rights Centre under the stewardship of former UHRC Chairperson Margaret Ssekaggya is also outshining the UHRC. Despite this, the UHRC is allotted funds from state coffers and receives the lion's share of donor funding.

Personally, I have suffered; I have been tormented, dehumanized, brutalized and subjected to pharmacological torture at the orders of UHRC bigwigs. I have also been dispossessed of my belongings within the premises of the UHRC and my complaints with the police have been disregarded.

I have filed a complaint with Kampala CPS under SD Ref 63/26/9/2012. Nothing has been done. What they have done instead is to dump me into a mental hospital to ensure I die from there akin to what used to happen in the former Soviet Union. After failing to kill me using drugs, they have resorted to malicious prosecution. What I find amazing is that they label me insane when it suits them and vehemently state that I am totally sane when they want to dump me in police cells and prison.

I have never seen invidious and fiendish institutions such as the UHRC, the Uganda Police Force, and the Courts of judicature and Butabika Mental Hospitals under Musevenocracy. All institutions are used, abused and misused to ensure Museveni's continued hold onto power even when it is clearly evident that the law of diminishing marginal utility has set in.

One of the reasons why the UHRC is unable to inspire hope is because its staff - both members of the secretariat and the commissioners - are not appointed on merit. It is virtually impossible for anybody who does not belong to the ruling NRM to get a job at the commission. The Commission's technical and administrative head is Gordon Mwesigye.

He is also the UHRC's permanent secretary. Mwesigye is not only a staunch NRM cadre, but also hails from the same region as the president and shares the same Hiima ethnic background.

It is clear that for all Mwesigye's studies, he has never studied human rights and his conduct reveals that he also has no regard for human dignity. He is employed at the UHRC to promote the interests of Museveni and to spy on human rights defenders.

The chairperson, Med Kaggwa, is knowledgeable about human rights, but is trapped in a system of hierarchical control. Kwaggwa was appointed to the Commission after failing to make it to parliament. The position was given to him for his unwavering support for President Museveni.

Thus, his unquestionable loyalty to Museveni not the state, dilutes his ability to promote and defend human rights. The case of Kwaggwa resonates through Uganda where many who perpetrate lawlessness and human rights violations, do so out of blind loyalty to the president.

The late Noble Mayombo was a competent lawyer but presided over grave human rights violations and torture as Chiefof Military Intelligence; Edward Kale Kayihura is another competent and highly qualified lawyer whose record is baleful; David Tinyefuza, another lawyer who until recently was one of the most ruthless operators in Uganda. The list goes on and on.

If indeed the UHRC is the best NHRI, then we don't have NHRIs in Africa ; all of them are the antithesis of their raison d'etre. I am fully convinced that without regime change, Uganda's human rights record will continue to deteriorate.

- Vincent Nuwagaba is a human rights defender.

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