Kampala — The Uganda Police Force should conduct credible investigations into attacks on Ugandan nongovernmental organizations that are capable of identifying the people responsible and bringing them to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.
On August 6, 2018, in the most recent incident, unidentified people broke into the office of women's rights organization ISIS-Women's International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) in Kampala and stole computer processors, internal and external hard drives, and cash.
"The attack on Isis-WICCE is the latest in a very troubling string of burglaries of human rights and development organizations offices' in Uganda," said Maria Burnett, East and Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Uganda's new police leadership needs to address the many cases, for which no one has been arrested, much more transparently and seriously than in the past.".
Earlier this year, on February 8, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) reported that unidentified assailants broke into its office during the night, disabled parts of the security system, and slashed two guards with machetes, severely injuring them. According to DefendDefenders, a Kampala-based regional human rights organization, over 30 organizations in Uganda have experienced similar break-ins since 2012. Many were robbed of equipment and data. In two instances, security guards were killed, but still the police did not follow up and no suspects were arrested. HRAPF was the victim of an earlier attack in June 2016, in which attackers beat to death Emmanuel Arituha, a security guard, ransacked the offices, and stole documents and a television screen. In an attack on the premises of Uganda Land Alliance in July 2015, another security guard, Richard Oketch, was beaten to death.
All of the targeted groups work on sensitive subjects and are known for researching and critiquing government policies in areas such as corruption, land rights, women's rights, freedom of expression, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people.
In June 2016, 31 Ugandan and international human rights groups wrote to the inspector general of police to express grave concern about a wave of break-ins targeting the offices of nongovernmental groups and raising specific questions regarding police management of the investigations. The groups highlighted police failures to investigate incidents; to collect evidence such as witness statements, DNA samples, and closed circuit security footage; and to keep the groups informed about the status of investigations.
The letter noted that "the break-ins appear to form part of a longer-term, systemic, and worsening pattern of attacks on Ugandan civil society organizations targeting their legitimate and valuable work."
In response to demands from civil society groups in July 2014, then-police inspector general Kale Kayihura formed a committee of eight officers to investigate break-ins at the offices of nongovernmental organizations, but the outcome of that committee's work is not publicly known and it never issued any findings. New police leadership, in office since April, has yet to make any public statements regarding that committee or the status of any previous investigations.
As part of its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Ugandan government should protect the right to life and the right to security for everyone, as well as the right to freedom of association, so that organizations can conduct their work in a safe and secure environment. As set out in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, governments have a duty to protect human rights defenders "against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure, or any other arbitrary action" as a consequence of their work to uphold human rights.
"Police apathy in the face of these persistent attacks seriously threatens independent research and advocacy in Uganda," Burnett said. "The new police leadership should show it intends to protect groups that fight for human rights protections and development in Uganda, and credibly investigating the attack on Isis-WICCE would be an important start."