Uganda: Set Up Commission of Inquiry Into Killings, Disappearances

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Solidarity Conference in 2014.
14 February 2021

Today, Uganda is facing an exigent national crisis - several families, mainly supporters of the National Unity Platform (NUP) party led by Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, the runner-up in the recent presidential election, have reported their relatives missing. Many have been abducted by people suspected to be security operatives moving in numberless vehicles and confined in non-gazetted places.

Efforts to find many of them have been in vain. A few have been arraigned before the courts of law while others have been found dumped in jungles and other remote places often in poor health and bearing torture marks. In some instances, bodies of such abducted victims have been recovered. This state of affairs should concern every individual irrespective of political affiliation.

The State owes it to these families to establish an independent commission of inquiry tasked specifically with looking into these enforced disappearances, torture and killings in line with our national and international human rights obligations.

Our Constitution requires the arraignment of any arrested person before a court of law within 48 hours. Uganda has also ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which specifically categorises enforced disappearances, murder and torture as crimes against humanity.

In February 2007, our country also signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, in which states undertake to combat impunity for the crime of enforced disappearance. As a matter of urgency, the government must establish an independent process through which victims can get answers regarding their missing relatives.

In apparent acknowledgement of these concerns, Internal Affairs minister, Gen JeJe Odongo, recently came out with an official update on some of the disappearances. Deputy Inspector General of Police, Maj Gen Paul Lokech, also followed up with a 48-hour ultimatum to the police to take to court all the people recently abducted by security operatives. They both promised to investigate the matter and report back.

However, given the current political context, a purely government-led investigation is unlikely to win public trust. This is especially in light of the fact that the same security agencies are allegedly behind these violations. It is an established principle of natural justice that nobody can be a judge in his own cause--a clear rule against bias.

Besides, we have seen instances where government officials have vehemently denied these allegations and at times ridiculed the victims, which may contribute to discouraging many of them from coming forward to the police to report and seek information about their missing relatives.

It is particularly important to note that these violations are triggered by a deep-seated ongoing political dispute and, therefore, the public and even the victims of these crimes are unlikely to view Parliament that is dominated by the ruling party as an independent arbiter in the quest for answers.

While the inquiry proposed in this commentary is likely to face the same challenges witnessed with past commissions, for example, their exorbitant operational costs, allegations of influence peddling by different individuals including the culprits of the acts under inquiry and non-implementation of their recommendations, its eventual benefits outweigh the cons.

It is disappointing that institutions such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission have done very little to challenge the government to explain these alleged disappearances and killings.

The varying and disputed narratives about the disappearances by both the government and the Opposition lay a strong basis for an independent process to enable the public to learn the truth and understand the gravity of the problem.

Ms Nakandha is a human rights lawyer.

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