Uganda: UN Human Rights office must not be closed but strengthened

Michael O’HAGAN / AFP

Paris – Kampala - 2 March 2023. On 6 February 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uganda notified the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) country office that its mandate would not be renewed. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) calls on Ugandan authorities to reverse this decision and strengthen its collaboration with the UN human rights office by putting human rights at the heart of their commitments.

The decision to shut down the OHCHR country office was made after it asked the Ugandan Government’s approval for the renewal of its mandate in late December 2022, ahead of the expiration of its three-year mandate set forth in the 2020 Host country agreement. Legal provisions allow the office to operate until August 2023 if no new agreement is signed. The UN human rights office has been present in Uganda for 17 years and this is not the first time OHCHR’s mandate renewal issue has arisen. In the last decade, its mandate has repeatedly been contested, reviewed or renegotiated. This has already affected its capacity to fully carry-out its mandate and report publicly about the human rights situation in the country.

"Acting against the human rights office is acting against human rights. Uganda must show that it is ready to be a leader in human rights by strengthening the office’s mandate rather than curtailing it. This is in the interest of competent authorities, national institutions, as much as civil society organisations and individuals."

Alice Mogwe, FIDH President

While the Government of Uganda justifies its decision on the basis of progress made towards human rights, FIDH notes on the contrary that there is still a lot to do to improve human rights in the country. Fundamental rights and freedoms have been severely restricted since Covid-19 and the national elections in January 2021. FIDH alerted and condemned the shrinking of democratic space, including the use of force and harassment of political opponents, activists and media before, during and after the elections in Uganda. As a result of multiple attacks on civic participation, it is very difficult today to operate as a human rights organisation and to speak up about human rights in the country. The High Commissioner spokesperson has denounced the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. In November 2022, the UN Committee against Torture found that complaints about the “excessive use of force and other acts of violence by security agencies in the context of COVID-19 emergency measures” must be investigated by an independent body.

It is public knowledge, but also documented by the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) in its 2021 annual report to Parliament, that arbitrary arrests, detention and torture constitute the most recurrent types of human rights violations; they result regularly in cases of alleged enforced disappearances. Last month, in a televised speech, Ugandan President Y. Museveni publicly denounced acts of torture and warned the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) not to commit acts of brutality against civilians.

“This is a very concerning sign for human rights in Uganda. OHCHR in Uganda has been very instrumental in providing human rights training to the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and the Uganda Police Force (UPF) among other agencies. It also supports NGOs with training on UN Mechanisms, Human Rights Defenders protection, human rights monitoring and documentation, notably during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process”, said Jean-Claude Katende, Vice-President of FIDH.

Another growing concern in Uganda has been the human rights situation related to business activities, particularly the development of large-scale extractive projects. FIDH has repeatedly denounced threats, intimidation, harassment and violence against human rights defenders working on the negative impacts of oil extraction projects in Western Uganda. This situation has also been denounced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights and the United Nations Special Procedures, as well as by the EU Parliament.

“OHCHR has been essential in advocating for the government to uphold human rights in the context of oil investments, it has been in contact with authorities, civil society and companies involved” recalled Jean-Claude Katende, Vice-President of FIDH.

The OHCHR country office has been operating in Uganda since 2006 with an initial mandate focused on the human rights situation in the conflict-affected areas of Northern and North-Eastern Uganda. In 2009, its mandate was expanded to cover the entire country and all human rights issues. In its day-to-day activities, the OHCHR country office supports authorities, human rights institutions, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission, and civil society organisations in the promotion and protection of human rights, and monitors the human rights situation in the country. It consists of an office in Kampala and two field offices in the country. Since 2020, under the current agreement, the OHCHR country office has also provided numerous trainings on the international human rights system to Government officials and interested States in the region, national human rights institutions and civil society organisations.

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