KAMPALA – Human Rights Defenders have decried some of the laws with provisions that affect their work, asking the government to amend them to create enabling environment.
These actors drawn from different countries including Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, DR Congo and Somalia were on Thursday commemorating the International Human Rights Defenders Day at Royal Suites Hotel, Bugolobi, Kampala under the theme “Defending Civic Space: Human Rights Defenders voices at the center”.
Robert Kirenga, Executive Director, National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda revealed that during Covid-19 time, they carried out a study on the different laws in the countries that relate to the work of NGOs in terms of regulating their work.
“We looked at how do those laws hinder or promote the work of civil society organizations.”
“So the report that we are launching today explains explicitly those different pieces of legislation that affect positively or negatively the work of human rights defenders.”
Mr. Kirenga told the press that the purpose of this study is to use it as an advocacy tool to different actors such as parliament and the executive (ministry of internal affairs) “to tell them that look, this piece of legislation has a certain provision which we think does not enable us to do our work and would want to see it amended.”
“For example, we have an NGO act that has specific provisions. You find that when we are to enforce them, you will be actually undermining the work of NGOs. There is a specific provision on under section 44 that says NGOs have special obligations not to participate in certain political matters but what is political and not political is not clearly defined. So if I provide support to a certain human rights defender who is considered to be from the opposition, then it means I’m providing support or campaign to the opposition and that alone can cause NGO Bearue to either call me for sanctions or suspend the organization,” he said.
Kirenga added that “there are certain provisions of different laws including the anti-money laundering act, where if I receive funds from a development partner, it’s only the bank that can declare suspicious transaction and inform Financial Intelligence Authority but the bank will not even alert me that look, I think this money you have received is a suspicious transaction and therefore, I’m going to inform the Financial Intelligence Authority, you just wake up one day when you issue a cheque, you will be told, ohh your bank account has been frozen.”
Gracing the event, H.E. Nicolaj Hejbere Petersen, Ambassador of Denmark to Uganda said that the universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the equality and dignity of every person and makes Governments responsible for ensuring people can enjoy their inalienable rights and freedoms.
He lauded the Human Rights Defenders for often standing up for human rights and just causes, often in the most dangerous circumstances.
“You are brave people, you often make personal sacrifices to advance the cause of those who are vulnerable to, or who have suffered, an abuse of their fundamental human rights. You act as both watchdogs and advocates for the marginalized and oppressed We greatly applaud you!”
Petersen said that they are concerned about developments in Uganda, which have depicted shrinking civic space and increasing intolerance for divergent views among members of the public.
“For example, it is worrying to note the serious challenges especially regarding the enjoyment of press freedoms such as safety of journalists who are sometimes victims of arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions Civil society is a key partner in making vital contributions to Uganda’s development and ensuring the protection of human rights. Denmark is a strong supporter for the rights of civil society organizations to operate free from interference and harassment.”
Ms. Susan Ngongi Namondo, UN Resident Coordinator revealed that in their work, human rights defenders globally often face significant risks and challenges, ranging from reprisals such as arbitrary arrests and detention, intimidation, torture, killings, closure of offices or licenses to operate, freezing of bank accounts, office break-ins, smear campaigns and threats by both state and non-state actors.
“As a result of such threats and attacks they deserve protection from all institutions.”
Represented by Robert Kotchani, the Country Representative, Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, Ms. Namondo said that the obligation to protect and promote human rights is a shared responsibility that is well established in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995 as amended under Article 20(2).
“Human rights are not an end in themselves; rather, they go hand-in-hand with responsibilities and obligations. Thus, as human rights defenders, we need to ensure that citizens not only know their rights but also their duties and responsibilities. For example, you cannot demand service delivery as a right when you are not fulfilling your obligation to pay taxes.”
She, however, encouraged the actors to strictly observe the highest standards of professionalism in going about their critical work.
She re-echoed the UN System in Uganda’s commitment to providing continuous capacity building, as required and requested, to achieve this level of professionalism and effectiveness.
Mr. Anders Bastholm Hansen, Country Director, DanChurchAid – DCA, like other speakers, recognised the role of Human Rights Defenders in promoting transparency, sparking and contributing to important debates on public policy and implementation, and as such become part and parcel of the checks and balances needed in any society for the promotion of inclusive economies and social accountability.
DCA partnered with the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders in Uganda in June 2021 to analyse some of the challenges arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.