KAMPALA – Ms. Safia Juuko, Chairperson, Equal Opportunity Commission – EOC has called for more advocacy and resilience by Civil Society Organisations – CSOs and citizens to ensure that fundamental freedoms for citizens, effective democratic processes, and a conducive operating environment are protected and enjoyed by all.
“A conducive civic atmosphere allows citizens to freely associate, express themselves and promotes accountability and transparency which happen to be key tenets of any flourishing democracy. It is therefore important that civil society is protected and supported to do their work in a free and fair environment rather than be harassed or restricted,” she said.
She was on Wednesday speaking at the USAID Rights and Justice Activity (RAJA) Learning and Close Out Event 2023 at Mestil Hotel in Kampala.
RAJA, a three-year USAID program implemented by Freedom House (FH), sought to ensure that Ugandan citizens know, use, and shape the law to exercise their civil and political rights in a safe and secure manner.
The program also aimed at ensuring that members of vulnerable populations who are victims of human rights abuses are supported to access justice, protection, and referral services.
Juuko says that the Government of Uganda has over the past decade receded on its obligation to promote and human rights for all, especially for vulnerable persons such as children, women and persons with disabilities.
“The ramifications COVID-19 further exposed this fact when the media and several reports were awash with overwhelming evidence of children (girls and boys) who were sexually defiled, women with disabilities sexually abused, and children denied the right to education and health.”
She is optimistic that the learning event would provide a platform where success and lessons learned can be highlighted to inform the stakeholders and the direction of their Human rights programming in Uganda as well as for the sustainability of the outstanding initiatives started by RAJA.
“I hope that the lessons shared here today will foster better collaboration, networking and continued partnership between USAID and Ugandan citizens for better Human Rights protection post the life of RAJA.”
According to her, there is still a need to resource the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission to uphold their legally given mandates.
Juuko also wants the implementation of human rights legislations such as the Human Rights Enforcement Act to bolster the promotion and protection of human rights in Uganda.
Dr. Donald Rukare, Chief of Party, RAJA noted that the Activity commenced in September 2020 and ended in August 2023
“We’re here to take stock of the achievements we have been able to do over the last three years in the area of working with society groups to ensure that Ugandan citizens are able to live in an enabling environment, able to access justice through legal aid services, through advocacy.”
He noted that they have been able to work in the areas of elections, Legal Aid, civic space, human rights defenders, and child justice.
“So I’ve been able to do a lot of advocacy in areas for example, Public Health Act, issues to do with the Human Rights Defenders Act. So I’ve been working in areas of advocacy to regulate access to justice, advocacy, and compliance.”
“We believe that in the last three years, we’ve been able to work with our teams to ensure that for example, civil society players are aware of what are their legal compliance requirements, issues around children and vulnerable people accessing Legal Aid and medical assistance, issues around advocating on some of the laws that we feel are not human rights friendly. I believe over the last three years together with our team, we’ve been able to advance some of the freedoms.”
Over time, he noted that they have been able to provide legal aid to over 3,500 children and provide close to 29 sub-grants to different partners.
“We were able to deal with a number of journalists in the area of providing freedom of the press and I believe, close to maybe 100 journalists were able to get legal aid.”
Dr. Rukare noted that much as they respect and obey laws, they do not agree with all some of the laws that “we feel may infringe on human rights”, for example, the Public Order Management Act, some of the provisions of the NGO Act and some of the provisions of the homosexuality Act.
Mr Allen Renquist, Democracy Rights and Governance Officer, USAID noted that they are firmly committed to addressing the fundamental challenges constraining Uganda’s development in partnership with the Ugandans and their institutions, including civil society to achieve the Uganda Vision 2040 aspirations.
He noted that all citizens deserve to live in a society in which their basic rights are protected, where they can express themselves, their beliefs and their opinions.
“All citizens should live in an enabling environment where they are empowered to participate in democratic processes that shape their future. A vibrant civil society is essential to making this vision a reality.”
He said that civil society organizations advocate for the laws and policies that protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of who they are, or how they choose to live.
“When citizens face barriers to education, barriers to health care, and other essential services, the civil society organizations work to bring down those barriers to the rights and justice activity. 1000s of Ugandan citizens, including children, journalists, and members of other marginalized groups have less access to much-needed Legal Aid.”
However, he decried “Today, we are now watching as civic space in Uganda continues to shrink.”
“Essential democratic freedoms including the freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression are being suppressed. We’ve seen an escalation of human rights victims and violations. We are witnessing organizations and individuals dedicated to protecting the pillars of a free and democratic society being forced into silence. Laws like the anti-homosexuality Act punish peaceful individuals with the crime of being who they are. It is against this backdrop that we come together today to celebrate our achievements to codify what made them possible to evaluate our failures and extract the lessons we can learn from them,” said Mr Renquist.