Government intimidating civil society, says rights body

Wednesday August 22 2012

Police personnel deployed at the  entrance to a hotel in Najeera, Kampala recently after they raided the hotel and arrested participants at a pro-gay conference.

Police personnel deployed at the entrance to a hotel in Najeera, Kampala recently after they raided the hotel and arrested participants at a pro-gay conference. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye  

By EMMANUEL GYEZAHO

Civil society organisations operating in Uganda are now the target of state inspired threats and intimidation, a new report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

The US-based international watchdog said rising hostility from the government is making it difficult for civil society groups to freely conduct their work.

According to the report released yesterday, several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Uganda have “recently faced forced closure of meetings, threats, harassment, arrest, and punitive bureaucratic interference” from President Museveni’s administration in the midst of rising political tensions and public criticism of the NRM leader’s record since his re-election in February 2011.

The report said NGOs that are reeling from this clampdown are those whose focus includes oil revenue, transparency, land acquisition compensation, legal and governance reform, and protection of human rights, particularly the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

The report joins several that have documented incidences of the narrowing space and enjoyment of fundamental freedoms and rights for citizens under the stewardship of the ruling NRM government, in power since 1986.

“Uganda’s government is putting serious pressure on civil society, particularly on organisations that might be seen as infringing upon the officials’ political and financial interests,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW. “Civil society should have space to conduct research and take part in policy debates without fear of government reprisals.”

Widely expected to seek a fifth elective term in office, Mr Museveni has often attacked NGOs and accused them of peddling interests of foreign governments and sabotaging government projects.

Government spokesperson Mary Karoro Okurut was unavailable for comment by press time and reported holed up in a meeting with the President at his country home in Rwakitura. However, Ethics Minister Rev. Simon Lokodo said although he “disassociates” himself from reports of state harassment against NGOs in the country, he holds no reservations for thwarting meetings of defenders of gay rights.

“Our laws [on homosexuality] are very clear,” he said. “This is not permissible and any time I learn about their associations we shall disperse them.”

Titled “Curtailing Criticism: Intimidation and Obstruction of Civil Society in Uganda,” the report details incidences in which the government has come down hard on some NGOs.

Some of the incidents documented occurred during the run-up to the February 2011 general election with the “wave of arrests of volunteers” who were trying to deliver paraphernalia published by local anti-corruption activists in a campaign urging MPs to return a curious Shs20m facilitation from government.

It also detailed the case of the NGO Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), whose financials were subject to a Bank of Uganda investigation a few weeks after organising a meeting of district councillors and a discussion on oil revenue allocation.

“You really feel that there is a lot of anxiety on the civil society organisations,” said ACODE executive director Godber Tumushabe. “It’s more or less like the sector is besieged and the thing is government doesn’t come out clearly to say what is wrong.”

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THE REPORT

Gay rights: The report says groups promoting gay and lesbian rights are being forced to work underground because criminalisation of homosexuality prevents them from registering with the authorities and functioning legally.

Oil: Report says researchers from groups seeking to visit regions with oil deposits were required to seek permission from the Ministry of Energy, a condition HRW said was unlawful and impeded their access to local communities that could be harmed by oil production activity.

Tensions: The report says with rising political tensions and public criticism of President Museveni’s administration, high ranking members of the ruling NRM party are increasingly scrutinising NGOs and the impact their work may have on public perception of good governance and management of public funds.
Research: The report was compiled following research carried out by Human Rights Watch through 2011, as well as in-country research from May to July 2012.

Recommendations
Publicly reprimand: The report urges President Museveni to publicly reprimand government officials and employees who threaten NGOs with deregistration.

Working environment: Facilitation of a positive working environment for NGOs by improving government’s terms of engagement with CSOs.
Penal Code: Museveni should support repealing colonial era Article 145 of the Penal Code which criminalises “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”.

NGO registration: NGO Board should recognise and support the registration of NGOs working on gay rights “as a routine part of legitimate human rights work.”

NGO Board should not threaten deregistration or delay registration of NGOs simply for administrative infractions.

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