Ugandan judge scoops Vera Chirwa human rights award

Monday December 16 2019
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Justice Lydia Mugambe receives the Vera Chirwa Award from Mr Bernard Rey the Head of Cooperation at the European Union Delegation in South Africa. COURTESY PHOTO

Justice Lydia Mugambe-Ssali has won the prestigious Vera Chirwa human rights award.

She was recognised by the highly rated University of Pretoria in South Africa for her contribution towards advancing the socio-economic rights of the vulnerable and ensuring gender-based justice in Africa through her courageous and impactful judicial career.

In her many judgements, the soft-spoken and amiable Justice Mugambe articulates issues with precision, sound legal grounding and speaks truth to power. She is also known for her hard work, breaking barriers and all manner of technicalities to ensure effective justice in her court room.

The jurist has travelled the world, addressing international and regional conferences and meetings on issues of human rights and democratization. She has also advised important stakeholders on gender and human rights strategies in national constitutions and legal instruments.

In one of her such engagements, Justice Mugambe was part of the distinguished experts that were involved in the drafting and passing of the 2019 Abidjan Principles that streamline the involvement of private actors in the education sector. She has also contributed to the United Nations strategy on improving the implementation of socio-economic rights in Uganda.

Alongside Prof. Christopher Mbazira of the School of Law and Ms. Salima Namusobya- the Executive Director of ISER- all of whom are alumni of the University of Pretoria, Justice Mugambe has been part of the Ugandan experts who have kept the discussion on socio-economic rights on the table in all high offices in the country, and relentlessly trained judges and other stakeholders on their effective realization and enforcement.


The award was presented to her by her Alma at the colourful occasion to celebrate Human Rights Day on 10 December 2019.

Instituted in 2006, the award is named after a prominent Malawian lawyer and human rights activist.

Past recipients of this award have included; the chief justice of Sierra Leone, senior United Nations officials and prominent human rights activists from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, South America, Europe and Asia.

The award was presented to her at the colourful occasion to celebrate Human Rights Day on 10 December 2019, which was also the graduation ceremony for this year's Human Rights Masters class at the University.

In her acceptance speech, after a thunderous applause, Justice Mugambe thanked her alma mater for the "early Christmas present" and cautioned the new graduates to always be keen on detail and not comfortable with the status quo, because human rights challenges manifest in ways that transcend anything taught on the program. Their duty, she advised, was to consistently position themselves in the changing world order, to keep true human rights at the fore.

About the Vera Chirwa award

The Vera Chirwa human rights award is bestowed on a person who has displayed dedicated human rights activism, shown leadership and contributed to a specific human rights cause. The recipient must be committed to improving the lives of people in Africa.

Vera Chirwa whom the award is named after, was a proponent of multiparty democracy during the era of president Hasting Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. Due to their activism, Vera and her husband Orton Chirwa were arrested and charged with treason. They were sentenced to death and spent 12 years on death row. During their death row imprisonment, they were often tortured and received inadequate treatment. Their execution had been set for June 1983 but due to international pressure, they escaped the death penalty. Unfortunately, Orton Chirwa died in prison while Vera Chirwa was released in 1993 and she was elected as a commissioner at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights.

Who is justice Mugambe?

Until last week, she was a High Court judge at the Civil Division. She has since been transferred to the Criminal Division.

She is an alumnae of the University of Pretoria where she studied the LLM in human rights and democratisation. She also graduated with a second LLM in International and Intellectual Property Rights Law from Lund University in Sweden. Previously she briefly worked as a Magistrate in Uganda, a legal researcher at the International Bar Association in London, UK and as Legal Counsel at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.