Time for Uganda to enact anti-torture legislation

Thursday March 15 2012

By Sarah Mount

Despite frequent and widespread reports of torture by various human rights bodies, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, the actual criminal offence of torture does not exist in Uganda.

Rather, persons found to have inflicted torture on another will be charged with assault, murder, rape or grievous bodily harm – whichever criminal offence is the most relevant. These common criminal offences fail to capture the gravity of torture and offer inadequate protection to the people of Uganda.

The Constitution of Uganda prohibits torture, and states that, regardless of the situation or circumstances, this right cannot be limited. The Constitution further states that there is a right for redress for any violation of fundamental rights. Although these are fundamental rights under the Constitution, the current national laws do not protect these rights properly.

For example, the Police Act states that where there is a complaint made to a magistrate about torture inflicted while a person is in police custody, the magistrate will order an investigation. If this investigation proves that the person was tortured, the magistrate can order “examination and treatment” of the victim and that the person responsible be charged.

However, the Police Act does not define torture, or provide a penalty. Presumably, the person responsible would be charged with ordinary criminal offences.

Again, although torture is an offence with a penalty of up to five years imprisonment under the Anti-Terror Act 2002, this offence only applies to particular authorised officers carrying out anti-terrorism operations – it doesn’t apply to ordinary people or other public officials in the scope of their normal duties.

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It is high time Uganda passed a specific law against torture.
Uganda ratified the international Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1986. This means the Government of Uganda has a legal obligation to implement the Convention in its national laws.

Torture is defined in the Convention very specifically, and covers a range of actions, including among other things, unlawful intimidation or punishment which causes severe physical and/or mental pain or suffering. The definition is very important, as it is wider than ordinary criminal offences.

However, 25 years after ratifying the Convention, there is still no law that criminalises such acts of torture. In fact, because it is not a criminal offence, perpetrators cannot be prosecuted for the act of torture. This is a huge gap in the law – one that, according to a report by the Redress Trust - the Director of Public Prosecutions, has acknowledged as a problem.

This can, however, all change in the coming months. The government has been working on a Prohibition and Prevention of Torture Bill, which is an initiative of the Coalition Against Torture and the Uganda Human Rights Commission. The Bill fills the gaps in the law by expressly making torture a criminal offence.

It gives a comprehensive definition of torture and imposes sanctions appropriate to the severity of the offence. The Bill is the product of more than six years of deliberations and public discussion and dialogue. We applaud the government for welcoming the Bill and undertaking such a thorough process.

Recently, the Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs finalised their public discussions on the Bill. The next step is to, finally, place the Bill on the Parliamentary Order Paper to be debated at the next session of Parliament.

Parliament must pass anti-torture legislation as a matter of priority. If they do not they will be breaching their legal obligations, and their pledges to both the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Passage of appropriate anti-torture legislation will demonstrate to the international, regional and local community that Uganda can protect its people and meet good governance principles. This is especially important to demonstrate before the upcoming Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting being held in Kampala in April.
Enough time has passed; it is now time to enact anti-torture legislation.

Sarah Mount and co-author Sanyu Awori are programme officers at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. sarahmount1@gmail.com

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