Policing and human rights: Time for real change in Uganda

Wednesday May 15 2013

By Sarah Mount

A disturbing, constant pattern has been emerging in Uganda according to the annual reports of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC). Every year, at least since 2005, one of the main alleged violators of human rights in Uganda is the police, and the number one human rights complaint concerns torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These two facts tell an alarming story of consistent serious violations of basic human rights by the Uganda Police Force.

We can’t just keep letting the cycle repeat itself. We need to ask ourselves why the police are the top violator of human rights, and what can we do about it.

Why are there so many complaints against the police?
There may be many possible reasons for the high number of complaints against the police, including lack of training, equipment and resources. However, perhaps the main reason why the police continue to be the top violator of human rights in Uganda is because they can get away with it. The lack of investigation and sanctioning of police officers sends a clear signal – do what you like as no one will hold you accountable.

Accountability is a basic part of the criminal justice system - not only are others in the community not allowed to violate your personal security (for example, not allowed to hit you or kill you) - the State must also investigate and hold accountable people that do break these basic rules. Without the follow-up investigation and punishment, the system breaks down.

What can we do to reduce this number?
One of the best ways to reduce violations of human rights by the police is to ensure that those police officers that do the wrong thing are held accountable for their actions. Currently, the UHRC undertakes part of this role – as the external oversight body that investigates complaints of police misconduct and orders compensation or recommends action. Whilst the work of the UHRC is invaluable, the consistently high number of complaints against the police force indicates that a different model should be considered that complements their work and internal police disciplinary measures.

Such a model could either be: increasing the investigatory powers, forensic ability and the ability to recommend prosecution after an investigation of the UHRC; or the establishment of a specialised, independent police complaints authority that oversees the police. Alternatively, a specialised police unit, mandated with new powers underneath legislation, could be established within the UHRC.


Either way, the UHRC or a new specialised body should, like the new Kenya Independent Policing Oversight Authority, investigate every death and serious injury caused by the police or in police custody. The guaranteed investigation of every death and serious injury caused by the police by an independent body, with strong powers to investigate and refer for prosecution, will act to make the police think twice before using unlawful force. Of course, these bodies will be assessing the use of force in accordance with the law. If the police used force legally, when it was necessary and in accordance with the law, then the investigation will find this.

In addition to these measures, although the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture Act has been passed and signed into law, the government should ensure that everything is done to make it fully operational. Serious consideration should be given to the road map developed by the UHRC, in collaboration with the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and the Association for the Prevention of Torture. This road map includes recommendations on concrete measures and actions to be undertaken by different stakeholders and institutions for implementation of the Act.

New mechanisms will require additional resources – but they will be resources that will be a good investment. A country with a respected and law abiding police force will create trust between the community and police, leading to greater cooperation and a safer country. This will also promote the economic and security goals of Uganda– to have a secure community where citizens and investors alike can feel comfortable that the police force will continue to uphold the law for all.

Ms Mount is the programme officer, Police Reform Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. sarahmount1@gmail.com