What you need to know:
Uganda is a signatory to a number of protocols that demand protection of the environment and observance of rights
From the various consultations and community engagements with casual labourers and community representatives in Kalangala, Kiryandongo, Mubende, and Buvuma where some of the large-scale investment schemes are based, it is evident that cases of human and environmental rights violations are widespread. Uganda is a signatory to a number of protocols that demand protection of the environment and observance of rights. However, in an interview Jane Seruwagi Nalunga, a trade expert told Ismail Musa Ladu, why there is need for a middle ground between investor rights and the investment laws.
Does Uganda’s investment agenda pay attention to issues such as human and business rights violations?
Uganda like many other African countries, has put in place policies and regulations to try to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to provide employment and support economy growth. However, some of these policies look at attracting investors at the expense of Ugandans.
Secondly, there is a drive from multinational companies. Many of them are pushing for policy framework that protect their multi-billion investments. So, if you look at the combination of FDI and the influence of multinationals, it is a no brainer that many of our policies are inclined against citizens.
Where do we need to modify then?
As far as I am concerned, reforms is needed mostly in the Investment Code or the Investment Treaty.
That is where issues of rights and other requirement should be put. Apart from Investment Code these provisions should also be within bilateral investment treaties because they are also legally binding.
Without that you can’t hold investors accountable because there is no guiding principles in place
How do you rate the country’s and by extension the region’s investment agenda in responding to the challenges above?
I don’t believe that the investment regime we have protects the architecture of human rights. This is because it’s not provided for at the moment. Our Investment Code Act 2019 is silent on issues of human rights violations. It also doesn’t provide for performance requirements. With this in place investors will be required to fulfill certain conditions and measures such as ensuring provision of decent employment, protection of the environment, transfer of technology and skills.
And in my view that is what I call performance requirement. But sadly our investment regime doesn’t require anything from the investors. It is like a blank cheque. They come in and invest the way they like, get tax incentives and holidays, free land and after all that repatriate all the money they make from here. And as for the East African Community, the investment framework is not in place yet.
Can there be a balance between investment and rights violation?
There is a belief that we shouldn’t talk about rights when we are poor. Even when you look at some of the parameters that Uganda Investment Authority uses when attracting an investor, one of them is availability of cheap labour in Uganda.
Why should investors destroy the environment and abuse the integrity of the communities. These are the rights that we are saying should be upheld and respected all the time, no matter the size of the investor.
Further, we have seen workers without protective gear, investors grabbing or poorly compensating land.
Casualisation of labour is becoming an issue as many people work in factories without a formal contract. And as we speak the minimum wage law is not in place yet. These are issues that merit attention of powers that be.
How would you want rights to be handled going forward?
All we are asking for is fairness and this is why we are trying to create awareness around issues of human rights violation in business ventures. And we don’t stop there. We want violations addressed as well.
If it can be done through laws and regulatory framework so be it. All I care about is prioritising human rights, and environmental issues and also the interest of the State in these matters because they are part of the custodians of public interests.
For example, we don’t appreciate the fact that our bilateral investment code and treaty does not help the course of government when it comes to dispute settlement. The state can actually be dragged to court by the investor even when the State is seemingly opposing the investor on matters that are in public interest.
This hinders governments from putting in place regulations around investment and environmental sustainability. In other words any legislation or regulation that the investor doesn’t like or believe can compromise their investment cannot be introduced as and when the government deems necessary.
From the onset, we are not against the investor or business. Our intention is to protect the rights of the people, workers, and government. And whichever way you look at it, our campaign is about putting a life above profit.
We believe that people need a life of dignity ahead of profits. We are calling for decent jobs, protection of environment and observance of rights of workers. Is this asking for too much?
Isn’t it prudent to first rest the issues of human and workers’ rights to strengthen the economy?
Look, if you don’t put human rights at the centre of economic growth and development, then I am afraid you are missing the point.
Without people being at the heart of all these, then all we are talking about is tantamount to a jobless growth and massive degradation of the environment.
Without people at the heart of growth and development then we pave way for capital flight, inequality and indebtedness.
Pushback against exploitation
Do issues of human rights have meaningful impact on how an economy is managed?
It is important to understand that globally there is some pushback against exploitation as people are increasingly beginning to reclaim their collective power back. Multinationals need to be controlled because at the end of the day it is about dignity of people and the plight of the environment and not just profits.
That explains the United Nation (UN) move to try to cut the powers of the multinationals by way of introducing what is now known as the legally binding treaty on business and human rights. And this should also include human rights assessment particularly in the investment policy framework.
Then, one of the fears gripping many governments, including those in the region is the belief that investors will run away when an investment regime is overhauled.
As a result some governments fear to take such actions, believing that it will derail the economy yet that is not entirely true.
This is because several studies have shown that all you need to attract investment include: stable political environment and good infrastructures among other things.