Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth attended the International Criminal Court Review Conference in Kampala. On the sidelines of the conference, he spoke to Benon Herbert Oluka about Uganda’s human rights situation, which his organisation has documented in several annual reports:-
Your reports have been particularly critical of the human rights situation in Uganda…
We have been critical of the Ugandan government but we are critical where it falls short of the international standards, and in the same way we have been critical of other governments.
And the criticism doesn’t originate with Human Rights Watch. It originates with the conduct of the Ugandan government where, through its actions, it falls short of the standards that it adopted itself. We point out the discrepancies, and our aim is to encourage every government to walk the talk; to do the things that it promised to do.
In the case of Uganda, our concern is, are security forces being subject to the rule of law? Will someone be held accountable for the unnecessary use of lethal force in the deaths of at least 40 people during the September riots in Kampala, including when soldiers fired through locked residential doors killing people inside?
When you have abuses by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce, are those investigated and punished by the government or are they allowed to be committed with impunity, thereby encouraging further abuses?
Or if you take for example the way the electoral process is unfolding; are candidates free to campaign or will they be subjected to harassing criminal prosecution? Is the press free to report on criticism of the government and opposition candidates or do they face harassment and possible dismissal; the closing of radio stations without due process and things of the sort that occur in Uganda.
In the case of Uganda, you have looked at several issues like the war in northern Uganda, freedom of the press, elections, etc. What do you see as the issues that deserve most attention?
I don’t really want to pick and choose among the rights of Ugandan people because whoever has their rights being violated thinks their rights are the most important. But we have looked at a series of issues that are of serious concern, for example when we find that the security forces are not being brought under the rule of law.
Fortunately, there seems to have been a reduction in the number of abuses by JATT reported to us in the last year or so. But there have not been serious investigations of the abuses that were committed.
We are in a period leading up to the next round of elections and we are seeing the kind of restrictions on the press and restrictions on the freedom to campaign that plagued the elections in 2001 and 2006. We would like to avoid a repeat of that.
The early signs are not good and it leads us to question whether the President and the ruling party really want a free and fair election or does the ruling party not have the confidence that if the Ugandan people were offered a genuine choice that they will prevail?
Most cases governments denounce your reports in one way or another. What actions do you take then?
Many governments make the mistake of thinking that by just rejecting the reports, the problem will go away. But the problem won’t go away until their conduct changes. And Human Rights Watch is determined to continue to investigate and continue to report on human rights violations until they stop.
So we issue reports and if a government tries to ignore it, we will continue to talk about the research to the government, to the press and to the major international partners of that government.
What about your level of interface with the Uganda government and other governments in whose countries you carry out these surveys?
We routinely meet with governments at a very senior level, including the presidential and prime ministerial level. And the governments take our work very seriously because they realise that we are not a political organisation. We are often seen as the foremost reporter on human rights facts.
We simply report what happens, and governments realise that it is in their interest to talk to us because we want to hear their point of view; we want to reflect their points of view in our reports. We also want to suggest the changes that we feel are necessary to improve respect for the rights of the people.
In Uganda, we have maintained ongoing dialogue with key leaders from government ministries, the military and the police. We recently had a meeting with President Museveni. We appreciate the opportunity to raise concerns about abuses and exchange views.
For example, in our most recent meeting, the President shared our concerns about the lack of law criminalising torture in Uganda, so we hope he will take prompt action to ensure that such a law is put in place and that perpetrators of torture are held to account for their actions.
Uganda is hosting the ICC meeting and is a member of the UN Human Rights Council. But at the same time there have been protests about the role of the Uganda government in these bodies when there are accusations of alleged rights violations. Doesn’t this leave the rights bodies in an awkward situation?
We certainly encourage Uganda’s participation in international institutions designed to promote human rights. But it is important that Uganda not simply join these institutions but also live up to the principles that those institutions are dedicated to upholding.
So in the case of the ICC for example, what it represents is an institutional battle against impunity for violent human rights crimes. So if Uganda is to be sincere in its ICC membership, it is not enough to simply invite the ICC to look at the LRA. It is also important that Uganda itself investigates and prosecutes human rights abuses, whether it is UPDF in the north or the JATT’s ongoing abuses against people charged with treason or terrorism.
Similarly with the UN Human Rights Council which looks at not simply the most severe human rights crimes but has a broad agenda to uphold basic freedoms. We would like to see Uganda uphold those principles, for example, by allowing a free press to report not simply on the government line but also on criticism of the government and cases of corruption.
Will radio stations, particularly outside Kampala, be free to cover these topics or do they risk being closed arbitrarily? Are journalists allowed to report these topics without being harassed, threatened or prosecuted? Are opposition candidates free to campaign or are they subjected to partisan prosecutions that will force them to spend their time reporting to law enforcement officials rather than being out on the campaign trail?
The government has sometimes argued that some of the crimes are committed by individuals and are not sanctioned by the state…
The best test of whether an individual case of human rights abuse was a product of that individual’s initiative or was a reflection of government policy is how the government responds to that crime.
If the government ignores the crime, covers it up or refuses to investigate and prosecute, that leads people to believe that the crime must have been a product of government policy. If on the other hand the government vigorously investigates and prosecutes the individual, then that attests to the fact that the government didn’t sanction the crime; that the crime violated government policy.
Unfortunately, the norm these days, especially in politically sensitive areas, has been for the government to allow impunity to prevail. And that leads us to question the government claim that these are individual acts of violent abuse rather than a reflection of government policy.
The interpretation of some rights has differed according to regional and cultural contexts. For example when you look at same sex relations, in Africa this is frowned upon as a violation of cultural rights and yet in other countries, especially in the west, the African context is interpreted as a violation of an individual’s rights. Should we have a blue print for rights or leave them to be decided upon while putting into consideration things like cultures?
I have visited many countries around the world and I have never met a person who wants to be, tortured, summarily executed, or doesn’t want the right to speak out against the government, have political views or read a newspaper freely. These are rights that are universally sought. Often when governments talk about rights being imposed, it is because they don’t want to respect the rights that their own people want respected.
Now, I am aware that in the case of the right of adults to engage in consensual same-sex sexual relations, I know that these are rights that have been challenged here in Uganda and many other African countries. Even if one would say that the majority of Ugandans oppose homosexuality, rights are not something that should be subject to a popular vote.
Rights are supposed to represent a limit to what the government can do, whether people like it or not. So just like it would be wrong for people to vote on whether to torture a minority or to summarily execute a small group of people, similarly it is wrong for people to vote to prohibit adults from engaging in consensual sexual conduct.
Homosexuals may be a minority in a country but they exist in every country and they should have the right to engage in loving, consensual sexual relations between adults like everybody else. The fact that the majority of Ugandans and the government does not like that doesn’t change the right, and the right is supposed to limit government conduct.
You have also spoken critically of the proposed HIV/Aids Prevention and Control Bill recently tabled in Parliament. What is the problem?
This Bill is an example of a government ideology standing in the way of an effective public health strategy because we have learnt that the best way of fighting HIV/Aids is to be open about it and to promote freedom rights based approach. Frankly, Uganda was a leader in HIV prevention a decade ago and it was very upfront about the use of condoms and promoted a varied approach to fighting the spread of HIV. That was held up as a model all over the world. But that has changed radically in recent years.
This latest Bill would not only violate the right of some categories of people by forcing them to be tested, by disclosing confidential information between a patient and doctor but also by imposing criminal penalties on people for allegedly spreading HIV intentionally. All this actually encourages people to be ignorant of their HIV status because the best defence against being charged with spreading HIV intentionally is not to know that you are positive.
So whereas the government should be encouraging voluntary testing and the kind of voluntary precautions that come with voluntary testing, instead it is forcing the problem underground.