Govt terminates UN Human Rights operations

The coordinator of torture victims survivors of Uganda, Mr John Bosco Sserunkuuma (front, second right), with a group of people allegedly tortured by security operatives, at the head offices of the United Nations Human Rights in Kololo, Kampala, on February 14, 2022. They demanded that UN Human Rights stops funding the Uganda Human Rights Commission because it was allegedly not doing enough to check rights abuses. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA. 

What you need to know:

  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, detailed they would continue to deal with OHCHR in Switzerland.

The government last Friday formally notified the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of the decision not to renew the mandate of its office in Kampala beyond its current term.

The OHCHR is a department of the UN secretariat mandated by the General Assembly to among others prevent human rights violations, securing respect for all human rights, promote international cooperation, protect human rights, and streamline the UN system in the field of human rights.

In a February 3 letter to the OHCHR, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that “the prevailing peace throughout the country, coupled with strong national human rights institutions and a vibrant civil society—with capacity to monitor the promotion and protection of human rights” in-house rendered the office’s presence redundant.

Thus: “The Ministry wishes to convey the government’s decision not to renew the mandate of the OHCHR country office beyond the current term in accordance with Article 68 of the Host Country Agreement signed on February 9, 2020.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, detailed they would continue to deal with OHCHR in Switzerland, through Uganda’s Permanent Mission in Geneva.

The OHCHR opened in Kampala in 2006 to promote human rights after the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in Northern and North-Eastern Uganda. After repulsing the Joseph Kony-led LRA’s bands, who unleashed unbridled terror on the region—kidnapping, killing, and militating—government in 2009 renewed the office’s mandate on a periodic basis and expanded to cover the entire country.

The UN’s office mandate was further expanded in February 2020 to include the establishment of a regional human rights training center in Uganda, and to provide training activities on the international human rights system for government officials of interest in the region.

But owing to the changing human rights situation in the country, the government had long hazarded pulling the plug on the office and sometimes the two engaged in bitter exchanges.  During and after the 2016 General Election, the government exchanged with the rights office and its then commissioner Uchenna Emelonye over enforcement of the Public Order Management Act.

The government even threatened to renew the office’s mandate upon expiry. But from about 2018/2019, diplomatic sources told this publication, the government was intensely lobbying to retain the Regional Service Centre in Entebbe (RSCE) which the UN secretariat was mulling to relocate to Nairobi under the new Global Service Delivery Model (GSDM) reforms.

Under the proposed reforms, key functions at the Entebbe centre were to be moved to Nairobi starting in 2020. The GDSM reforms aimed at consolidating backend UN administrative functions in select dispersed locations to reduce costs and increase field staffs’ round-the-clock responsiveness. Besides Nairobi, the GSDM reforms created other centres in Montreal, Canada, China’s Shenzhen and Budapest in Hungary.

The frantic efforts to maintain the RSCE required keeping up appearances hence expansion of the office’s mandate. However, the 2021 election campaigns that started in mid-2020, with the ruling NRM conducting its primaries amid the growing embers of the Covid-19 pandemic while Opposition parties were gagged and their supporters clobbered to near-death by security agencies re-ignited the love-hate relationship with the UN office.

In February 2021, military police beat up journalists outside the UN rights offices in Kololo where they had trooped to cover former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi delivering a petition to the entity to take action against security organs for egregious human rights violations during the bloodied election campaign trail.

Highly-placed diplomatic sources told Monitor that the decision last Friday to pull plug on OHCHR’s presence in Kampala followed a meeting at State House, Entebbe. It was attended by among others senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, where the matter was raised.

Officials argued that there is enough local capacity built to monitor the human rights situation, including through bodies such as the beleaguered Uganda Human Rights Commission, and other NGOs.

The OHCHR officials in Kampala last evening referred this newspaper to their headquarters in Geneva for a comment on the matter.