Torture: UN tightens noose on Uganda government

Bobi Wine is supported out of a court room in Gulu following his detention and torture in 2018. Photo/AFP

What you need to know:

  • The  demands are contained in United Nations Country Team in Uganda’s written contribution for the Universal Periodic Review documentation for the Third Cycle Review of Uganda.

The United Nations (UN) has tightened its scrutiny of rights violations in Uganda and, in a raft of recommendations, demanded that the government prosecute perpetrators of torture.
“Any case of alleged torture or unnecessary or disproportionate use of force should be investigated, prosecuted and perpetrators brought to justice,” the world body’s rights watch notes.


The current allegations and demands are contained in United Nations Country Team in Uganda’s written contribution for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) documentation for the Third Cycle Review of Uganda, adding to similar previous assessments.
 In a March 15, 2022, rejoinder to the above report, both of which the 18-member UN Human Rights Committee is yet to discuss, Uganda’s Permanent Mission in New York claimed that the government compensated torture victims and held violators accountable.

 “Uganda is committed to promoting human rights, the Ugandan government has resolved all the grievances between the government and the key political figures like [Opposition Forum for Democratic Change] FDC (party) President Patrick Amuriat Oboi, Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, and most families of the Kasese victims have been compensated and the Uganda government regrets for the unfortunate incidences” the report reads in part.

These claims made thousands of miles away in New York --- presumed payouts to victims of the November 2016 UPDF raid on the Rwenzururu palace in Kasese, and journalists Culton Scovia Nakamya of BBS Television and Ghetto Media’s Ashraf Kasirye brutalised during 2021 election campaigns --- has been met in Kampala with disdain and as a mockery.  
“Nobody reached out to us, I have never received any money,” said Ms Nakamya.
On his part, Kampala Lord Mayor Lukwago, who has won torture suits against the government, said “as a torture victim, I have filed a few cases, two cases have so far been decided; one award was Shs100m and another Shs50m”.

“Not even a single case that I won have [I] been compensated on the account of torture. No single coin has been paid to me. Whatever allegations made [in the Uganda Permanent Mission’s report to the UN Human Rights Committee] are baseless and intended to hoodwink the international community,” he said by telephone.
Asked about the disparate accounts and concerns about the human rights situation in Uganda,  Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s permanent representative to the UN, referred us to Uganda’s embassy in Washington DC.

Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake at Lubaga Hospital after he was allegedly beaten up by soldiers in Kayunga on December 14, 2021. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

The reason for the referral remained unclear since the DC embassy handles bilateral Uganda-United States relationship while Uganda’s Permanent Mission in Uganda is responsible for Uganda’s engagement with the UN and some of the multilateral bodies.
Uganda’s DC Embassy declined on the rights abuse report.

In a Twitter response, Ambassador Ayebare called the accusations before the UN Human Rights Committee as “regurgitate[d], old” … “that have been addressed by the Ugandan government”.
It remains unclear why Uganda notified the world body that torture victim, many still seeking justice at home, had already been compensated, but it appears the response was triggered by written advance question by the US that “has Uganda compensated the political torture victims yet?”
The Opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party whose then candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, came second in the January 14, 2021 presidential elections, has alleged that security forces abducted, and or tortured, hundreds of its members and supporters.

The alleged deteriorating human rights situation, among it enforced disappearances of persons, has resurfaced in the United Nations Country Team in Uganda’s written contribution for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) documentation for the Third Cycle Review of Uganda.
In the written advance questions, which this newspaper has exclusively seen, Sweden sought to know “in light of the recent elections, what steps is Uganda taking to ensure the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly?”
 It also demanded answers on government measures to reverse “shrinking of the civic space in Uganda” marked by suspension and closures of a number of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and harassment of their leaders, independent journalists and environmental and human rights defenders.

 In Kampala, Information minister Chris Baryomunsi did not answer or return our call to get a government response on the matter.
Back in New York, with many torture victims still seeking justice, the seventh United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, condemned the gross rights abuses in Uganda and lies told to the world body to cover it.
“We need to resolve this deeply painful situation, particularly horrific in the black marker of forged and fake reports of detention and interrogation, further escalating families suffering. The families and victims too have a right to the truth realising that the truth is a key step towards accountability and reconciliation,” Ms Bachelet said.

The multiple reports filed and reviewed by the UN about Uganda detail abductions, torture, rape, harassment, ill treatment, arbitrary arrests, intimidatory tactics to suppress political opposition, and prolonged incommunicado detention.
 Satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who has since fled to exile in Germany, has become the latest poster child of torture by Uganda’s security after he emerged from detention to reveal a maze of what appeared whip marks on his back.

“If the UN cared, they would have at least done something about the flagrant abuse of human rights in Uganda since Uganda is a signatory to the inviolable articles of the UN charters,” he said by telephone from Germany, adding, “It’s very discombobulating that [Uganda] violates all the charters and the UN folds hands in despair like spectators. In my opinion, Uganda should be expelled from the UN since it has failed to be subservient to the international law which binds the members.”

UN pledge
In last week’s interview, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights affirmed that the voices of torture victims will be heard, justice served and perpetrators punished.

“It is utterly shameful that this keeps happening to Ugandans. All members of the security forces and military leaders responsible for unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters and journalists must be held accountable in line with international human rights law,” Ms Bachelet said. 
This call comes slightly over four months since the United States sanctioned Uganda’s then Chief of Military Intelligence, Maj Gen Abel Kandiho, accusing him, among others, of superintending the torture and abuse of political opponents of President Museveni controversially held by the army outfit.

Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago is led into a police car after his brutal arrest in 2017. He has won two torture suits against the government. Photo/FILE

Uganda enacted The Anti-Torture Act under which perpetrators, whether security officers or not, are held personally liable. It provides that any person convicted of an act of torture may be sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine of Shs7.2 million, or both. The penalty for conviction of aggravated torture is life imprisonment.
The UN recognised the law as progressive, but raised question about implementation of its provisions, leading to what it calls growing cases of grotesque abuses.

One case that sparked national and international outrage was the November 2020 incident in which security forces suppressing a protest provoked by the arrest of NUP presidential flag bearer Bobi Wine, by government admission, shot dead at least 54 citizens.
An investigation by Uganda Police Force’s, whose findings were exclusively serialised by this newspaper, found security forces culpable. However, only two soldiers were convicted by a military court in Kakiri, outside Kampala, underlining the limited progress to hold perpetrators accountable.

UN recommendations
• Amend legal and policy framework regulating public assemblies to harmonise the powers of security forces to police assemblies.
•      Ensure that detainees are brought before a court within 48 hours of arrest, as required by the Ugandan Constitution.
•      Ensure that civilians charged with criminal offences are brought before civilian rather than military courts.
•   Ensure that UN principles on the use of force and UN guidance on less-lethal weapons are part of the regular training of the police and other security forces.
•  Ensure oversight mechanisms to enhance accountability for security forces.