What next for Uganda’s human rights sector?

What you need to know:

A quick background reveals that UN Human Rights Office was established to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Uganda

In a world teetering on the complex politics of international relations, the Government of Uganda’s decision not to extend the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) mandate sparked significant debate. Critics argue the move represents a severe setback for human rights promotion and protection efforts, while proponents see it as a chance to reshape independent approach to handling human rights issues in Uganda.

A quick background reveals that UN Human Rights Office was established to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Uganda. The government’s decision to discontinue the office’s mandate is a notable shift from their previously cooperative stance.

Several reasons are cited behind the governments abrupt policy shift. Firstly, it was claimed that the office was undermining national sovereignty by meddling in internal affairs of the country. The Ugandan government has frequently accused international organisations of interference and has often voiced its desire for greater autonomy. The Ugandan government also posits that the human rights situation has improved considerably, rendering the UN’s office redundant. While there have been undeniable improvements, international organisations and local NGOs have highlighted the persistence of rights abuses, particularly against opposition political groups and marginalised communities.

The decision to discontinue the UN office might have far-reaching effects, potentially exposing the vulnerable to various abuses given the absence of the oversight function the office was providing. Moreover, it could smear the country’s image globally, which could have repercussions on the international aid Uganda receives annually.

Uganda heavily relies on foreign aid. As suggested by the 2021, World Bank report, official development assistance makes a substantial contribution to Uganda’s net foreign exchange inflows, comprising between 20 percent and 25 percent of Gross National Income (GNI).

Yet, despite these potential drawbacks, some posit this move might present an opportunity for Uganda to develop new strategies to safeguard human rights independently, promoting national sovereignty. Redefining their approach could enhance the credibility of the Ugandan human rights institutions by developing their capacity, a step forward that can be academically appreciated. Alternatively though, without the necessary measures and commitments, his might instead weaken the already fragile human rights situation, deteriorating it into non-compliance with international standards.

However, the question still remains, can the Government of Uganda be trusted to safeguard human rights with all the threats posed under its watch?

Citing Amnesty International’s 2021 report on “Scared to Speak: Attacks on Peaceful Protest in Uganda”, there are numerous allegations of excessive use of force, torture, and arbitrary detention, all orchestrated by government forces. Retracting to the UN Human Rights office could conceivably exacerbate these dire situations, particularly in the absence of international oversight.

This decision may embolden the government to further restrict civil liberties and suppress freedom of expression as seen in the past. Such actions can lead to a climate of fear and impunity, where individuals and communities are unable to seek justice for human rights violations.

In sum, the Ugandan government’s decision to terminate OHCHR’s mandate, whether viewed as a setback or an opportunity, indisputably casts a spotlight on the existing human rights situation in the country. There is a pressing need for continuous advocacy from within and outside the country to ensure that the human rights of all Ugandans are respected and promoted, irrespective of UN presence or absence. A careful balance must be achieved by the Ugandan government, one that optimises human rights protection while ensuring sovereignty isn’t compromised.

Rosette Gladys Nandutu Advocacy & Communications Officer, Vijana for Sustainable Dev’t & Environmental Action