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Uganda: Government clamps down on fundamental rights and dismisses obligations under Rome Statute

On 12 May 2016, President Museveni was sworn into his fifth term in office, amidst unacceptable restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press, said DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) and the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders – Uganda (NCHRD – U) today.

The tense lead up to the swearing in ceremony culminated in the undue curtailment of freedom of expression through a social media blackout on 11 and 12 May, and restrictions on both international and national media covering political events on those days. Key political figures, including Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader Dr. Kizza Besigye, have been placed under prolonged house arrest.

Uganda went to the polls on 18 February 2016 and re-elected President Museveni, who has been in power for 3 decades, amidst restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association and expression and allegations of electoral malpractice.

Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda (HRNJ-U) reported that journalists’ access to information on 11 and 12 May had been heavily restricted, and a social media blackout further hampered the free flow of information on the day of the swearing in. The social media blackout was reportedly ordered by the Ugandan Communications Commission, and is the second to take place this year. Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp were shut down during elections in Feburary 2016.

On 5 May 2016, the Ugandan government banned all live media coverage of the political opposition’s “Defiance Campaign”, which is spearheaded by the FDC. The Minister of Information and National Guidance issued a press statement after an interim court ruling halted activities of the campaign, directing Ugandan Police to ensure enforcement of the order. This followed a cabinet seating on 4 May 2016, during which media houses were warned that they would face revocation of their licenses if they continued live media coverage of the campaign.

Still on 5 May 2016, Solomon Akugizibwe a human rights defender observing the FDC demonstration in Fort Portal as part of his advocacy work with Association of Human Rights Organisations (AHURIO) was arrested alongside several others. While the others were released, Akugizibwe was kept in custody overnight, without being informed of the charges brought against him. On 6 May 2016, he was taken to court and charged with “disobeying lawful orders”. He was released on bail and the charges against him still stand, according to Frontline Defenders. His trial is scheduled for 1 June 2016.

Under Article 43 of the 1995 Constitution, public interest shall not permit political persecution, detention without trial or any other limitations on rights and freedoms beyond what is demonstrably justifiable. In a press index report released in March 2016 by HRNJ-U, over 140 cases of violations of press freedom were documented from December 2014 to November 2015, including unlawful detentions.

Uganda has ratified all core international human rights treaties and as a State party to these instruments, is obliged to take necessary measures to ensure adequate protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Under the Rome Statute, to which the Ugandan government is a State party, it is also obliged to take all necessary measures to arrest President Omar al Bashir, who traveled to Uganda to attend the swearing in ceremony depite being the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

NCHRD-U and DefendDefenders express deep concern for the Ugandan government’s failure to uphold the rights to freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and deliberate targeting of media workers and human rights defenders during this electoral period.

We call on the government to:

• Respect Ugandans’ rights to peaceful assembly and refrain from preventing or disrupting peaceful public gatherings in line with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
• Ensure free access to information for all media and human rights organisations in order to guarantee the full respect for the right to freedom of expression, as it is enshrined in the African Charter and the ICCPR;
• Refrain from imposing undue bans on media coverage and the broadcasts and publications of media houses; and
• Take all necessary measures to comply with international obligations under the Rome statute and arrest and surrender President al Bashir to the ICC.

The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (NCHRD-U) is an umbrella organisation of individuals and organisations working to promote the protection of Human Rights Defenders (HRD) in Uganda.

For further information, please contact:

Brenda Kugonza, National Coordinator of NCHRD-U on: [email protected]

Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders on: [email protected]