Written by Hussein Bogere
Sunday, 25 April 2010 19:42
Margaret Sekaggya is the former chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission who today doubles as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, as well as the director of Human Rights Centre of Uganda.
She spoke about the current human rights situation in Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the proposed amendments to the Press and Journalism Act, among others, in an interview with HUSSEIN BOGERE. Below are excerpts.
What have you been up to since you left UHRC?
I left the commission in November 2008 and since then I was appointed by the Human Rights Council in Geneva as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
So, I have been doing that work and at the same time my colleagues and I set up an NGO, the Human Rights Centre Uganda, which does human rights research and advocating for the work of human rights defenders in Uganda.
The UN Special Rapporteur entails looking at the situation of human rights defenders in the whole world. This is done by issuing communications against states that violate human rights, issuing press releases on the situation of human rights in a particular country, going for country visits to assess the situation of human rights defenders on the ground and making concrete recommendations for the improvement of the environment in which defenders operate. Recommendations are made to the offending states but they could also be addressed to other stakeholders like the international community, civil society and other players.
All the reports are presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and also to the General Assembly in New York. On the local scene, with the NGO to which I am a director, we have been holding networking sessions with stakeholders with a view of improving on the environment in which human rights defenders operate.
We have met journalists, media owners, MPs, directors of civil society organisations and alumni and paralegals who have done human rights-related work. This has helped us to strategise on the programmes we can do for HRDs. We also look at bills which are eminently coming up in Parliament so that MPs are able to think about legislative drafting and how to use a rights-based approach.
We have also done translations of the UN declaration on human rights defenders into local languages, Luo, Ateso, Langi, Acholi, Luganda, Runyakitara and Swahili. Research is ongoing in other areas, but basically these are some of the things we have done.
What do you mean by human rights defenders?
Human rights defenders are people who promote or protect human rights. It could be an individual, organisation, people working in government departments, lawyers, judges, trade unionists; it could be people working in rural areas or in the capital. If they promote and protect human rights, then they are termed as defenders.
A lot of dust has been raised by human rights activists in the wake of proposals by the executive to amend some sections in the Press and Journalism Act. Do you agree with them and if so, did you make it known to Parliament?
Yes, I discussed with the media owners that some of the proposed laws are detrimental to the work of journalists. They will not allow press freedom in the country to flourish. Other laws which affect the media are the Anti Terrorism Act, law of sedition, and the proposed phone tapping bill.
All those affect the way the media reports. It’s also proposed that journalists will have to renew their licences every year and I think that is going to affect their work because it will depend on how you report; if you don’t report well, your licence might not be renewed.
Media houses are also expected to renew their licences annually, which in my view will affect freedom of expression and lead to self-censorship in a sense that the journalists will be so careful so that their licences are not revoked.
What would be ideal is to let these media houses hold licences which can only be revoked in circumstances which warrant revocation and that should be done after going through the review process. Then that particular media house should have recourse to appeal such a decision.
Are those the views you expressed to the parliamentary committee?
We actually did present most of these issues to the Legal and Parliamentary Committee when we met them and actually had one of the journalists presenting a paper on most of those issues which are proposed for amendment.
Was the response positive?
The Legal and Parliamentary Committee is mostly composed of lawyers and they were very positive in the sense that they were very ready to engage with the media. In fact, they urged journalists to arrange meetings so that they can talk about these proposals.
What more can the journalists do to ensure that these proposals are not passed?
The important thing is for the journalists to be united on this. I realise they have formed a strategic coalition which they have called Article 29. The best method is to develop a common voice on these issues.
They need to partner with other civil society organisations which would campaign and advocate on their behalf. They need to lobby Parliament more but most importantly journalists need to be consulted before the bills are passed.
The other bill that has caused a lot of controversy is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. What is your comment?
Again this is one legislation which needs to be reviewed and which needs to be scrapped because it has a lot of flaws. The bill talks of imposing the death penalty. The principle is taking into account a rights based approach, ensuring that the draft legislation that is passed is non-discriminatory, takes into account vulnerable groups and gets participation from the various stakeholders.
On my part, there is a lot of lobbying and advocacy which needs to be done to get the legislators to really understand some of these issues and to take into consideration international standards when they are passing legislation.
The proponents of the bill have argued that the vice is just an imposition of the West and you the people opposed to it are pawns in the game.
I don’t think that argument is wholly valid because I think the issue of homosexuality is not basically a Western value. It exists in society. And for all the countries I have been to, all over the world, I have found that there are homosexuals; so, I don’t think in each of those countries it has been imposed by the West. I think what they mean is that the advocacy and the fighting for the rights of homosexuals actually started from the West.
What exactly do human rights entail? What are those human rights?
Human rights accrue to the individual. The people generally are not aware that they have rights. Sometimes many people think that the only rights we should fight for are freedoms of association, assembly and expression.
These are the core rights. However, all human rights are also important, for example the right to healthcare, education, right to employment, rights of women and children. There are many areas where people don’t think that they should hold the government accountable for those particular rights.
I would call these in legal terms, the economic, social and cultural rights which are issues of poverty, education, health, employment. People don’t realise that the government as a duty bearer should ensure that these rights are enjoyed by all people.
Then who shares the blame for not having a civically vibrant society?
I think the duty lies with the state to ensure that there is enough civic education in the country, that the population is educated, is sensitised and that resources are put in place for civic education. Of course civil society organisations have done a lot and they are doing their part to ensure that there is sensitisation in the society, but sometimes they have challenges; they don’t have enough resources, capacity and sometimes the skills.
So, government should have a strategy of ensuring that they put in place programmes which will ensure that the population is sensitized, like introducing human rights in the school curricula, massive civic education, etc.
Give us an overview of the current human rights situation in Uganda.
The current human rights situation demonstrates that Uganda still has a lot to do. I have raised lack of knowledge of human rights. But also there are violations which still go on.
There are violations in respect to freedom of expression, assembly, crackdown on the media, restrictions on freedom to access information. We still have issues of torture, corruption. So, we still have a long way, as civil society, to ensure that we fight more to make Uganda a very vibrant and democratic society.
During your tenure as chairperson of the UHRC, you time and again issued reports highlighting torture and the Army getting involved in partisan politics, do you think these still exist and if so, why?
We still have challenges, despite the reports made by UHRC year after year. Lack of implementation on the part of government is part of the problem and I think it is necessary to call on government to ensure that these reports are taken seriously.
These reports have very good recommendations and if implemented would go a long way in improving the situation of human rights in the country. But we need a systematic way of implementation. For example, the award of compensation to victims of torture; I would expect that this matter would be taken seriously. Here is a person whose rights have been violated, this person is awarded compensation and it is not given at all or not given in time. I think government should look into that issue seriously.
You mentioned freedom of association as one of the rights. In Uganda there have been numerous demonstrations which have ended up bloody. Where does the problem lie?
The problem is lack of appreciation that freedom of association is one of the ways the citizenry raise their concerns. It is not just being disruptive, it is a way of voicing concerns and the sooner we understand that peaceful demonstrations should be allowed as a way of raising concerns, the better it will be for this country.
We also have the issue of mistrust between the people who are going on the streets to demonstrate and the Police. The people don’t trust the Police and therefore most of the demonstrations are not staged in a peaceful manner, and then the Police themselves don’t know how to handle demonstrations.
Must one seek the permission to hold a demonstration?
The international standards require that you should notify the Police so that they give you guidelines, protection for your demonstration. So the ideal situation is notification, not authorisation. When you bring in the idea of authorization, then you are giving the authority the chance to determine who should demonstrate.
But who then determines whether the decision was made judiciously? The other ideal is that demonstration should be peaceful. It must not be violent. Therefore, the two parties have responsibilities. Even the UN declaration on human rights defenders says that for the activity to be lawful, it must be peaceful. Violence is not allowed under international standards.
At the same time the freedom of association should not be unduly restricted by the authorities because it is a way of voicing peoples’ concerns. So it is both ways; peaceful and for the Police to facilitate the demonstrators, not teargas or live bullets.
We have had some extra-judicial killings, like during the September riots, and at Kasubi, but we haven’t heard from the human rights defenders. Why?
I think it has been a very tricky situation in the sense that the things that are going on, the killings, riots and rounding up of people have made human rights defenders more cautious. I think it’s important that when these issues come up the defenders should strategise on how they take these issues up with government or with the Police. Civil society needs to form strong networks and speak out on issues affecting the country.
A vibrant civil society contributes greatly to the democratic process in the country and its role should be recognised. What I have observed is that there is fear that has been instilled in the population. That fear has made people censor what they say and I think that’s why many civic organisations have not come out.
And maybe when government says they are carrying out investigations, the Police is investigating, what is expected is that the report will come out for people to know exactly what happened. Sometimes it’s very difficult to comment without carrying out investigations, to know exactly what happened on the ground. If these investigations are carried out and there is no report, it becomes very difficult for civil society to comment.
Must they wait for the reports from government?
They can come out, but they also need a mechanism to carry out some investigations on which to base their reports. It is usually not easy to just condemn as soon as anything happens. Normally it’s necessary to do a bit of investigations, be able to know the surrounding circumstances so that you can make an objective comment.
I know that as far as the Buganda riots were concerned, there has been a research which was done by HURINET and after that report it was possible for civil society to come up with concrete recommendations on what should be done.
What needs to be done now is to look at such recommendations and prevent a repeat of the same. The issue is whether there will be an effect or outcome from the condemnation; will government listen, take the recommendations and improve on the situation?