(Nairobi) – The Uganda parliament should significantly revise the draft Public Order Management bill, which would drastically restrict freedom of assembly and expression, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) and Human Rights Watch said today. Despite pressure from the executive to pass the bill in its current form, key recommendations from parliament’s Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee should be used to guide revisions before the bill is presented for a vote, Human Rights Watch and FHRI said.
Recent acrimony between opposition leadership and the government has apparently renewed the government’s sense of urgency to move the bill forward, as government authorities have thwarted attempts by the opposition to hold protests and arrested some opposition leadership on a variety of charges.
“If the draft law is passed as is, it will seriously undermine Ugandans’ right to demonstrate and express themselves freely,” said Livingstone Sewanyana, head of the Kampala-based Foundation for Human Rights Initiative. “The government should not respond to criticism by imposing overly restrictive laws. Instead the bill should be amended to protect the right to assemble and express one’s self freely.”
Recently, the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee presented its final report to parliament recommending that several key provisions be changed or deleted to bring the bill in line with the Ugandan constitution and international law. The third deputy prime minister, General Moses Ali, asked Parliament to give cabinet and the executive time to reflect on the recommendations. The ruling party caucus met with the president, who voiced strong support for the bill in its current form despite the widespread criticism of many provisions.
The current draft gives overly broad discretionary power to the Ugandan Police to permit or disallow any “public meeting.” The bill defines such meetings as any gathering of more than three people in any public place where, for example, the “failure of any government, political party, or political organisation” is discussed. In all instances, organizers of such gatherings would be required to inform police in advance that a gathering is to take place, or face criminal sanction. Any spontaneous peaceful demonstration of more than three people would be a criminal act, Human Rights Watch and FHRI said.
The Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee noted in its report that these provisions in the draft bill “will present an unreasonable restriction on the enjoyment of the freedom of association and expression in a way that is ‘beyond what is acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.’”
Furthermore, in clear contradiction of international human rights standards, the bill authorizes police to use what appears to be disproportionate force – including the use of firearms in several instances, for example when a person resists lawful arrest -- no matter what the alleged offense. The Parliamentary Committee’s report rightly pointed to the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles and recommended that the bill should be revised to “prohibit the use of force and reserving its application as a last resort, where it is deemed, reasonable, appropriate and restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.”
In late 2011, the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee heard testimony from a wide range of stakeholders. The Uganda Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Uganda Law Society, religious leaders, opposition political parties, and local human rights organizations all expressed serious concern about the draft bill and called for significant amendments. The attorney general, the inspector general of police and the state minister for internal affairs defended the provisions.
The bill has been pending for two years but recent efforts to hold protests have most likely prompted its return and the pressure for passage, Human Rights Watch and FHRI said. On March 21, a policeman died from a head injury after a melee between police and some opposition leadership in Kampala. The government has since blamed Activists for Change (A4C), a non-profit group protesting poor governance and corruption, for the death and arrested scores of people including the group’s leaders. On April 4, Uganda’s attorney general, Peter Nyombi, issued a ban on A4C, declaring it an unlawful society under Uganda’s Penal Code.
“The members of Uganda’s parliament should not be complicit in suppressing people’s rights, whatever political pressure they may face,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, parliament should resist this push to infringe on the rights of assembly and expression from the executive.”
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in Uganda in which police and the military have used unwarranted force during demonstrations, leading to fatalities. In April 2011, nine people were killed during protests over high fuel and food prices and scores of citizens, including some journalists, were seriously injured by police and military gunfire. In September 2009, at least 40 people were killed during two days of demonstrations.
Investigations into the use of lethal force by the military and the police during demonstrations have been largely unproductive and opaque. Human Rights Watch is aware of only one arrest for the April 2011 killings and one for the September 2009 killings. Both cases are pending, and there have been no convictions.
Uganda is a party to and bound by both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, both of which impose legal obligations on Uganda to respect and protect rights of assembly, free speech, and protect individuals against mistreatment from police.
“Uganda should invest much more effort into holding soldiers and police officers accountable for their actions,” Burnett said. “The current draft bill purportedly regulates public meetings and safeguards public order, but its impact could well be to legitimize brutal acts against innocent people.”