The Ugandan government should investigate the killings of at least 50 people in the Rwenzori region, 17 of them by security forces, between February and April 2016, and make the findings public, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the police inspector general.
A Human Rights Watch investigation found that members of the Bakonzo and Bamba ethnic groups in Uganda’s western Rwenzori region clashed following contested local elections and political infighting, resulting in at least 30 deaths. During the subsequent law enforcement operations, the Ugandan police and military killed at least 17 people. One police officer and two soldiers were also killed.
“The Ugandan government should account for what happened between February and April in the Rwenzori region, so that those responsible, whether government security forces or civilian, can be prosecuted and punished,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To end the retaliatory violence, the government needs to fulfill its role in maintaining neutrality and ensuring justice.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 111 people, including survivors, victims’ relatives, witnesses, community members, medical staff, police, and journalists in April and May, in Bundibugyo and Kasese. Human Rights Watch also gathered and viewed evidence such as post-mortem reports, photographs, medical and mortuary records, and video footage, and visited camps for internally displaced people and sites of killings, burials, and destroyed homes.
The recent wave of violence began in Bundibugyo district on February 27, following contested local elections. The Bakonzo cultural kingdom has historically had tense relationships with both the neighboring Bwamba kingdom comprised of ethnic Bamba people and the central government. A group of armed men – all allegedly of Bamba ethnicity – attacked two ethnic Bakonzo households in Busengerwa 4 village, in Bundibugyo district, shooting and killing one person and critically injuring another with machetes. This attack sparked the latest in a series of retaliatory, inter-ethnic killings in the district until early April, leaving at least 30 people dead, seven of them children. Hundreds of houses of both ethnic groups were burned, and hundreds were displaced as a result of the violence.
According to media reports, police and military initially arrested a total of more than 150 people in February and March for various crimes, but it is not clear how many remain in custody. The New Vision, a government newspaper, reported that police charged at least 13 men with murder, attempted murder, and arson, on April 7.
In the wake of the violence in Bundibugyo, armed people in neighboring Kasese also clashed. On March 10, following contested local sub-county elections, a group of people – allegedly Bakonzo – attacked a group of soldiers in an area known as Kikonzo, in Hima Town Council, stabbing and injuring four. In response, the soldiers fatally shot two people. This violence led to four more incidents between the government and Royal Guards of the Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu (Bakonzo) kingdom, resulting in the deaths of six Royal Guards, three government security forces, and an individual not affiliated with either security force. Royal Guards are volunteers who provide security to the customary king.
The central government responded by deploying security forces to both Bundibugyo and Kasese districts in March. In Bundibugyo, the army carried out large-scale cordon-and-search operations in villages, and in April, assumed the name “Operation Usalama Rwenzori [Bring Peace to Rwenzori].” In Kasese, the police deployed a unit called the Flying Squad, whose officers typically operate in civilian clothes, drive unmarked cars, and are most often deployed in response to alleged armed gangs. Human Rights Watch has previously stated concerns that police has given them a shoot-to-kill mandate.
The Rwenzori region is the site of past violence; in July 2014, members of the Bakonzo ethnic group attacked police and army posts, resulting in reprisal killings against Bakonzo civilians. Local media reports suggest that over 100 people were killed during that period. Community members of both ethnicities told Human Rights Watch that they believed that at least some of the recent violence was attributable to unaddressed violence in 2014.
Human Rights Watch investigations into the killings by security forces indicate that police and the army killed at least 13 people during alleged arrest attempts. Multiple witnesses said that in all of those cases, the victims were unarmed when shot and killed. In all but one case, witness accounts suggest that security forces shot people at close range who were not threatening them or others at the time of the arrest.
In one instance, security forces responded to a man running toward them holding a stick by shooting him dead. This and other accounts raise serious questions about use of lethal force during arrests. No member of the security forces has yet been charged with any killings.
Some government officials, including a parliamentary committee on defense and internal affairs and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, have conducted investigations that are understood to be completed, but their reports have not been published and it is not clear if they will be issued publicly.
The prosecuting authorities should investigate all instances of lethal use of force by security forces, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, including military units responding to national emergencies, to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, to use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The principles also provide that governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law.
According to humanitarian aid agencies, approximately 23,000 people were displaced at the height of the violence in Bundibugyo, many fleeing to about 11 camps. An indeterminate number remain displaced, with approximately 600 people, gathered in Bubukwanga camp, while some of the remaining internally displaced people are in 10 informal “reception centers” based in trading centers. All the camps are ethnically homogenous. Many of the displaced are not in camps, but have been staying with relatives or in sub-county offices, schools, churches, or markets.
Some displaced people are unable to adequately access necessary goods and services, causing some to return to areas they consider unsafe to harvest crops for food. Aid workers cited the lack of health supplies, shelter, schooling for children, and household items as enduring concerns. Displaced people interviewed said that the government has urged them to return home, but many said that they considered it too dangerous. Some said that neighbors had burned down homes they had lived in for decades and that they have nowhere to live now.
“The killings of unarmed people has fueled sentiment that the government is not a neutral party between ethnic groups in the Rwenzori region,” Burnett said. “Ensuring protection for everyone, no matter their ethnicity, and holding security forces to account for their conduct, is critical to preventing recurring cycles of violence.”
The Ugandan government should:
- Investigate the killings in Bundibugyo and Kasese districts, including a specific investigation into the use of lethal force in the cases of the 17 people killed by state security forces, and make any findings public.
- Conduct investigations and maintain dialogue with communities and victims about ongoing efforts to investigate and prosecute suspects from both the public and government security or intelligence forces.
- Cooperate with aid organizations to ensure that displaced people have access to assistance.
- Abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms and use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect human life.