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Uganda Threatens to Close UN Human Rights Office

Decision to End Mandate Comes Amid Broader Crackdown on Rights Groups

The flag of Uganda. © 2018 Press Association via AP Images

(Nairobi) – The Ugandan government should immediately reverse its decision to end the mandate of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 6, 2023, Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Ministry informed the OHCHR Uganda country office that it would not renew its agreement to host the UN entity beyond its current three-year term ending in February 2023.

Concerned UN member countries should press the Ugandan government to reverse its decision to close the UN office and ensure that nongovernmental organizations have a safe environment to work in.

“Shutting down the UN human rights office is just the latest government action to stifle those working to promote respect for human rights in Uganda,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of removing another critical voice from the human rights ecosystem, Ugandan authorities should create an enabling environment for rights advocates to work.”

The then-UN Commission on Human Rights established the UN human rights office with government backing in Uganda in 2005 to focus on human rights in conflict-affected northern and northeastern Uganda. In 2009, its mandate was extended to cover the entire country and all human rights issues, including: training human rights defenders and security officials; monitoring human rights abuses; and facilitating the follow-up of recommendations from UN human rights mechanisms, through close partnerships with the national human rights body, the Uganda Human Rights Commission. Uganda currently hosts the largest stand-alone UN human rights office in Africa.

In its letter to the UN Human Rights office in Kampala, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it made the decision because of the government’s own “commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights,” and the existence of “strong National Human Rights Institutions and a vibrant civil society.” The ministry said it would continue its “cooperation with the OHCHR headquarters either directly or through its permanent mission in Geneva.”

Human Rights Watch wrote by email to Vincent Bagiire, the Ministry’s permanent secretary, with questions about the government’s position. Bagiire declined to answer the detailed queries and instead referred Human Rights Watch to the ministry’s “communication to OHCHR that has been widely disseminated.”

Many Ugandan activists view the UN human rights office as playing a critical role in Uganda, supporting both civil society groups and the government to promote human rights. Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, told Human Rights Watch: “[The government’s decision] goes a long way to undermine the sector itself given that civil society is at its weakest point. The argument being that we have a robust civil society and strong national institutions is not true.”

Ruth Ssekindi, Director of Monitoring and Inspections at the Uganda Human Rights Commission, said that OHCHR’s presence in Uganda strengthens the work of the commission: “We have been involved in so many activities with them—from drawing up a national action plan on business and human rights to working on reviewing legislation and policy. For us as partners, we would wish to have them in the country.”

The Ugandan government has had a long history of abuse and repression, especially of critics of the government and the political opposition. These abuses escalated in the period before and continued after the 2021 general elections. Human Rights Watch found in 2022 that the Ugandan authorities have failed to hold government security forces accountable for serious human rights violations.

Uganda’s Non-Governmental Organisations Act of 2016 heavily restricts the activism space for independent groups by giving broad powers to the government to suspend, blacklist, or revoke the licenses of organizations. The law also provides for excessive punitive measures, including imprisonment of up to three years for failing to, “produce to the Bureau a certificate, permit, constitution, charter or other relevant document or information.” The authorities have used this and other laws to severely restrict civil society organizations, media, and online communication, as state agents have routinely harassed and intimidated journalists.

In 2021, President Yoweri Museveni suspended the Democratic Governance Facility, a European Union fund for nongovernmental organizations, saying the government lacked oversight over the fund. On June 22, 2022, Museveni announced the restoration of the Democracy Governance Facility five months before it was set to close – on the condition that it would include the government in its decision making on the disbursement of funds to Ugandan organizations.

On August 20, 2021, the authorities announced without prior notification that they had halted the activities of 54 civil society groups, including human rights and election-monitoring organizations. On August 5, 2022, the government banned from operation Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights organization.

Robert Kirenga, the executive director of the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders in Kampala, said that the UN human rights office’s work in Uganda filled some of these gaps: “There were things OHCHR could do that we NGOs couldn’t. An RDC [government official] could stop a nongovernmental organization from holding a workshop, but they wouldn’t do this if we were with OHCHR.”

“The Uganda government has not only shown little commitment to addressing the country’s deteriorating human rights situation, but has increased repression of human rights groups,” Nyeko said. “Concerned UN member states should press Uganda to constructively engage with all UN human rights mechanisms and put in place measures to allow rights groups to work freely without fear.”

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