Dear Honorable Minister of Internal Affairs
I salute you Sir for gracing the Annual Human Rights Defenders Conference as convened by Human Rights Centre Uganda.
In your presence on March 10th, 2015, I sat in a conference hall at Imperial Golf View Hotel, Entebbe and alertly listened to your speech on the opportunities for effective partnership between human rights defenders and the state of Uganda. It was a positive speech.
Honorable, you reiterated the vision and mission of your ministry during which you accentuated the government’s commitment to oblige to Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human rights Defenders which espouses that the state shall
“take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone … against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure, or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of rights”.
Honorable, you went on to discuss the internal mechanisms put in place by government to promote human rights, the state of freedom of expression and assembly in the country and how your office is responding to it, break-ins into NGO offices, cases of torture and reparation to survivors of torture by the state, and the looming NGO (Amendment) Bill.
I want to respectfully but bluntly put it to you sir that whereas you display a clear conscience of a government determined to defend and promote an enabling civic space for human freedoms to flourish, certain specific actions and attempts designed to constrict these same spaces continue to exist amongst the high echelons of the government that you serve.
This is not to suggest that I expect a flawless environment but such is the commitment of the defence of rights for all. Violation of an individual’s rights; more so without impartial and expeditious redress is bad enough.
Honorable, this is also not to suggest that you are not making any efforts. Indeed you are. It’s all over the dailies. I commend you for that.
However, we are dealing with structural challenges. This is where we need your attention if you really mean to make use of your time in that docket to improve the observance of rights without any form of discrimination. This is where you need to focus your apparent good will.
I am afraid, regressive laws and policies do not help this cause. In fact, these bad laws which seek to discriminate and constrict civic spaces in the name of religion, morality, peace etc only serve to fester structures which are insidiously empowered by the establishment to abuse the same rights that we see you struggle to defend.
On the NGO bill, I was gratified when you observed, “as a government, …We are not interested in a law that will constrain the civil society space.” For one reason or another, you or your good secretary bolded this specific text in emphasis.
You further added that, “We (government) would also want to have an autonomous NGO Board that can play an effective role in monitoring and regulating NGOs…. I therefore want to assure all NGOs, that as a government, we are looking to deliver a good (NGO) law and we (government) shall be ready to discuss any parts of it that may be deemed contentious when it comes up on the floor of Parliament.”
As a human rights defender, I acknowledge the critical role of a state in the protection of human rights in any country. I take these virtuous words with grace.
Believing in your apparent goodwill and commitment, I look forward to joining other human rights defenders to constructively engage on the several clauses and spirit of the NGO Bill that are regressive and constricting.
I hope that you and the NGO Board will entertain this debate without prejudice to give birth to a good, progressive law.
We shall not relent in our pursuit to defend rights and individual freedoms.
Finally, here is a little secret I wanted to share with you, Honorable. After you left, Ms. Margaret Ssekagya invited ‘President Museveni’. His Excellence obliged and on the night of March 11th, he addressed the gallant human rights defenders. He promised to set up a committee to look into the regressive clauses in the NGO Bill and other related constricting legislation. Ooh Professor Joel!