On 10th December, Uganda will join the rest of the world to observe the International Human Rights Day. People around the world will commemorate the day – in 1948 – when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This comes at a time when human rights are going through a tumultuous period globally. Humanity is in dire straits. The theme “Stand up for someone’s rights today” would not be more appropriate.
In Uganda, whereas there have been some marginal gains, the overall human rights situation still remains very concerning and continues to fracture the fabric of our society. Impunity oils this vicious wheel of injustice.
At the start of the human rights week, tragically; government unleashed its deadly military might on the palace of the King of Rwenzururu in Kasese district to flush out royal guards who they accused of committing crimes. Over 100 people lost their lives in the Westgate mall-style raid. The Prime Minister of the Kingdom places the number of the dead royal guards at over 300. The King himself was arrested and humiliated. Over 130 people were arrested, women paraded stark naked and most of them had their hands tied to their backs. A spectacular tragedy by any standards.
Separatism ambitions aside, the graphic witness accounts of how machete wielding gangs ambushed and butchered police and army officers are very distressing.
As families of victims, in sombre mood, spent the week searching for their loved ones in the dilapidated morgue, several bodies were decomposing and the foul stench of death permeated the area.
A journalist narrates in one of his news stories how over 50 bodies were delivered at one of the burial grounds in makeshift coffins. Flies dotted the brown coffins as some could be seen hovering around. Only the struggle to lower them into the graves using ropes dispersed them.
All said and done, we need to be clear. An attack on a police officer or security installation must be condemned in the strongest terms and perpetrators brought to justice – as enshrined in our law books. That is what the rule of law requires of us.
However, in view of the government’s lethal and calculated response, there are questions whether the raid was in response to the killings of security officers or it was a planned operation that would happen anyway. Either way, the state abdicated its cardinal obligation of protecting lives and property in an already dreadful situation.
Rather than step back, reflect and regret the chilling loss of citizens’ life, government has woefully elected to have a go at attempting to justify the loss of lives. This points to a more serious problem.
How government allowed this situation to escalate to this situation is astounding.
But what is apparent is we cannot, in good conscience; stand to defend such savage butchering of people.
These grave human rights concerns in Kasese are not isolated.
Over the year, the state of human rights has continued to plummet under the enforcement of repressive laws, impunity and brazen disregard of calls for investigations into incidents of rights violations.
For instance, the Public Order Management Act has been controversially enforced by the police with devastating consequences on free organising and assembling. An attack on these enabling rights woefully cripples any chances of attaining other fundamental rights.
Use of new media to freely communicate and organise has also increasingly come under assault as the regime expands its repressive actions previously seen offline.
As we commemorate this year’s human rights day, it is my humble appeal that we reflect and recommit to humanity and our shared dignity regardless of the challenges or provocation we come up against – especially where we are in a position of higher authority.
We need to see in each other shared humanity – the realisation that our differences do not make us good or bad people; they simply make us human. Intolerance and paranoia only serve to destroy our social fabric; something we cannot afford.
Whereas we may not have control of what happens, we have control of how we respond to situations.
I appreciate that the attack on police officers were atrocious and despicable. But shooting suspects dead makes us no different from those we call criminals, terrorists.
It is vital to note that insisting that our security forces exercise restraint in the face of such provocation is not to downplay the threats they face. It is an effort to live up to our highest values and the rule of law.
The recurrent clashes in Rwenzori region call for a more nuanced human rights based approach. It is foolhardy to seek peace without justice and truth-telling.
On the wider human rights context, government needs to repeal repressive laws as urged at the recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and take concrete steps to transparently investigate rights violations and make public the findings.
An effort to gag the media and human rights defenders from reporting and investigating violations only serves to force the truth underground but it will always find its way back up – because in the end, it has to. And when it does, the situation will only get more complex.
In Emile Zola’s words way back in 1898,
“When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.”
We cannot afford to take our country’s blessing for granted. We need to stand up for someone’s rights today and make a difference in pursuit of justice in our small spaces. There is no action that is too small to make an impact.
Have a fruitful Human Rights Day, 2016.