Government has responsibility to promote human rights

The desire for promotion and respect of human rights throughout the year in Uganda and the world over, gained common ground calling for protest against oppression. Describing it as a violation of human rights, the claim provoked several demonstrations that characterized Uganda since April.

Rights activists say the protests were offset by the measures taken in other countries to silence and control both civil society and the media. They claim state agents use the law as a weapon of repression “bending” it unscrupulously away from its original purpose under the pretext of security and stability.

Mr Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), says this year has been characterised with increased suppression of human rights defenders’ activities by the law enforcement agents who are meant to protect them.

“Weakened or threatened oppressors do not hesitate to use the law as a weapon of repression. Human rights defenders are entitled to an effective protection and to a legal environment that enables them to operate freely without hindrance, harassment or threats,” he says.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) in partnership with Human Rights Network (HURINET) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda have organised the International Human Rights Week to raise awareness about the theme for this year, and also commemorate the coming into force of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted in December 1948 worldwide.

The focus of this year’s Human Rights Day is about human rights defenders and the use of social media to promote human rights. In Uganda, the day is being commemorated under the local theme: “Let us use the social media to promote human rights.”

A report by FHRI indicates that while freedom of expression, and that of association, and peaceful assembly were severely challenged in the run up to the February general elections, NGOs and journalists who tried to expose irregularities and allegations of corruption by the government as well as human rights violations by security forces faced acts of intimidation and attacks.

“Several defenders were also targeted by the authorities to hinder the legitimate exercise of their human rights activities against the background of the fight against terrorism in East Africa in the context of increasing stigmatization and criminalization of homosexuality and defenders of sexual rights,” reads in part the FHRI report titled ‘Steadfast in protest.’

The 2011 annual report of the human rights observers launched in Kampala recently shows that the effect of repressive legislation is compounded by lack of an independent and human rights protecting judiciary. “And in some countries far from assuming its role as guarantor of rights, the judiciary has allowed itself to be compromised and turned into a weapon against human rights defenders,” says the report.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ms Margaret Ssekajja, observes that states rarely punish people who assault rights defenders. “We have to make sure that we increase our effort in the law so that the state comes to know the right to freedom of opinion, protest and development,” she says.

Ms Ssekajja says police need to be trained to protect human rights, “because we are seeing a brutal police force. We also need to strengthen the judicial institutions.”

Social media
The Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) says human rights defenders such as activists, journalists, the youth and other human rights enthusiasts have been able to use the social media without much hindrance.

“Many human rights defenders are now active users of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and make full use of mobile phones to record and transmit graphic video evidence and Short Messages (SMS), as well as to allow direct interviewing from the scene of rights violations and abuses,” reads a statement by HRNJ.

The journalists’ body says the government has the sole responsibility to protect and show its commitment to respect freedom of expression. “We strongly believe that the Internet should remain as open as possible, and stress that any restriction that may be imposed, be on an exceptional basis, for example, to prohibit the dissemination of child pornography or material that amounts to incitement to commit serious crimes or to racial hatred – must be done in strict compliance with the requirements set out in the Constitution and International human rights law.”