Australia and Commonwealth of Nations must take notice of Uganda

A disturbing pattern of suppression of democratic freedoms is emerging in Uganda. 

Recently, the Public Order Management Bill was passed into law, requiring Ugandans to get the permission of the police prior to holding a public meeting. Although the new Act has improved from former drafts of the legislation, the Act still allows the police discretion to refuse public meetings if the location is deemed inappropriate. Worryingly, the Act provides that organisers and participants who do not meet the requirements of the law can be sent to jail for up to two years. This is in direction contradiction to best practice outlined by Maina Kiai, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, and points towards a desire to restrict assemblies rather than promote the freedom to gather and peacefully protest.

It’s not just the demonstrations themselves that are being restricted, it’s the people that organise and attend them. In July the former opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, was placed under “preventive arrest”, in order to stop a demonstration that the police believed was about to occur. Over the past few years, Besigye and another key political figure, the Mayor of Kampala, have been repeatedly placed under preventive arrest, either being confined to their houses or retained in police custody.

The media is also being watched. Two media houses were dramatically raided and shutdown for 10 days in May after publishing a politically sensitive story. The Daily Monitor newspaper was allowed to reopen on the promise that it would not publish material that might, among other things, “disturb law and order” or “generate tensions”. Individual journalists are also reportedly being harassed and intimidated, usually when they cover a politically sensitive story, such as the arrest of Kizza Besigye. There is also concern that violent deaths of journalists, such as that of Thomas Pere in June, are not properly investigated.

What should Australia do?

Freedom of expression, association and assembly are fundamental human rights that underpin democracy – these rights give the public essential ways to participate in national affairs. They are also core values of the Commonwealth of Nations, along with the values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. As the current chair of the Commonwealth of Nations, Australia should raise concern about the limiting of democratic freedoms in Uganda at the meetings leading up to CHOGM in November. The Commonwealth is already under attack for deciding to hold CHOGM in Sri Lanka, and thus also passing Sri Lanka the role of Chair, despite the country having a record of severe human rights abuses. The Commonwealth must demonstrate that its values still hold meaning and act early in relation to Uganda, working with them to ensure a return to fundamental Commonwealth values.

Sarah Mount and Sanyu Awori, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative is an independent, non-partisan, international NGO working for the practical realisation of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth.