I am very pleased to be back in Uganda. I first came to know this country in 1974 when I wrote a report on human rights violations under Idi Amin. It was published by the International Commission of Jurists, and became the basis for the first debates on Uganda at the UN Commission on Human Rights. I was able to visit Uganda in 1982 as part of the first Amnesty International mission here in the post-Amin years. And I had the opportunity to come back regularly throughout the 1980s as Uganda emerged from this traumatic period. During each of my visits I saw the remarkable vitality, energy, resourcefulness, and humanity of the Ugandan people, even in times of crisis. These are all qualities I have seen here again on this visit.
With this historical perspective, it is striking to see the dramatic economic progress that has been made here over the past two decades. The United States has been a proud partner of the Ugandan government and people as you have worked to achieve this extraordinary economic progress. Though many challenges remain, when I first visited few could have envisioned the scope or pace of development that has occurred here. We will continue to be a partner in helping build a stronger future for Ugandans—through support for economic development , through health programs that help tackle the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and support for democratic institutions that benefit all Ugandans.
Uganda is an important regional partner of the United States in our collective efforts to combat the brutal practices of El Shabaab and counter instability in Somalia, and to end the inhumane terror wrought by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. We will continue to look to President Museveni and the Ugandan government as our partner in the years ahead as we continue our efforts to combat violent extremist movements in this region.
During our visit here, my colleague Dan Baer and I have had a series of productive meetings with Ugandan government officials and with members of Ugandan civil society. As the ICJ study I worked on reported to the UN in 1974, Ugandan civil society was decimated during Idi Amin’s reign. By contrast, today there are several thousand non-governmental organizations working here, which is a very welcome development.
But while many of these NGOs operate freely, a number of advocacy organization, especially those who publically challenge official actions and policies, are being subjected to increasing government scrutiny. In some instances, demonstrations are controlled, and their rights to free assembly curtailed. Their meetings are disrupted or they are subject to routine surveillance. Still other groups are threatened with deregistration because of their public statements. Some government officials resort to hostile rhetoric , and seem to treat these groups as a security threat. In response to this restrictive environment, some of these groups now self-censor.
As Secretary Clinton outlined in a major speech in Krakow, Poland in 2010: “along with well-functioning markets and responsible, accountable government, progress in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions. But when governments crack down on the right of citizens to work together, as they have throughout history, societies fall into stagnation and decay.” The United States views a strong, independent civil society as crucial to the building of strong stable democratic states. Here and elsewhere we stand behind civil society organizations and individuals who seek to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association as they advocate peacefully for change.
One of the issues we discussed was the NGO board and the registration and monitoring of NGOs. We understand that there are some proposals to revise the law governing the NGO law, and that revisions could include placing the NGO Board in the Prime Minister’s office, including NGO representation on the board, and removing security service representation on the board. Proposals like these could help send a message that NGOs are not a security threat, but rather a national resource. In addition, steps to remove the burdensome research permission requirements would be a positive step toward more openness, as would statements from government officials that reaffirm the rights of NGOs to speak out, even when they are criticizing or questioning government action on sensitive issues like land and resource management.
In or meetings today we also discussed restrictions on the press, including official efforts to block social networking sites and criminal prosecutions against a number of journalists. We raised these issues because a free media, too, is vital to the functioning of a strong, stable democracy. Censorship is not the only threat to a free media—punishment of journalists leads to self-censorship, and licensing processes for radio stations and other outlets can also be a means of applying pressure. So protection of a free media takes a robust commitment to rule of law and rights protections.
We also met today with members of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional law who received the 2011 Human Rights Defender award from the US State Department. As Secretary Clinton said when she met with some of these civil society activists to present the award last month, these groups are “standing up for human rights and setting an example for how civil society can work together in common cause.”
She also said that “it is critical for all Ugandans—the government and citizens alike—to speak out against discrimination, harassment, and intimidation of anyone. That’s true no matter where they come from, what they believe, or whom they love.”
A society’s commitment to human rights can often be measured by how it protects the most vulnerable or unpopular persons within it. As we raised the protection of all Ugandans, including LGBT Ugandans, with government officials today, we did so on the basis of making sure that universal rights are protected for all people, and we will continue to do so.