Uganda is a constitutional republic led since 1986 by President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. In 2016 voters re-elected Museveni to a fifth five-year term and returned an NRM majority to the unicameral parliament. Allegations of disenfranchisement and voter intimidation, harassment of the opposition, closure of social media websites, and lack of transparency and independence in the Electoral Commission (EC), marred the elections that also fell short of international standards. The periods before, during, and after the elections were marked by a closing of political space, intimidation of journalists, and widespread use of torture by the security agencies.
The national police maintain internal security. While the army is responsible for external security, the president detailed army officials to leadership roles within the police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; torture; and arbitrary detention by government agencies. The government was also responsible for harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; detainment of political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; lack of independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons (LGBTI); and the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.
The government was reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government, and impunity was a problem.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated with government restrictions. The government restricted and failed to cooperate with most domestic and international NGOs, especially those focused on governance and human rights (see section 2.b.). The president repeatedly accused civil society of accepting funding from foreign donors interested in destabilizing the country.
On February 13, 19 NGOs received hand-delivered letters from the UPF asking for information about their services, details of their staff members, sources of funding, and immigration status of foreign workers. Under current law the government requires all NGOs to provide this information to the government-run NGO Bureau when they register. On February 23, the NGO Forum, an organization that represents NGOs in the country, wrote a letter to the Minister of Internal Affairs objecting to this new directive. At year’s end the ministry had not responded to the letter, and the 19 NGOs had not submitted the requested information. On August 7, the Ministry of Internal Affairs started a month-long national exercise to reverify all NGOs in the country. According to the ministry, there were more than 10,000 NGOs with expired permits in the country. On September 7, the NGO Forum wrote to the Ministry of Internal Affairs asking for an extension of the reverification deadline, noting that many rural NGOs had limited internet access and found it difficult to complete the requirements in such a limited time but the Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to extend the deadline. On November 16, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it had shut 12,000 NGOs that missed the reverification exercise, requiring them to restart the lengthy registration process if they wished to continue to operate. The ministry said that only the 2,200 NGOs that completed the reverification exercise would be permitted to operate.
On August 8, the government’s anti-money-laundering agency, the FIA, sent a letter to banks asking for financial information and three years of bank statements for 13 NGOs. All the NGOs targeted were governance, anticorruption, or environmental activism NGOs and were vocal critics of government activities. Among the NGOs was the DGF, the largest pool of donor funding for governance-related activities in the country. Civil society leaders and opposition politicians claimed that the request amounted to “blackmail” and was an attempt to stall the organizations’ activities, an allegation that the government denied.
The government was often hostile to concerns of local and international human rights organizations, and government officials dismissed NGO claims of human rights abuses by security forces. On June 28, media reported that 149 civil society organizations under the umbrella body, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda, had petitioned the government to release reports on and prosecute culprits of 35 unsolved break-ins in their offices since 2014. Civil society leaders also noted that, in addition to electronic equipment and cash, thieves sometimes stole documents that had no financial values. In the second break-in during the year, on August 12, Rainbow Mirrors, a civil society organization advocating for the rights of transgender sex workers, reported on social media that unidentified persons broke into their offices. The organization filed a complaint with the police, which did not report details of investigations by year’s end.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The UHRC is the constitutionally mandated institution with quasi-judicial powers authorized to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, direct the release of detainees, and award compensation to abuse victims. The president appoints its board, consisting of a chairperson and five commissioners.
The UHRC pursues suspected human rights abusers, including in the military and police forces. It visits and inspects places of detention and holds private conferences with detainees on their conditions in custody. It investigates reports of human rights abuses, reports to parliament its annual findings, and recommends measures to improve the executive’s respect of human rights. The UHRC reported that the executive did not always implement its recommendations. On August 16, the UHRC Chair stated that security agencies had not yet paid more than 8.2 billion shillings ($2.2 million) that the UHRC had awarded to victims of torture since 2001. According to local media, the chair said the delay occurred because the Ministry of Finance had not released 5 billion shillings ($1.3 million) to the attorney general for compensation fees and had not responded to letters from the president requesting the release of these funds. According to the UHRC 2018 annual report, a 2016 policy change that made each institution, rather than the attorney-general, responsible for compensating victims had caused delays, since the various institutions, particularly the UPF and the UPDF, had not budgeted for these large awards. On March 30, President Museveni signed the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act 2019, which changes the existing policy and makes individual perpetrators responsible for compensating victims. By year’s end courts had not yet convicted any individual or institution under this law. Some human rights activists and complainants said the UHRC lacked the courage to stand up to the executive in politically sensitive cases. According to local media, opposition politicians said the UHRC limited its actions pertaining to human rights violations to public statements and reports.
The Committee on Human Rights is the legislative team mandated to monitor and report on human rights concerns in all parliamentary business, monitor government’s compliance with national and international human rights instruments, study UHRC recommendations, and hold the executive accountable for the respect of human rights. On August 15, the committee opened an investigation into allegations that ISO kidnapped and tortured detainees at safe houses. Local media reported that, following reports from witnesses that security agents followed and intimidated them, the speaker of parliament asked the government to respect the rule of law and cooperate with the Committee. On September 4, Minister of Security Tumwine confirmed there were “several safe houses,” but said he would not permit the committee to visit them. On September 6, families of individuals detained in safe houses told the committee about difficulties obtaining information about or seeing their relatives, including a number who held for over two years. The following day ISO released to the police 60 detainees from custody in safe houses. On September 10, media reported that ISO barred members of the committee from accessing potential safe houses at four locations. Powers of the committee were limited to producing a report with recommendations, and tabling it to parliament, which would decide how to move forward.