Uganda Needs its Human Rights Commission!
Author: Ferdinand Katendeko
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 02/19/2004
Countries in transition have so many hurdles to jump before attaining full democracy. They have the duty to write constitutions, build institutions of governance and democracy. While developed countries are enjoying fruits of full independence, other countries like Uganda are still rumbling and exchanging ideas, even hot words in the name of building democracy. There is in fighting, lobbying, blackmailing, name it. Yes, democracy does not come on silver plate.
Of recent, there has been hullabaloo about abolition of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, a debate ignited by the Cabinet proposal to the Constitutional Review Commission for the amendment for the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.
The cabinet is proposing that Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) should be abolished and its functions transferred to the Inspectorate of Government; another government body which noses into corruption and mismanagement of government resources. The government claims and urges that maintaining the two institutions is very expensive for the government coffers. That by abolishing the UHRC and merging its functions with IGG, the government will reduce costs of running the two institutions. Minister for Information, Hon. Nsaba Buturo defended the proposal to transfer Uganda Human Rights Commission to the Office of Inspector General of Government (IGG) that “it is not that we are scrapping UHRC. It is just a parallel transfer to rationalize and reduce on costs”[i] The government is not necessarily scrapping the Uganda Human Rights Commission; but it is looking at its economy and saying that though we appreciate the good work of UHRC, however we can’t manage to sustain it. The idea to transfer its functions to IGG is basically to reduce the over head costs of maintenance and administration.
But trust the learned friends and committed officials at the UHRC; they have put up a spirited struggle and have offered reasons on why the Institution should remain. First, it was Commissioner C.Karusoke who is reported by the press that the head of Inspectorate of Government was interested in the UHRC, which the IGG denied. The Commissioner is further reported to have said that donors will not be happy with the Uganda Government once they scrapped off the Commission since they have been/are funding most of the UHRC projects like civic education and investigations. True, the donors will be let down given the efforts and support they offered to the establishment of UHRC! Indeed donor community came to support the Commisioner’s stand and views. The EU head in Uganda Mr.Illing Sigurd said that “……the Commission is a big beneficiary of the EU aid. So when we heard that they are people who want to do away with it, we got quite concerned”[ii] In the same vein, the Belgium Ambassador to Uganda, Koenraad Adam who had paid a courtesy call on the UHRC, said that Institutions like the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC need to be maintained and strengthened to be effective, and that democracy needs some checks and balances to ensure that there is no abuse of power. There is need to ensure human rights issues are maintained”[iii]. The donor community has aired out their stand in support of the retention for the UHRC as evidenced by the two envoys HE Sigurd and HE Adam.
The Chairperson of the UHRC, Mrs Margaret Sekaggya[iv] gave reasons why the UHRC should not merge with the Inspectorate of Government (IGG) citing that their statutes and mandates for their establishments were quite different. That whereas IGG’s mandate is to promote general fairness in public administration, the UHRC focuses on human rights and goes beyond private entities and issues which IGG is not mandated to handle.
She further had to justify the existence and independence of the Uganda Human Rights Commission. She gave a firm foundation of the UHRC as rooted in the Uganda Constitution, as Human Rights Institution protecting and promoting human rights in the country as well stipulated in Chapter Four of the 1995 Uganda Constitution. She countered the costs reduction argument that even if the functions of the Uganda Human Rights Commission were transferred to IGG, the IGG would still need resources to handle the transferred duties of UHRC. She stressed her argument by referring to IGG’s letter dated 7th Oct 2003 to the Constitutional Review Commission which points out that “IGG as is constituted is not capable of managing Human Rights mandate without additional influx of resources into IGG”. The Chairperson goes on to justify the maintenance of UHRC by pointing out Uganda Government commitment to International obligation in the promotion and protection of Human Rights and the successes of UHRC in human Rights work since its establishment etc.
The Uganda Human Rights Commission is also arguing that amalgamation with the IGG will reduce the importance of the full coverage of Human Rights in the country. This insinuates that due to little human rights coverage, the situation may revert to the former days when human rights was not an issue and people would violate human rights with impunity!
This state of affairs exhibits the inter play of three main actors – the UHRC position of retention, the Cabinet position of abolition and transfer powers of the UHRC and the Donor’s position of retention. Though the three sides (Government, UHRC and Donors) have good reasons for the intended actions, all the three bodies do support human rights protection. They all seem to agree that human rights will be handled even after UHRC is abolished and its functions transferred to IGG. But the problem is at which capacity and how much commitment will government give to the protection of human rights once UHRC is merged with IGG? The donors are saying we have been giving UHRC support and probably they will continue with the support, and therefore UHRC should stay. The government is still pegging its abolition of UHRC on lack of resources. The question again arises, supposing the donors pull out in supporting UHRC, what happens to its autonomy and independence? Will it still be able to handle its duties independently and efficiently? The government must be looking at the future in case donor’s pullout. Bearing in mind that government has its hands tied financially; it is better to prepare for the future problems rather than relying on donors. Another thought is that suppose Uganda is to rely on donors, can they (donors) commit themselves to aiding UHRC for the specified period of time so that the Uganda government prepares for the donor-hand over at a later time? If the donors can’t commit themselves to this, then UHRC and the Government are in for a big surprise. Donors can never support an institution for ever. The government should look for ways to handle and manage its institutions. This can be done through government planning in consultation with UHRC, Ministries of Justice (under which UHRC falls), Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and donors since they are all stake holders and government prepares to take over from the donors. Therefore, Government should not surprise the UHRC with abolition.
Indeed, Uganda’s human rights record has been improving since the inception of UHRC; a credit which goes to UHRC, Government support, international human rights bodies and donors support. The Danida Evaluation Report[v] on Danish Support to promote Human Rights (1990-1998) recommends Uganda on human Rights promotion and protection. Uganda should not taint the good record of this situation by pulling human rights under the carpet. More so, donors have been tagging donations to human rights record and indeed Uganda has reaped much as a result of its good human rights promotion and protection. But, should Ugandans keep getting on donations from donors to keep running the institutions like UHRC? I don’t support this view that Uganda should keep pegged to donations because Uganda is an independent country. At the same time, Uganda should show the world that she has matured; she can build institutions of democracy without dismantling them. I think Uganda knows what is good and bad for her development and democracy. Let her not lose the track to democracy and respect for human rights. Institutions like the Uganda Human Rights Commission and IGG should be helped to grow and stand a test of time! Already, the IGG is burdened enough as rightly pointed out by its head. After all, our good economists usually point out that “division of labour is the way forward”.
The evolution and globalization of Human Rights cannot leave Uganda behind the rest of the world. The contents of UN Charter, the International Bill of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and even our 1995 Constitution show that Uganda is no island to the human rights wind. Let the Ugandan government rationalize resources to keep the UHRC and IGG due to the important positions they occupy in building democracy, while preparing to take over the burden of running all of them independently. Pillars of democracy like human rights, accountability and good governance cannot be fully sustained without resource investment. The choice is for all Ugandans, whether to slide back to anarchy or to promote and protect democratic principles.
[i] New Vision New paper report on Friday 19th December 2003
[ii] Monitor Newspaper report 1st December 2003
[iii] NewVision newspaper Report on 23rd January 2004
[v] Available on http://www.um.dk/danida/evalueringscrapporter/1999-ii-2/b4.asp, last accessed on 16th February 2004.
Bio: Ferdinand Katendeko a former investigations officer for the Uganda Human Rights Commission is currently studying for a MA in International Law and the Settlement of Disputes at the University for Peace. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
See also http://www.monitor.upeace.org/archive.cfm?id_article=87