As part of our series on life and politics in Uganda, Jamie Hitchen documents the stories and struggles of human rights defenders in a recent visit to the politically remote Lira District in northern Uganda.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission Field Office in Lira which was opened in July 2011.

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Lira Town, situated some 350km, from Kampala to the north is an area deeply affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict that

wrecked Uganda from 1986 until the Juba talks (2006-2008),  marking the beginning of the end for Joseph Kony and the rebels as a presence in Uganda.

Map of Uganda
Image: Think Africa Press

It was the start of a peace process that ultimately led to the creation of South Sudan in 2011 and also marked the beginning of a decline of the LRA in northern Uganda, forcing them out of the bases they had been occupying in southern Sudan, last seen in the Eastern Congo or the Central African Republic.

These days there is a lot less urgency for those internally displaced who had fled rural villages to seek sanctuary in towns from the violence.  Lira town now thrives with bustle of commercial trade in its compact town centre.

The most talked about issues I encountered focussed on one central problem that’s on the rise right across Uganda: land ownership.

Holding the line: crime, punishment and mob justice [back to contents]

In discussion with the Deputy District Police Commander and the District Office of Prosecutions it emerged that land ownership or land disputes were behind nearly all of the criminal cases and violations of human rights in Lira district.

This may not come as a surprise when Uganda’s population has risen tenfold to since independence in 1962. The issue has been exacerbated by the discovery of oil reserves in Hoima District and new cases of forced evictions and land grabbing are reported on an almost daily basis.

The throngs of men and women I witnessed seated outside the Lira courts pending hearings on land issues, particularly over ownership by people displaced during conflict, all seek to reclaim land they previously worked on.

The court system is simply unable to cope with the demands on it.  The Officer of Prosecutions bemoaned the lack of human resources at his disposal;

The state is bound to provide lawyers to represent the deceased in any court case but its failure to pay lawyers for their work has led to many refusing to take up these positions, bringing the justice process to a grinding halt.

Faced with a flailing system, a number of individuals seek alternative solutions which are not always legal.

The prison facility in Lira which clearly states its mission to promote and protect human rights

Mob justice – where citizens take the law into their own hands – is on the rise in Uganda and it may increase as land disputes keep happening and formal crime and punishment structures fail to address them.

Just as mob justice can never be a workable alternative; removing rights, such as the right to a fair trial in the process, the same could be said of a failing judicial system. Lobbying for its reform and greater accountability from the authorities is where human rights defenders (HRDs) are concentrating their efforts in looking to overcome this huge challenge.

What is a Human Rights Defender? And why do they matter?[back to contents]

A Human Rights Defender (HRD) was formalised as a concept at the international level by the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which guarantees every individual’s right to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.

In practice HRDs extend from individuals such as lawyers and social workers, to organisations that work on issues relating to human rights and even to instruments of the state.  In fact the chief HRDs in Ugandan society, at least in theory, are the police, prison service and judiciary, as they are mandated by the Constitution to protect and promote human rights however they are often involved in abuses in the Ugandan case.

The key message for governments is that HRDs are legitimate actors, working in the interests of the state to promote and protect fundamental freedoms that all citizens should be entitled to.  The state should recognise this and create an enabling environment for their work, which includes protection where required and facilitation where it is mandated to so

Source: Human Rights Defenders: protecting the right to defend human rights, Fact Sheet no.29 (2004), UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The case studies that follow are based on interviews with men, women and persons with disabilities that I encountered, outlining just some of the challenges and success stories of HRDs in Lira.

Case Study 1: Living with HIV and AIDS [back to contents]

Semmy Apili, sharing her experience during a training workshop. She won a court case and regained her land because of the will her late husband was able to write
Image: courtesy of LAFOPHAN

Even on issues such as HIV and AIDS the issue of land could not be avoided.  Martin Ongune, Project Coordinator at the Lira Development Network for People Living with HIV Aids (LIDFOPHAN), remarked upon the need for support in ‘will writing’ in order to support the families of victims:

There is a need here for legal advisers to assist the poorer members of society in writing wills.  It will ensure a degree of security for families who may lose relatives because of HIV and AIDS.  We would also welcome training that would empower members of the community with these skills and enable a more sustainable solution.

The organisation has, through its own networks, over 8,000 members and it works not only to provide support to victims of HIV and AIDS but also to the families of those victims.  Ensuring that livelihoods can be guaranteed is an important part of this support process and while there is a need, the challenge of bringing about that change remains.

Case Study 2: Persons with Disabilities [back to contents]

Uganda suffered both physical and mental trauma; issues that still need to be addressed.  In meeting with Joseph Kasungo at the Freidis Rehabilitation and Disability Centre I encountered anger at the lack of support that directly targeted the issue of disability.  He remained frustrated that it continues to be something of a side-issue, incorporated into other projects or initiatives but not given the priority that it should be.  Social stigma remains attached to disability in Uganda and mental health issues are seen as human weakness rather than health issues that require treatment.

The Centre has the facilities to tackle these issues, with a fully equipped clinic and on-site psychologist, but its major challenge is reintegrating people back into society as equals.

Case Study 3: Empowering Women [back to contents]

Diana Oroma of Women’s Peace Initiative (WPI) passionately outlined the challenges facing women in Lira District but suggested that progress was being made.  Her organisation has played a key role in encouraging women to seek medical attention to be treated for victims of sexual abuse.  In 2010 over 600 women were treated by a WPI initiative. Fifty of these women had such serious afflictions they required surgery.

There is no shortage of challenges facing the women who do come forward for treatment:

  1. The stigma attached to being sexually violated or raped can often led to exclusion or people being ostracised from the community.
  2. Cultural issues with regards to relationships between men and women are problematic.  A lack of education about female sexual health, inclusive of men, means that cultural norms of women being the bearer of children remain strong and this can impact on recovery after treatment.

Women Peace Clubs have been set up by WPI in an effort to change the attitudes of the community.  They have been successful in utilising women who have been treated talk to come and tell other women about their positive experiences.

Efforts have also been made to engage men in the education process.  Progress, however, is slow as Diana outlined an example of a man coming to a workshop and agreeing that he would show more respect for his wife’s sexual health.  Yet a week later WPI learned that the woman had been heavily beaten by her husband for bringing shame upon him and their family.

This kind of example shows that changing (and challenging!) attitudes will be a gradual task, but initiatives being run by WPCs are the kind of projects best suited to bring about that change.

Where to from here for human rights defenders: some reflections on the local, national and international dimensions [back to contents]

At the local government level in Lira officials are working with civil society groups (such as the Lira NGO Forum) to enhance and protect human rights.  Disputes over land and an ill-equipped judiciary for dealing with complaints being brought to its door, however, are challenges facing all Ugandan HRDs rather than just in Lira.

While some freedoms are being afforded to Ugandans there are still restrictions being placed on journalists in carrying out their work, women are still often regarded as second class citizens and rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans are almost non-existence .In recent weeks a number of members of parliament have come out in support of the retrogressive Anti-Homosexuality Bill, touted by the Speaker of Parliament as a “Christmas gift” to Ugandans,which would make engaging in homosexual activities punishable by death. This is incredibly worrying for human rights standards and protections in Uganda.  Parliamentarians are voting on this bill in the coming days before 15th December, despite that Uganda holds a seat on the UN Human Rights Council until the end of 2013.

In her remarks addressing the UN Assembly in New York, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Margaret Sekaggya, emphasized the constraints faced by defenders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights due to criminalization of same-sex relations in over 75 countries worldwide, as well as recent legislative moves to purportedly curb promotion of homosexuality.

Although the recent decision of Malawi to suspend its anti-gay legislation is a small ray of hope it should be recognised and applauded as a step forward. will be following these stories more closely in the months ahead.

Lastly, the creation of a Human Right Committee, made up of members of the Uganda parliament and tasked with the monitoring and evaluation of the government’s compliance with human rights standards and protections is a very positive step.  In theory, this should support the promotion and protection of those working to protect and stimulate human rights at the community level too.

Overall then, this is a refreshing turn for Ugandans struggling for a better life and looking to hold their politicians and public officials to a higher standard.

Throughout my field visits in Lira and elsewhere I have found the enthusiasm and commitment to such values remains undiminished. There are, of course, many challenges left but changes in attitudes at the community level are being observed.

This is welcome as the region gradually turns it focus away from a past ravaged by conflict to one embracing social and economic growth and development


Explore more…

  • The Human Rights Centre’s project, tasked with reporting on the situation of HRDs across Uganda, extends to eight regions across the country and will be published in early 2013.  It serves as a research document but also as a tool for peer-learning for civil society groups who can learn how other groups in different regions have addressed challenges they might be experiencing.  This initiative was first undertaken in the Human Rights Defenders in Uganda 2010-2011_ A Situational Analysis of their Rights and Challenges report.