Human rights: concerns in Uganda as OHCHR office closes and World Bank halts financing

Samuel OkirorTuesday 22 August 2023

Activists have denounced and condemned Uganda’s forceful closure of the UN Human Rights (OHCHR) office in the country, with the decision being described as a ‘devastating blow’ to the promotion and protection of human rights.

The head office in the capital, Kampala, ceased its operations on 5 August, while two field offices in Gulu and Moroto closed on 30 June and 31 July respectively. The closures follow the government’s decision to terminate the mandate and not to renew the host agreement allowing the UN agency to operate.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, expressed ‘deep regret’ at the development, which follows 18 years of operations towards the ‘promotion and protection of the human rights of all Ugandans’. Türk added that ‘much progress has been made in the country […] but serious human rights challenges remain in the path to full enjoyment of human rights for all’.

The closure comes amid concerns about human rights in the country, including in respect to extrajudicial killings and the recently passed Anti-Homosexuality Act, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law in May. The Act, which imposes life imprisonment – and even the death penalty in some cases – for same-sex activities, has attracted widespread condemnation. ‘The [OHCHR] played a crucial role in advocating for marginalised groups. Its absence has created a gap in international support and monitoring of human rights violations, including reduced visibility and protection for LGBTQI+ individuals and their allies’, says a queer Ugandan activist in Kampala who works with Safe Place International, a non-profit organisation (NGO) focused on double marginalised refugee groups.

There is a very clear and deliberate government agenda of attacking human rights and silencing human rights voices

Judy Mionki
African Regional Forum Liaison Officer, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

‘The office’s absence will also damage Uganda’s overall human rights situation, as LGBTQI+ rights are interconnected with broader concerns like freedom of expression and non-discrimination’, says the activist. ‘International organisations and governments must step in to ensure sustained efforts to protect LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda.’

Türk warned Uganda against backsliding from its commitments under the international human rights treaties it has ratified. In late July, a UN report expressed concerns about persistent reports of arbitrary arrest and detention of political opponents, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders in Uganda, as well as persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

‘There is a very clear and deliberate government agenda of attacking human rights and silencing human rights voices’, says Judy Mionki, African Regional Forum Liaison Officer for the IBA Human Rights Law Committee, who works as a consultant in The Hague. ‘The government has increasingly repressed national human rights organisations and passed highly discriminatory and repressive laws. The recent closure of the OHCHR office is the culmination of this agenda.’

The Ugandan government however, in conveying its decision to the OHCHR, highlights its ‘strong […] commitment to the promotion and protection of Human Rights, the prevailing peace throughout the country, coupled with strong National Human Rights Institutions and a vibrant Civil Society, with the capacity to monitor the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the country’. The government has confirmed it will continue its cooperation with OHCHR.

‘With the closure of the office, the Uganda government assumes full responsibility to ensure that human rights are respected by all its agencies including prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of abuse’, says Livingstone Sewanyana, Founder and Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.

Yet the Anti-Homosexuality Act, for example, is already having a negative impact on Ugandans, said Türk’s office. A medical doctor based in Kampala, who wished to remain anonymous, describes the Act as perpetuating a hostile environment for LGBTQI+ people in Uganda, with 96 per cent of such individuals facing discrimination and 79 per cent experiencing physical violence. ‘These figures underscore the urgent need to ensure accountability and oversight, a role that the UN office played’, says the doctor. Since the law was passed, scores of Ugandans have reportedly now sought refuge in other countries.

‘The office’s closure will escalate the disregard for human rights on a broader scale, leading to international backlash, and a reconsideration of aid or financial support to Uganda, which will be a devastating loss to the communities they were meant to benefit’, which include the LGBTQI+ community, adds the doctor.

Indeed, in early August, the World Bank halted new public financing to Uganda pending additional measures being put in place ‘to ensure projects are implemented in alignment with [the Bank’s] environmental and social standards’. These measures are under discussion with the Ugandan authorities.

The World Bank has said that the Anti-Homosexuality Act fundamentally contradicts its values. Its actions follow a call made by over 170 global civil society groups to the Bank’s President Ajay Banga to ask the lender to take ‘specific, concrete and timely actions in response to Uganda’s abhorrent Anti-Homosexuality Act’.

Clare Byarugaba, an LGBTQI+ advocate in Kampala, says the Bank’s decision highlights how fundamental non-discrimination is to economic development. ‘We hope that the decisive announcement will spur further commitments from others who support inclusive economic development and the protection of basic human rights to take concrete action in the face of Uganda’s horrific law’, she says.

Byarugaba adds that other countries considering similar laws should take notice of the World Bank’s decision and the negative economic impact on their economies. ‘Open and inclusive societies are better for business and better for economic growth’, she says.

President Museveni described the World Bank’s action as a ‘provocation and arrogance’. He suggested that Uganda would look to reduce borrowing and would refuse to give in to pressure from foreign institutions, and that many of the World Bank’s loans and aid packages are either of no added value or are even anti-growth in nature. While the government will adjust its budget accordingly, its Ministry of Finance will continue to engage with the World Bank.

Steven Kabuye, Co-Executive Director at NGO Coloured Voices Uganda, highlights the progress that Uganda has made in some areas of human rights. There have been reforms to domestic legislation and a national action plan on business and human rights has been adopted. ‘These actions demonstrate an awareness of the need to protect human rights and create a more inclusive and just society’, he says. ‘Nevertheless, it is crucial to monitor the implementation of these reforms, as well as the [overall] human rights situation in Uganda’, especially in light of the UN office’s closure.

Image credit: Iliya Mitskavets/AdobeStock.com