Human Rights Watch condemns attacks on NGOs

By Chris Kiwawulo

HRW is an international NGO that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.

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KAMPALA - Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global rights organisation, has condemned the continued attacks on Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Uganda.

It urged Uganda Police to conduct credible investigations into the incidences.

HRW said the NGOs were capable of identifying the people responsible for the attacks and that police should conduct investigations and bring them to justice, a statement from the rights organisation released on Wednesday said.

HRW is an international NGO that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.

According to HRW, the most recent incident occurred on August 6, 2018, where unidentified people broke into the office of women's rights organisation ISIS-Women's International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) in Kampala and stole computer processors, internal and external hard drives, and cash.

"The attack on Isis-WICCE is the latest in a very troubling string of burglaries of human rights and development organisations offices' in Uganda," said Maria Burnett, the HRW East and Horn of Africa director.

She added; "Uganda's new police leadership needs to address the many cases, for which no one has been arrested, much more transparently and seriously than in the past."

Earlier this year, on February 8, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) reported that unidentified assailants broke into its office during the night, disabled parts of the security system and slashed two guards with machetes, severely injuring them.

According to Defend Defenders, a Kampala-based regional human rights organisation, over 30 organisations in Uganda have experienced similar break-ins since 2012.

"Many were robbed of equipment and data. In two instances, security guards were killed, but still the police did not follow up and no suspects were arrested.

HRAPF was the victim of an earlier attack in June 2016, in which attackers beat to death Emmanuel Arituha, a security guard, ransacked the offices, and stole documents and a television screen," HRW noted.

In an attack on the premises of Uganda Land Alliance in July 2015, HRW observed, another security guard, Richard Oketch, was beaten to death.

"All of the targeted groups work on sensitive subjects and are known for researching and critiquing government policies in areas such as corruption, land rights, women's rights, freedom of expression, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people," the statement said.

In June 2016, 31 Ugandan and international human rights groups wrote to the then Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, expressing grave concern about a wave of break-ins targeting offices of nongovernmental groups and raising specific questions regarding police management of the investigations.

The groups highlighted police's failure to investigate incidents; to collect evidence such as witness statements, DNA samples, closed circuit security footage; and to keep the groups informed about the status of investigations.

In their letter, the groups noted that; "the break-ins appear to form part of a longer-term, systemic, and worsening pattern of attacks on Ugandan civil society organizations targeting their legitimate and valuable work."

In response to demands from civil society groups earlier in July 2014, Kayihura formed a committee of eight officers to investigate break-ins at the offices of NGOs, but the outcome of that committee's work is not publicly known and it never issued any findings.

HRW said the new police leadership led by Okoth Ochola that came to office in March 2018, is yet to make any public statements regarding that committee or the status of any previous investigations.

"As part of its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Ugandan government should protect the right to life and the right to security for everyone, as well as the right to freedom of association, so that organisations can conduct their work in a safe and secure environment," HRW argued.

As set out in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, governments have a duty to protect human rights defenders "against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure, or any other arbitrary action" as a consequence of their work to uphold human rights, added HRW.

"Police apathy in the face of these persistent attacks seriously threatens independent research and advocacy in Uganda," Burnett said.

She added; "The new police leadership should show it intends to protect groups that fight for human rights protections and development in Uganda and credibly investigating the attack on Isis-WICCE would be an important start."