A cry for secularism in a religious country

Uganda is a deeply religious country. Within an hour of my arrival in Kampala, I had seen many testaments to faith including the rather tasty ‘Jesus Saves’ range of snacks. However, at an inter-faith community dialogue that I attended in Bwaise, an overpopulated, unplanned deprived area in north Kampala last week, there was a surprising call for secularism.

The Pentecostal faith and other forms of charismatic Christianity, known for their fervent evangelism, have been steadily increasing their flock in the area and, although popular in Bwaise, these faiths have not eclipsed Catholicism and more traditional forms of Protestantism such as Anglicanism as the dominant religions in Uganda. However, according to the last national census only 12% of Ugandans are Muslim and data from grassroots youth-led organisation, AFFCAD, indicates that 76% of Bwaise is Muslim.

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Unresolved concerns on freedoms of assembly, association and expression as Uganda’s human rights report is adopted in Geneva

The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group will be adopting Uganda’s report at its 19th UPR session on 16 March 2012. Uganda will be required to confirm its stance on the recommendations pending its response and to give an update on how far they have gone to implement those they accepted. As part of this, peer states are called upon to urge the government of Uganda to genuinely improve freedoms of assembly, association and expression, and the rights of sexual minority groups in Uganda.

CIVICUS was reliably informed that the Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee held on 23 February 2012 in Kampala, Uganda maintained support to 110 recommendations. It however accepted only 22 of the 42 recommendations for which response is still pending and rejected 20. These added to the 19 that the government earlier rejected outright, the majority of which focused on gay rights, the withdrawal of the Public Order Management Bill, simplifying the heavy burden on NGO registration and removing security agencies from the NGO Board.

Various submissions by CSOs during the 12th UPR session in 2011 raised concerns regarding the heavy burden created by the current registration, approval, renewal and governance provisions of the NGO Registration Act 1989 and the subsequent NGO Registration Amendment Act of 2006. In 2011, the government initiated a process of amending the NGO law to align it with the NGO Policy 2008. Although a public call was made to contribute views to this process, the draft law has not been made public. CIVICUS understands from CSOs that their involvement has been very limited. The government should guarantee CSOs in Uganda a more transparent and participatory process in the amendment of the NGO Law that would be in line with the recommendation made by France in the UPR and accepted by Uganda on “assuring full respect of freedom of association”.

The Public Order Management Bill, 2011, which restricts the holding of public meetings without advance permission from a senior police officer, requires fulfilment of varied legal obligations and gives discretionary powers to police officers to limit or deny particular meetings, was also a concern in the submissions. Further, currently CSOs wishing to carry out activities in rural areas are required to seek permission from authority. The Bill is currently pending.

Although the government readily accepted all recommendations related to upholding the freedom of assembly and expression by peer states including Austria, Chile, France, Ireland, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the USA, experiences since the review indicate otherwise. Incidents of the government preventing or forcefully dispersing peaceful assembly have been recorded. For instance, on 19 January 2012 members of the CSO Action for Change were arrested for holding a peaceful rally against corruption and economic hardships. On 14 February the Minister of Ethics and Integrity entered a capacity building workshop organised by a gay rights organisation and illegally closed it.

Concerns about sexual minority rights in Uganda and the harassment by security officers of human rights defenders of gay rights, raised in the review, received a cold shoulder from the government, as most of these recommendations were rejected. The few that received government support, such as one made by the Netherlands on investigation of intimidation and attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and one made by the Czech Republic on ending discrimination and assaults on LGBTI people, have already suffered a blow. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was recently reintroduced to parliament. Its debate and potential passing is likely to increase homophobia towards the LGBTI community and harassment of gay rights defenders. Despite the government distancing itself from the Bill by issuing a statement on 9 February signed by the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, the actions of this same minister noted above demonstrate a prevailing government response of repression towards sexual minorities.

As Uganda’s report is being adopted, peer states are called upon to urge Uganda to:

  • reconsider its position on the rights of sexual minority groups and end all forms of harassment and intimidation;
  • genuinely implement recommendations on freedom of assembly and expression;
  • take advantage of the current NGO Law amendment process to simplify registration and renewal processes of CSOs and allow CSOs to freely carry out their activities anywhere in the country without unnecessary hindrance.

Agnes Kabajuni, Policy and Advocacy Officer, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation