CHRI OFFICIAL STATEMENT ON PROTESTS IN UGANDA, SWAZILAND AND MOZAMBIQUE
As the world focuses its attention on oil rich North Africa and the Middle East, a wave of police brutality within sub-Saharan African states of the Commonwealth has gone largely unnoticed and unpunished. Uganda, Swaziland and Mozambique have seen a wave of protests. But little attention has been paid to the uniformly brutal way in which they are being dealt with. These are all Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) strongly condemns the routine use of intimidation, beatings, illegal detention, torture and excessive use of force being used within these countries to curb legitimate expressions of dissent and the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. With their focus on momentous developments, the world and the international media have paid little attention to suppression and illegal acts by state actors in these countries.
Throughout April, political activists in Uganda were repeatedly harassed, beaten and arrested by the police on trumped up charges whilst largely peaceful marches were violently suppressed. As a member of the Commonwealth, Uganda should ensure that its security forces act in the spirit of the Harare Declaration which emphasises the liberty of the individual and a commitment to human rights. Uganda is also bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees the right to hold opinions without interference, the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.
Walk to work protests began on April 11, 2011 against high fuel prices and a rising cost of living. For three weeks running, these generally peaceful protests were dispersed by the police and the army with rubber bullets, live ammunition, tear gas and pepper spray. At least eight people have been killed including a two year old child in Masaka on April 21, 2011. The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials requires law enforcement agencies to “use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty”. Firing live ammunition indiscriminately into crowds that offer little threat to police officers or members of the public (as protesters have either been unarmed, or on occasion, armed with stones) is never necessary nor a proportional use of force.
The main Ugandan opposition leader and figurehead for the protests, Kizza Besigye has been shot in the hand, sprayed with pepper spray and forcibly extracted from his car by Ugandan police. On April 28, 2011, he was arrested for the third time in a month, having already been detained on charges of inciting violence and unlawful assembly. Grace Turyagumanawe, the Metropolitan police chief, justified the arrests by claiming Besigye "was inciting violence, blocking the road and disobeying police officers."
The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in Uganda’s Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 of the ICCPR maintains that curbing rights such as the freedom of expression is only permissible when there is a public emergency that threatens the life of the nation. The walk-to-work protests in Uganda have been overtly peaceful and carried out by unarmed members of the public, hence can hardly be seen as threatening the life of the nation.
CHRI also notes the failure of other police forces in the Commonwealth to act in the spirit of international human rights law. In Swaziland protests on April 18, 2011 were declared illegal by the state and police broke up protesters with water cannons and a spate of arbitrary arrests. Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, of the Swaziland Youth Congress said he was held and tortured by police for 24 hours. As in Uganda, the right to freedom of assembly is being desecrated by Swazi police. Torture is forbidden by the UN which states that a law enforcement official may not tolerate any act of torture and shall “ensure the full protection of the health of persons in their custody”.
In neighbouring Mozambique, protests on April 6, 2011 about unfair wage deductions of security staff ended in ugly scenes as riot police were filmed kicking and beating detained protesters. The UN states that “Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty”. Documentary evidence shows that this was not the case as protesters were repeatedly beaten having already been detained. Whilst CHRI deplores the excessive use of force, it is encouraged by the fact that a Commission of Inquiry was set up by the Mozambican Interior Ministry to investigate the incident.
We strongly urge the governments of Uganda and Swaziland to prosecute all those individuals who have been implicated in the use of force against peaceful demonstrators. All those responsible should be made accountable for their actions.
We also urge the Commonwealth to speak out in strong condemnation of actions by the Governments of Swaziland and Uganda who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of their citizens.
We encourage the Governments of the Commonwealth to listen to the cries of the people and act in a transparent manner with their citizens on matters that affect their socio-economic situation. Such matters can only be resolved through the promotion of dialogue, transparency and accountability in government dealings, policies and programmes.
We further recommend that the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth should review the standards of policing amongst its members.