Uganda: Discriminatory legislation fuels repression and abuse

Repressive and discriminatory legislation enacted over the last 18 months in Uganda has led to increasing state repression, violence and homophobic and gender-based discrimination, according to a new report published by Amnesty International today.

“Rule by Law” – Discriminatory Legislation and Legitimized Abuses in Uganda, launching today in Uganda’s capital city Kampala, details how three pieces of legislation have violated fundamental human rights, fuelled discriminatory abuses and left individuals unable to seek justice.

“Repression in Uganda is increasingly state sanctioned through the use of blatantly discriminatory legislation that erodes rights guaranteed in the country’s Constitution,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa.

“The government must act now to revise these toxic laws, which threaten the core of human rights in Uganda.”

Amnesty International’s report documents the cumulative human rights impact of the Public Order Management Act, the Anti-Pornography Act and the now nullified Anti-Homosexuality Act. These Acts were passed by Uganda’s Parliament and signed into law between August 2013 and February 2014.

Freedom of assembly and association 

The report details how the right to freedom of assembly has come under attack through the Public Order Management Act, which imposes wide-ranging restrictions on public meetings.

This legislation has led to police suppressing gatherings involving political opposition groups and crackdowns on activists.

While the police’s use of the Public Order Management Act has lessened since early 2014, it has a pervasive chilling effect.

“The Public Order Management Act has had a devastating effect on the ability of civil society to organize, even stymying attempts to challenge the laws themselves,” said Sarah Jackson.

“It essentially reverses the basic premise on which the right to freedom of assembly is based. Instead of facilitating peaceful demonstrations, it imposes wide restrictions on them.”

Legitimizing abuses 

While the Anti-Homosexuality Act was in force people who identified as – or were perceived to be – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) were arbitrarily arrested, including when reporting crimes against them. Some were beaten and groped by police and other detainees in custody.

In the days after the Anti-Pornography Act was signed, women were harassed by the police, and one lawyer was threatened with arrest because of her clothing.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act also led to LGBTI people being evicted from their homes and losing their jobs.

LGBTI people and women were subject to mob attacks in the streets while the Anti-Homosexuality Act was in force and immediately after the Anti-Pornography Act was signed.

“The vague wording of these laws has caused them to be interpreted by the public in a dangerous way. Many have taken the law into their own hands through mob justice and abuses against women and LGBTI people,” said Sarah Jackson.

“The government’s failure to properly clarify the laws makes it complicit in the abuses taking place.”

After several women deemed to be “dressed indecently” were stripped in the street in mob attacks, the police publicly stated that the Anti-Pornography Act did not give the public “authority to undress women”. However, authorities failed to issue a statement in response to homophobic attacks.

The government committed to reviewing the Anti-Pornography Act, though eight months later the review is yet to take place.

Impact on healthcare 

The Anti-Homosexuality Act was also invoked to restrict certain assistance to refugees. Most services of the Refugee Law Project (RLP), an organization that supports asylum seekers and refugees, have been suspended by the authorities since March 2014 following trumped-up allegations that it was “promoting homosexuality”.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act also compromised access to healthcare. A police raid on the Walter Reed Project, a HIV-research project, in April 2014 made some LGBTI individuals too scared to access healthcare.

In June 2014, the Ministry of Health issued a directive affirming non-discrimination in access to healthcare. Despite these positive commitments, overall the ability of organizations to provide healthcare has been negatively affected by the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Nowhere to turn 

Victims of abuses by the public have been scared to report them to the police leaving them unable to seek redress.

“The police’s failure to investigate abuses has led to impunity being tolerated and propagated by the state,” said Sarah Jackson.

“Even though the Anti-Homosexuality Act has been nullified its effects are still felt and the fundamental issues have not been dealt with. People who would normally speak out in defence of others have been stigmatized and silenced.”

The Anti-Homosexuality Act was overturned by Uganda’s Constitutional Court in August 2014 on the grounds that Parliament passed it without quorum. Constitutional challenges to the Anti-Pornography Act and Public Order Management Act are pending.

Amnesty International is calling on the Ugandan government to repeal discriminatory legislation and ensure the government is not complicit in human rights abuses. It must protect all Ugandans, including women, LGBTI people and political activists, from discrimination, harassment and violence.

Background: Report methodology 

This report is based on research conducted by Amnesty International in Uganda in March, April and August 2014. Part of the field research was carried out in conjunction with Human Rights Watch. 

Amnesty International carried out one-on-one interviews with 42 affected individuals and held group discussions with an additional 57 individuals comprising of staff and representatives of 30 civil society organizations. Interviews took place in Kampala, Entebbe and Mbarara.