In the last few years, there have been 37 reported break-ins into offices of human rights organisations.
Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) is one of the organisations that have been hit the hardest in this trend, with two attacks in less than two years.
On March 22, 2016, in the wee hours of the morning, unidentified thugs brutally murdered the night-duty guard, the late Emmanuel Arituha, entered the offices, ransacked the office of the executive director, and only took a television screen.
The police took fingerprint evidence, blood samples and other items used in the break-in and HRAPF provided them with CCTV footage.
After much pressure from HRAPF, the police only provided a preliminary report that simply classified this as an ordinary robbery by ordinary thieves who incidentally murdered the guard on duty. No one was identified and no one was ever arrested.
The second attack happened on the morning of February 9, 2018 and the attackers severely injured the two guards on night duty, with one of them getting a skull fracture. This was despite a thorough upgrade in the security systems of the organisations. In this latest attack, nothing was taken. The question that persists through all this, of course, is what motivates these attackers?
To try and get answers to this question, on Monday (February 12, 2018), staff of HRAPF and other civil society actors staged a sit-in demonstration at Old Kampala police division demanding for the report of the first break-in.
The division’s leadership met with the leaders of the organisation and it was agreed that, among other things, the police would follow up on the earlier file which had reportedly been called by Police headquarters and provide a report, and that the police would in the meantime be providing protection to HRAPF.
These were laudable steps and HRAPF appreciates the personal effort of the division police commander, ASP Grace Nyangoma, who later led a team from the division who addressed HRAPF staff and assured them of security. As a result of this, the sit-in was called off.
Human rights organisations in Uganda, despite the work that they do, feel largely unwanted and unprotected by the state.
The recently-passed NGO Act with its imposition of broad and undefined ‘special obligations’ on NGOs not to do anything prejudicial to the laws of Uganda, interests of Ugandans, or the security of Uganda clearly shows that the state only sees NGOs as threats rather than as partners. This may partly explain the apathy towards investigating cases of NGO break-ins.
There have hardly been any prosecutions or convictions for any of the incidents, even though some have resulted in murders. The police usually baselessly responds that the NGO staff are the ones behind the break-ins, and that brings this matter to and end. Do NGO staff have the right to murder and kill, or to rob from organisations which are themselves persons in law?
The continuing apathy of the police to the threat is part of the reason why human rights organisations in Uganda now must ask the question: what is the protection available to human rights organisations?
Whereas general insecurity seems to be on the rise in the country, organisations working on issues of civil and political rights as well sexual and gender minority rights seem to be taking more heat than other identifiable targets.
This is because human rights defenders are often at risk anyway for no reason beyond the work that they do, and the state has an obligation to provide protection for human rights defenders in recognition of the fact that they carry out important and legitimate functions in supporting the state to ensure full respect and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, rule of law and democracy.
These are functions that will often expose them to risk from state actors, corporate entities and other non-state actors.
By continuously failing or refraining from offering civil society organisations the protection they need from the violent elements of society that are targeting them, whatever the motivation for the attack may be, the state implicitly condones this violence.
It is time for the government to step up and deal decisively with the attacks on human rights defenders because, for as long as the state continues to take the disinterested attitude it has taken to this problem to date, the message that is being received by all petty criminals, rogue elements within the state and other actors with an axe to grind is that CSOs are a vulnerable and low priority target.
As such, the attacks will continue to escalate no matter what measures the CSOs put in place to ensure their own security, more property will be lost, more lives will be forfeited and the government will continue to fail its citizens in that regard.
Decisive action will check the impunity and provide the bare minimum protection required of the state at international law in order to safeguard the rights, lives, dignity and integrity of human rights defenders in the country.
The author is the Executive Director, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF)