Uganda’s government must immediately reverse its effort to suppress the work of 54 civil society organizations, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said today.
On Friday 3 September, the ICJ communicated its concerns to the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and on the situation of human rights defenders, stressing that this assault on the critical work of civil society was in violation of Uganda’s international legal obligation to protect freedom of association.
On 20 August, Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs under the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that they had ordered a cessation of the operations of 54 civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Uganda that they allege to have not complied with the NGO Act.
The NGO Act came in force in March 2016 and provides for an NGO Bureau with roles including licensing and inspection of NGOs. The Act creates obligations which NGOs must fulfill in their operations. These range from registering with the bureau, signing MOUs with districts, filing yearly returns, among others.
ICJ’s Africa Director Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, said,
“The government of Uganda has a poor record of protecting the important work of civil society and human rights organizations in the country and has frequently adopted measures to impede their work. The abrupt halting of the functioning of these targeted organizations poses an overwhelming impediment to the exercise of the right to freedom of association protecting the right to form and sustain professional organizations.”
In its submission to the two Special Rapporteurs, independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, the ICJ underscored that the suspensions did not follow administrative process and, pointed to the absence of proper and effective procedures to challenge the suspensions.
The ICJ noted by way of example the indefinite suspension of Chapter Four Uganda, on the basis that it failed to file its annual returns and disclose its sources of funding. Chapter Four has contested these allegations. ICJ notes that this is not the first time that the organization and its leadership have been targeted by the government, with the most recent arrest of the organization’s director on claims of money laundering, a move that the ICJ condemned.
“While organizations generally have a responsibility to respect the laws governing NGOs, those laws become non-compliant with human rights and the rule of law when they establish arbitrary barriers that are used to harass or persecute members, or interfere with the operations of these organizations.”
The ICJ acknowledges that NGOs may be obliged to comply with certain statutory requirements, but mass suspensions are not acceptable, as the right to freedom of association cannot itself be made conditional on such registration burdens. Uganda is bound by its Constitution as well as its international legal obligations to respect the right to freedom of association and to protect the critical work of human rights defenders.
The ICJ calls on the Uganda government to guarantee that human rights defenders in the country are able to carry out their activities unencumbered without arbitrary interference from State agencies. This is vital to ensure the preservation of civic space in Uganda.
Download the letter here.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Director Africa Programme, Kaajal.Keogh@icj.org
Tanveer Jeewa, Legal and Communications Officer, Tanveer.Jeewa@icj.org
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