9 December, Human Rights Defenders Day, ‘celebrated’ in Uganda

December 13, 2017

In an article in the Ugandan paper The Independent entitled “Activists mark Human Rights Defenders day” (13 December 2017), Robert Kirenga, the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda spoke to Flavia Nassaka about his perspective on international human rights defenders day and the general human rights situation in the country. He made some interesting points such as (excerpts): 

Justice Jane Kiggundu (right) and Margaret Sekaggya (left). National Coalition of Human Rights Photo


9 December is marked internationally as Human Rights Defenders Day. ..

Human rights defenders globally thought that they needed a day to reflect on their work and how it’s contributing to development of different nations. Unlike other international days where there’s always an international theme that countries are supposed to focus their celebrations on, for this day we come up with a theme relevant to the context in which it’s being marked in a specific country [emphasis added]Our theme here is the ‘shrinking space for civil society organizations’. As we mark this day government has never returned phones and computers that they confiscated from the four organizations that they raided two months ago. We are seeing our operating space being narrowed by the state and its agents. Look at what one has to go through to start an NGO. The process is too tedious and yet you will only be allowed to operate for a year and go back to re-new your registration…..

Are you partisan?

Yes. Civil society is partisan but we are partisan to a cause for which we were formed which is to ensure that promotion of democracy and human rights is upheld, to ensure corruption is got rid of and to ensure safety of human rights defenders. NGOs are not linked to political parties. The laws that create political parties are different. The biggest funder of NGOs in Uganda is the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a consortium of donor countries like Norway, Sweden and Austria that give funds to governments and organizations to push causes in different areas like governance, education and others. So it’s quite disturbing to see government becoming skeptical of where we get funding because they also get money from these same donors.[emphasis added]….

Robert Kirenga Executive Director of NCHRD-U

… Both journalists and activists are now taking advantage of social media to push agendas. What do you think has been the role of social media in advocating for people’s justice?

Social media has its positives and negatives. It has really pressurized government to take some measures against people who violate people’s rights but I wouldn’t encourage anyone to take everything they get on social media for the truth because audiences receive, use and reproduce this information in different ways….

 As human rights defenders, how do you rate your selves in reducing human rights violations?

As the national coalition we have not yet done much because we have had challenges spreading our wings. We are now working on our visibility because many people may not know who a human rights defender is. We are often seen as noise makers because the concept is not yet well internalized. I believe once our work is appreciated we will do more than what you are seeing now.

 What challenges are facing rights defenders working in the country at the moment?

Apart from being intimidated, we face physical assault. Just recently a counselor in Mbarara suffered an acid attack because he was set to appear before the land commission of inquiry to fight for people whose land is being grabbed. People have to realize that in doing this work it’s almost inevitable not to step on people’s toes and should be conscious of what is likely to happen to them because of their actions.

 What gives you motivation to continue doing work amidst threats and danger?

You don’t go to any school or university to learn to be a human rights defender. We always have that urge in us to advocate for people’s rights. But, what I should say is that human rights defenders need to be protected that’s why as a coalition we build their capacity in terms of putting in place safe guards. We protect their information, if they are in conflict or accused of breaking the law, legal services will be provided and depending on the nature of threat, there is also psycho social support. We also have a protection fund to relocate those affected until when their security stabilizes as we continue to advocate for bettering the general environment in which civil society organizations operate…


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