On September 2, 2012, unknown individuals raided the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) offices – stealing a whopping Shs 41m, seven laptops and eleven cell phones. This was the third attack at their Nsambya office in five years. According to Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of FHRI, such break-ins and robberies don’t only demoralise them, but also have become a threat to the work and confidentiality of their documents in particular.
“We don’t feel at ease when such events happen,” he says, “we have lost a lot of data and that’s a big threat to our work.”
FHRI is not the only human rights defenders (HRD) organisation that has been broken into by unknown persons, taking documents and computers. Last December, the office of the Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) was broken into, with a lot of equipment stolen. A report assessing the environment in which human rights defenders operated last year, shows that actually, a host of civil society organisations were broken into – a fact seen as a way of crippling their operations in the country.
“HRDs, especially within the civil society, who draw attention to human rights violations sometimes have become visible targets susceptible to reprisals,” notes the recently-released Human Rights Defenders in Uganda; The Quest for A Better Working Environment, Vol II, 2012 report, done by the Human Rights Centre Uganda.
“At times, their work is perceived as a threat to the state, cultural and religious institutions, gender or individuals when HRDs are lobbying.”
These cases are reported to police but according to Sewanyana, there has not been much help.
“We have reported all these to police. We have written statements but not a single suspect has been arrested,” Ssewanyana told The Observer.
However, Kampala Metropolitan Police Spokesperson Ibin Ssenkumbi says they have to follow due procedure.
“Police is doing its work and when the investigations are done, the perpetrators will be brought to book,” he says.
The report also notes limitations to the freedom of opinion and expression as manifested in the attacks on journalists and some media houses that come out to expose human rights abuses. It examines the relationship between human rights defenders and the different stakeholders like the state, citizens and the international community; challenges and opportunities; and recommendations made in the previous year and their implementation.
Much as there were challenges, in some areas, human rights defenders organisations achieved some successes. For instance, the passing of the Anti-Torture Bill, the report notes, was a milestone for the HRDs.
“With this act in place, it’s expected that security agencies like police, army, and other institutions that handle persons for the purpose of extracting information from them will be kept in check.”