Human Rights Watch on Uganda Elections
Cliffnotes version: Last week, Human Rights Watch made a statement highlighting the need for the Ugandan government to respect media freedoms and hold perpetrators of political violence accountable as Uganda’s 2011 national elections approach. Protecting political and media freedoms is crucial not just for the legitimacy of the elections, but also for the postconflict recovery of northern Uganda and the long-term stability of the country.
The past few elections in Uganda have been marred by politically-motivated violence, intimidation of opposition leaders, suppression of political demonstrations and the media. These rights violations by police, military, and other state actors are often not even investigated, much less prosecuted.
Unfortunately, this year in both January and July, these trends have continued as state actors violently put down election-related demonstrations. Uganda’s ruling party proposed a law to restrict freedom of assembly, which drew harsh criticism from human rights groups.
“Voters and the news media need to feel safe to debate ideas and to express themselves if Uganda is going to have a free and fair election,” said Rona Peligal, Human Rights Watch’s Africa Director. She called on the Ugandan government to break with history by investigating past abuses and conducting a clean election. “Unless it takes a strong stand, the government may appear to condone intimidation and violence, and undermine the credibility of the election,” she warned.
As I wrote about in a previous blog post about my interview with Ugandan civil society leaders, freedom of the press is a major issue in the run-up to Uganda’s 2011 elections. Since the political riots last September, and the terrorist bombings in Kampala this July, the government has grown increasingly repressive of media freedoms, shutting down several radio stations and passing a law allowing phone tapping. Opposition leaders worry that this will limit prospects for free and fair elections next year.
As we wrote about last year, at a hearing with the US’ top Africa Official Johnnie Carson, Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina talked about the issue of media freedom in Uganda. He took issue with amendments proposed for a bill that would give the Ugandan government broad powers to shut down media it claimed was harmful to national security, stability, or unity. Rep. Miller also brought up concerns shared by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that the government had not made much progress in forming an independent electoral commission and transparent voter registry.
Rep. Miller’s comments represent the kind of leadership needed to keep the attention of US policymakers focused on this important issue. Supporting good governance and freedom of the media is important not just in light of the upcoming election, but also for the stability of the country, particularly in the north where people are still struggling with postconflict recovery.
Though the LRA has left Uganda, the political grievances that led to its formation have not yet been resolved. The Ugandan government has a responsibility to protect the political, civil and human rights of all of its citizens—and if it can’t meet this basic responsibility it will loose the faith of its people, and its legitimacy will deteriorate. And, until it can ensure a political environment that fosters nonviolent resolution of political grievances and peaceful transitions of power, the country will never experience true peace.