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Defending Human Rights Defenders


Role of Human Rights Defenders in the implementation of the new recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review of 2016

Posted On: 08 Aug 2017


The purpose of this article is to discuss the appropriate courses of action that Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) can undertake in order to effectively implement and encourage said implementation of the Universal Periodic Reviews recommendations. These were presented to the Ugandan Government in the year 2016 in relation to the standard of human rights in the country. This review also acknowledges the effort that the government, amongst other bodies, has put into fulfilling the previous recommendations made by the 2011 UPR of Uganda.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a UN process which involves periodically reviewing the human rights records and current standards of all 193 UN member states. On the 15th of March 2006, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Human Rights Council; which in turn established the Universal Periodic Review: Each review is conducted by the UPR Working Group which consists of 47 members of the council. It was set up to address gaps in the UN Human Rights infrastructure and to complement the work of both the Treaty Body and Special Procedures systems. The overall goal of the UPR is the improvement of human rights and the subsequent improvement of the standard of living in all reviewed countries. The reviews’ objectives include assessing the human rights records of states and addressing human rights violations when they occur. The UPR working Group also enhances the capacity of states to deal effectively with human rights challenges by providing technical assistance. The promotion and sharing of best practices among states and stakeholders in the area of human rights is also an essential aspect of the work of the UPR.

The recommendations listed in the final UPR report on the standard of human rights in the country covers a multitude of issues: human rights abuses by security forces; freedom of assembly; due process violations; freedom of expression; freedom of association; lesbian, gay, bisexual and gender rights; children’s rights; refugee rights and the recently enacted Prevention and Prohibition Against Torture Act, 2012.  

 Universal Periodic Review of Uganda

The first Universal Periodic Review of Uganda was conducted in 2011 and the second in the year 2016. It is important to analyse which issues were the most prevalent in order to determine which areas to focus on. It is also necessary to document which recommendations were accepted, noted or pending. Out of the recommendations made during Uganda’s second cycle in 2016; 143 were accepted, 65 were noted and 18 were left pending. The accepted recommendations included; to ensure the compliance with the law on the prevention of human trafficking, to speedily enact the respective Policies and Bills of Legal Aid and Transitional Justice and to ensure the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and prevent interference of government officials from interfering in judicial proceedings. The noted recommendations included; to amend, as a first step, relevant laws which impose mandatory capital punishment and to review the Public Order Management Act and the Non-Governmental Organisations Act so that the legal framework is conducive to safe and unhindered operation of independent NGOs. Examples of the pending recommendations were; to ratify the convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity and to establish a sufficient number of courts and mobile legal aid centres in refugee areas to improve access to justice, particularly for cases of sexual and gender-based violence. Continuous and progressive measures must be enacted by the state of Uganda in order to achieve the accepted recommendations and to analyse the proposals that were deemed noted or pending, this progress must be achieved before the next UPR in 2021.

A number of the UPR recommendations made concerned the working environment of HRDs in Uganda, for example; Uganda must continue to provide human rights education to law enforcement personnel, with the aim of reducing the number of human rights violations. Another recommendation concerned the improvement of the overall investigation of alleged harassment of human rights defenders and the prosecution of offenders; this harassment has come in the form of intimidation, threats, assaults and office break-ins. With regard to office break-ins, CSOs follow up these instances with the police; facilitating the investigation process, however the failure of authorities to bring the culprits to justice does not inhibit further attacks and increases the levels of impunity.

 Role of UPR info in following up recommendations

 UPR Info is an NGO that was established in 2008 to promote and support the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It aids in facilitating the follow up process by encouraging the active participation of all stakeholders; including increasing accessibility for member states regarding key dates, documentation, news updates and results of the UPR. UPR Info runs five main programmes; supporting CSO participation, pre-sessions, follow up, enhancing state capacities and strengthening the UPR process. These activities help this organisation achieve their aims of raising awareness of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and providing capacity building tools to the different actors; which include civil society, National Human Rights Institutions, NGOs and United Nations member states.

 Role of Human Rights Defenders in the Universal Periodic Review

To determine which are the most beneficial and practical areas to focus on as HRDs, it is important to note the areas that the state has progressed in, since the last review in 2011. During the interactive dialogue which took place during the most recent UPR, 2016, there were a number of responses made by member states regarding the measures that the state of Uganda has put in place to implement the 2011 recommendations. The majority of the member states welcomed, commended and encouraged the efforts made by the state of Uganda in a number of areas. With regard to the rights of women, children and vulnerable minorities; Uganda was commended for implementation of the Children (Amendment) Act 2016; new regulations to combat child labour and child trafficking, the improvement of attendance and enrolment in schools and improved gender equality in said schools. In relation to the rights of women in Uganda, the state was commended for the criminalisation of female genital mutilation, domestic violence and the trafficking of persons, the measures taken to combat gender stereotyping were also welcomed. The state of Uganda has also taken measures to promote the rights of vulnerable minorities such as people with disabilities.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission is a useful tool to use in order to track the level of implementation of recommendations made during the UPR. The database details the recommendation, thematic area, mechanism, the ministry responsible, indicators, target and status of implementation. Using an example of a recommendation taken from the database can give a clear picture of its effectiveness:

●     To Ensure adequate compensation for victims of abuse by security agents:

➢     Thematic area: the right to compensation

➢     MDA: Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs

➢     Indicators:  Revise the laws to ensure adequate and timely compensation of victims of abuse.

➢     Target: Establishment of an operational Victims Compensation Fund

➢     Status of Implementation: Currently, victims of abuse are compensated through the budget line of compensation and court awards of the Attorney General’s Office. Government is yet to approve the Policy review.

However, it must be included that not all categories in the database have been filled in so consistency is an issue.

The improvement of legal services in the country was also welcomed, this has come in the form of the Directorate of Human Rights and Legal Services and the Professional Standards Unit and Human Rights Desks in all regional offices of Uganda’s Police Force. The adoption of the National Action Plan on Human Rights, which incorporates the Sustainable Development Goals, the establishment of the Cabinet Subcommittee on Human Rights and the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission was also commended. This highlighted the importance of promoting and protecting human rights law in Uganda, this has been seen and noted by members particularly the way in which Uganda promotes and protects the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers in their country; the evidence of this can be seen in the country’s progressive refugee policy.

One of the most discussed topics of the 2016 UPR was the adoption of the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act, 2012. Many member states highly commended this act, however one state (Ireland) noted that torture was still the violation most commonly reported to the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, this is described clearly in a report released by the UHRC in 2016 which highlights the increasing numbers of torture cases reported.  Another state (Denmark) recommended that Uganda needs to adopt the prevention and Prohibition of Torture Regulation to make the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act operational. Human Rights Defenders can also promote the adoption and implementation of this law by continuously monitoring incidences of torture to ensure that these cases are followed up and addressed using the appropriate measures.

From this summary, we can see that the state of Uganda has made a progressive effort to fulfil the recommendations made during the 2011 UPR.

In order for HRDs to support the implementation and promotion of the 2016 UPR recommendations priority must be placed on certain activities. Pressure needs to be put on Uganda’s Government for them to enhance the space for civil society actors to operate, in doing this however, all civil society actors must support the Government of Uganda in carrying out the recommendations of the 2016 Universal Periodic Review.

 Funding issues

Access to funding for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and subsequent Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), has been a problem experienced by many in Uganda; this funding, which primarily comes in the form of foreign aid, provides the necessary capital for activities conducted by CSOs and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the country. One of the issues that inhibits access to funding is the matter of relevance, a donor can assess the mandate of an organisation and judge the relevance of their work in whatever region/district they are active; donors aim to work with organisations that either match their own vision/mission or which operate in the same thematic area or a similar one. An organisation can make themselves appear more relevant by first assessing the environment in which they operate; are there similar organisations performing similar activities in the same area as your own? Is the issue that you are working to improve upon still prevalent? Are you delegating your limited resources to the most potentially beneficial areas of work? Donors aim to supply funding to the organisations that have the potential to be the most successful in their area of work. In order for donors to recognise this potential, organisations must generate and conduct activities that help implement national and international agendas, for example Uganda’s National Action Plan and the Universal Periodic Review.


Human Rights Defenders in Uganda work in a very intricate and demanding environment, so it is essential for them to share all relevant information and resources amongst themselves and within civil society. It is also the duty of Human Rights Defenders to promote human rights through civic education and awareness raising, this can be in the form of advocacy strategies and capacity building mechanisms. A clear channel of communication is needed within the HRD community in order to avoid duplication and the wastage of time and resources. Human Rights Defenders need to work in harmony and build partnerships in order to strengthen the effectiveness of their work. Working in isolation is not recommended as it leaves one at risk to security threats. Regarding the Universal Periodic Review; Human Rights Defenders have the opportunity to help in the implementation of these recommendations; this can be achieved through civic education, awareness raising and advocacy. For example, HRDs can provide their support by partnering with the government to put forward suggestions regarding the human rights situation on the ground; aligning with government programs offers HRDs the opportunity to share experiences and provides an invaluable, unique source of first-hand information to the government. Improving the standards of human rights in Uganda is fundamental for all members of society, not just those living below the poverty line. Uganda’s next periodic review takes place in 2021, will we have achieved what was set out for us?


CSO Strategy Workshop on Implementation of UPR Recommendations, 28 November-2 December 2016, Kampala, Uganda: Outcome Charter

Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Uganda

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