This morning we went to the Foundation For Human Rights Initiative. Needless to say this was an interesting and enlightening visit and experience. Those who facilitated the lecture and discussion were knowledgeable, passionate, and willing to answer our questions to the best of their ability, which I thought they handled well. This was a change from our visit to parliament whose representative dodged our questions and giving us the runaround, mainly on issues regarding human rights.
In Uganda, as far as human rights are concerned, there is much to be desired. One of the major problems in that the military is at the back of everything in Uganda and is left largely unchecked by the people. But one of the biggest challenges to human rights is a lack of effective and sympathetic leadership. For a true democracy to exist the people need to feel that their leaders are elected fairly by the people without tricks or coercion. Throughout Uganda’s history as a nation leaders have come to power through military coups, rigged elections, or from the barrel of a gun. When the NRM came to power in the mid 80’s, they talked a lot about human rights having just overthrown an aggressive and abusive dictator and created a rather progressive constitution as a result, creating such institutions as the Inspector General of Government’s Offices and the FHRI. According to Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director for the FHRI, these progressive actions have largely been done in theory, rather than practice and are not as effective as they should be. One of the reasons for this is the drain of national resources by high public expenditures. Rather than passing legislation that provides people with more rights, the Ugandan government is quick to implement restrictive legislation such as the anti-terrorist and the deeply contested Anti-Gay bill.
Some of the main issues that the FHRI deal with are the general right to healthcare such as access, quality, and affordability. They also deal with labor rights working to establish a minimum wage. Most workers do not make enough to live off of and support a family. The FHRI works towards establishing women’s rights, advocating against domestic abuse and female genital mutilation. One of the issues that they deal with which caught my attention was juvenile rights. The problem with this is that children are incredibly vulnerable. One of these violations of their rights is that children are being kidnapped and taken to a witch doctor for sacrificial reasons. The purpose of these sacrifices is for superstitious reasons as the witch doctor claims that by sacrificing a baby and placing its skull under a newly built house he can make the recipient rich.
FHRI also advocates for an improvement of prison conditions and justice for the accused. In Uganda the accused are guilty until they prove their own innocence. The prisons are extremely overcrowded and 65% of all inmates have not gone to trial. The poor are the greatest victims of this system, as they cannot afford representation, and therefore are at the unsympathetic mercy of those who seek to imprison them. And of course the FHRI deals with the rights of homosexuals who are in jeopardy right now mainly due to the Anti-homosexual bill which seeks to imprison and execute those who are accused and convicted for being homosexuals.
Some of the avenues that the FHRI uses to advocate are providing legal representation for persons accused. They monitor human rights and submit periodic reports regarding violations. They launch these reports publicly and use them as tools for lobbying government to protect the rights of its citizens. They study bills and submit their views about the bills in an effort to influence the outcomes and decrease or eradicate the potential for loss of human rights. If legislation does get passed that is restrictive they go to court to fight the bill and deem it unconstitutional. Another way they advocate especially in regards to restrictive bills such as the Anti-Gay bill which is largely accepted by the Ugandan population is by advocating against its provisions such as the death penalty which the population seems to be against. In my opinion one of the most effective forms of advocacy is through education. Educating the population that all persons, regardless of who they are or the lifestyle they chose to live have basic human rights, including the right to privacy and the right to life, and that people need to learn how to co-exist.
The abandonment of human rights is not sustainable. When people are threatened either by the loss of privacy, the threat of imprisonment for being who they are, or the absence of a minimum wage adequate enough to support a family they do not perform to the best of their abilities they are in a constant state of fear and vulnerability in which a nation cannot be sustained or advance. In fact in this state the opposite happens as it begins to regress into tired old practices that leave much to be desired as sustainability and human rights go hand in hand. The beauty of the FHRI is that they give a voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless. They fight to insure against a majoritocracy, as Tommy Sands the Northern Ireland musician calls it, in which the majority tramples the rights of the voiceless minorities of a society. They are important and the only outlet that the minorities have for fare treatment and justice. In Sewanyana’s words “We have a dream, that one day Uganda will be free”.