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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Foundation for Human Rights Initiative

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”.


  1. I found it very interesting that one of the main problems in regards to human rights is the lack of enforcement of laws. For example, there have been positive laws passed in regards to stopping domestic violence and female genital mutilation, which are both progressive solutions to the problems in society today. The issue is that although these laws exist the police do not have a good way to enforce them, nor do they take the time to do so.

    There are also many different acts that the government is attempting to pass that infringe upon people’s basic human rights. Luckily FHRI is there to lobby and voice the opinion of the people against the propositions such as the anti-terrorism act that is unnecessary and takes people’s privacy away. There was also an attempt to bring a proposition of a restriction of the press and journalists’ freedom of speech that the FHRI was able to defeat by lobbying against it. The government is trying very hard to pass ridiculous laws that restrict divergent opinions and expression and luckily the FHRI is hard at work to protect Ugandans’ human rights.

  2. You mentioned above about child sacrifice for hopes of a brighter future, well this came as a complete shock to me because to my knowledge I had thought that child sacrifice was out of Uganda. Uganda can appear as a country with many problems but it is still a functioning society. I feel that this problem should be more closely watched and regulated. Many children go missing every day and little is, or can be done about finding them. I feel it would be beneficial to the country to try and protect these young citizens rights.

    I also found the rights of prisoners very interesting. As you said they must prove their innocence, where in comparison in the U.S. we are innocent until proven guilty. I feel this minor change in the prison system is strongly hurting the country. For starters they are are imprisoning many innocent people, and then they must pay most money to the government for these people to stay in prison. If they could design a more balanced prison system I feel it would be very beneficial to growing a sustainable society.

  3. One other important function that the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative fulfills is the act of parallel reporting. In addition to the reports they file on the state of human rights in Uganda, the organization also submits reports to United Nations and African Union Committees when the Ugandan government is asked to submit a report. The FHRI submits a report over the same statistics as a government which serves as a tool for the international community to evaluate the quality of the government's self reporting. This is done to hold the Ugandan government accountable. By submitting these parallel reports, the FHRI may be able to expose misinformation in the government's reports, and at the very least will force the government to be more honest in filing their reports. While these reports may seem to be in significant, they are important to helping the international community monitor the status of human rights inside of Uganda.

  4. What struck me the most during this visit was when Professor Mitchell asked Mr. Sewanyana whether or not democracy is working or can work for Uganda. The executive director stated that what Uganda needs is a man with one vision for everyone. He said that if the leadership is right, democracy can work.

    His answer struck a chord with me for two reasons, one being that he said a “man” with one vision. It is interesting to see that even when talking to the leader of an organization who advocates for human rights such as gender equality, he would automatically answer with a male leader. Setting aside whether or not he believes that a man OR woman can do the job, his automatically male-centered answer is an interesting facet of Ugandan society.

    On our last day, as we talked with Judge David Batema, he told us that when Ugandans are asked who they are daughter/son of, they will answer with “Mr. Jimmy Senteza,” for example, whereas, if you ask a person from the United States, they will say, for example, “Sherry and Stephen Mathany.” The Ugandans’ patriarchal answer stems to an ongoing challenge within Uganda to reach gender equality, and I found it interesting that this is present within all areas of society, even within a leader of an organization advocating for gender equality.

    Mr. Sewanyana’s “man with one vision” answer also interested me because of its focus on high government leadership. “A man with one vision for Uganda”—one person—can make democracy work? What about Ugandans’ willingness to accept democratic practices and the ruling party’s willingness to enact truly free elections? I can’t help but think that this high leadership-centered answer stems from the authoritarian regimes that have dominated Uganda throughout its history. It’s unfortunate to think that because of this history, some Ugandans may believe that a good leader is the “fix-all” for their nation, when it is truly dependent on many other factors, as well.