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May 08, 2011

Ugandan Government Asked to Probe Security Force Violence

by Joe DeCapua

A human rights group is calling on the Uganda government to conduct “a prompt, independent and thorough investigation” into the recent use of lethal force by security forces.

Human Rights Watch says the violence took place during demonstrations last month over government spending and high food and fuel prices.  It also accuses security force members of beatings, rapes and theft.

“We carried out an investigation over the last couple of weeks into some of the killings that took place in the month of April when Uganda had been experiencing a number of protests over inflation and rising commodity prices. And we were able to determine through our research and investigations, that in at least 9 instances, that we were able to document, killings by security forces,” said Maria Burnett is senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch in Kampala.

She said the findings indicate the use of live ammunition against civilians was unnecessary.

“This is a historical problem in Uganda. We have documented these kinds of problems before, particularly in September 2009 when there were demonstrations against the government and over 40 people were killed in two days by the military using live ammunition,” said Burnett.

She said the government never followed through on its pledge to investigate.

“First of all, perpetrators should be held accountable, but frankly, the government has lost credibility in its commitments to investigate,” she said.

The investigation

“We interviewed multiple eyewitnesses at the places where people actually lost their lives. It’s not just about the individual killings, but what was going on in the area at the time. What kinds of demonstrations were occurring? What were other people doing in the area?”

HRW investigators also talk to the pathologist at the morgue. In some instances we were able to see the dead bodies ourselves,” said Burnett, “And we were able to interview family members of those who had been killed. We did also talk to the military and to some extent the police about some of our concerns, particularly with the military in Gulu, who were heavily deployed in a situation which really did not warrant the use of live ammunition.”

Human Rights Watch has not yet presented all of its findings to the government or police officials yet.

“Obviously, it’s a very busy time for them here with ongoing demonstrations today and an inauguration on Thursday. But it will be part of our work going forward. And shared the basic results of the findings, but I have not had the opportunity to sit down and actually go through each killing independently,” she said.

Donor support

The humanitarian group is also calling on donors “to end support and training of Ugandan police and military units until the killings are investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

“We haven’t gotten a response to that yet,” said Burnett, “Historically, when we’ve talked to donors about this issue they have felt that it’s better to engage with the police and the military, so that there is a relationship that can build leverage. And clearly, we understand that and we have not condemned support for those units historically.”

However, she said police received a great deal of support, especially from Britain and Ireland, in the run-up to the presidential election in February. Burnett estimates the British and Irish governments spent about $3 million to train Ugandan police.

Burnett said, “I think it’s important the donors actually have some boundaries as to when their support will actually come to an end. So this isn’t a permanent ban we’re calling for. Rather, end it, until you see accountability here.”

The U.S. also provides some training as well, but Burnett said it relates more to counter-terrorism operations.