News / Africa

HRW Report: Ugandan Civil Society Under Attack

Threats and intimidation of civil society groups is on the rise in Uganda, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.  

The Ugandan government has been stepping up harassment of non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.  The watchdog group claims organizations dealing with governance, land rights, oil and homosexual rights are increasingly under attack by Ugandan officials.

The report, called “Curtailing Criticism: Intimidation and Obstruction of Civil Society in Uganda,” says the government’s rhetoric toward NGOs has grown more hostile during  the past year, accompanied by threats, harassment of individuals and the arbitrary closure of meetings.

Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch says since the presidential elections last year, the Ugandan government has put more effort into curtailing access to information.

“Our sense is that the government’s concern over the role of those independent journalists and civil society has sort of changed over time, as the government has become increasingly paranoid about the president’s ability to stay in power in the long term, and about other criticisms of long-term governance issues, including concerns about corruption, financial mismanagement and inflation,” she said.

The administration of President Yoweri Museveni has been under increasing pressure at home and abroad.  

Government spokesman Fred Opolot insists the administration is not hostile toward civil society and it has been instrumental in opening the country to NGOs.

“There are a multiplicity of NGOs operating in this country since 1986," he said.  "Most of them are actually embedded within government departments, and it is in the realization that NGOs can actually complement government work.  So it would be foolhardy for government to, all of a sudden, target these NGOs, most of which are doing a good job.”

But Human Rights Watch says many groups considered threatening to the administration’s political or financial interests have found themselves under attack.  

One label the government is fond of using, says Burnett, is “economic saboteur.”

“We have seen that term get thrown around a lot over the last couple of years, also leveled at journalists," she said.  "There is this sense in civil society that if you push back on government programs, that you are somehow deemed an economic saboteur of government programs, or deemed anti-development.”

Human Rights Watch reports the government has also stepped up its persecution of groups promoting homosexual rights.  In June the government threatened to deregister any NGO advocating homosexual rights.

Burnett says that while such moves are an easy way to drum up popular support in Uganda, they also distract international donors from other issues, such as poor governance.

“There is a sort of facile public reaction to the issue of the rights of homosexuals," she said.  "But at the same time, it has also been a quite strong issue for the Ugandan government to use against the international community.  It has been a diversionary tool, which has kept the diplomats very occupied.”

Although a number of NGOs are still openly critical of the Ugandan government, the report found many are censoring their own activities to protect their staff.

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