The United Nations' human rights office said Friday it has been forced to close its office in Uganda and that it would officially cease operations in the country Saturday.
In a statement announcing the closure, Volker Türk, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said, “I regret that our office in Uganda had to close after 18 years, during which we were able to work closely with civil society, people from various walks of life in Uganda, as well as engaging with state institutions for the promotion and protection of the human rights of all Ugandans.”
The high commissioner’s spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, told VOA the government informed Türk in February that it would not renew the host country agreement that allows the U.N. human rights office to work in the country.
“In their view, Uganda was at a stage in its ability to manage the human rights situation where the human rights office was no longer needed,” she said. “We, of course, deeply regret this decision. We have been in the country for 18 years … and we have tried to serve as a bridge between the government and civil society.”
VOA reached out to the Ugandan mission in Geneva but received no comment on why the government decided to oust the U.N. agency from the country.
In February, however, the Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a letter to the U.N. human rights office in Kampala explaining that the decision was made because of the government’s own “commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights” and the existence of “strong national human rights institutions and a vibrant civil society.”
The ministry said it would continue to cooperate with the high commissioner’s headquarters “either directly or through its permanent mission in Geneva.”
Shamdasani acknowledged that much progress has been made in Uganda over the years, such as reforms to domestic legislation. With the support of the U.N. office, she said, Uganda in 2021 became the second country in Africa to adopt a national action plan on business and human rights.
Nevertheless, she said, many serious human rights challenges remained, citing concerns about the situation ahead of the 2026 elections.
“We are already seeing concerns emerging about the shrinking of civic space and reports of political interference in the national human rights institution in the leadup to elections,” she said. “We are worried that there is an increase in the hostile environment for civil society actors, journalists, human rights defenders. We are worried that this climate is not conducive to free and fair elections.”
Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda with an iron fist for 37 years, reportedly will seek a seventh term in 2026. His son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, announced in March, though, that he intends to run for the top job, muddying the waters and causing consternation in political and civic circles.
Another area of deep concern is the recent passage of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, which makes homosexual acts punishable by death.
Calling the bill “deeply discriminatory,” Shamdasani told VOA that it already has had a corrosive effect on all of society.
“It is encouraging people to almost carry out witch hunts against gays in Uganda,” she said. “This is an example of a law which is in pure violation of Uganda’s international human rights commitments.”
She said that even before the law was passed, hateful rhetoric was being spread in the media by individuals, high-level government officials and some religious leaders.
“Even before the passage of the law,” Shamdasani said, “we were seeing reports of persecution, violence, harassment and intimidation of lesbians and gays in Uganda.”
While the U.N. human rights office no longer will have a presence, Shamdasani said the high commissioner and his team remain committed to working on human rights in Uganda.
“The relationship that we have built over 18 years will not be lost overnight,” she said. “We will do what we can to maintain this relationship. The fact that we are no longer in Uganda does not mean that we will stop monitoring the human rights situation in the country.
“We will continue to work on monitoring the situation — but from a distance,” she said.