The Ugandan Government launched the process to develop its National Human Rights Action Plan at an event held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the landmark human rights agreements, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.
In announcing its intention to proceed with the Plan, the Government is fulfilling an undertaking given after its first human rights assessment at the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011.
Bacre Ndiaye, Director of the Human Rights Council and Special Procedures Division in the UN Human Rights Office, welcomed the initiative of the Government. He described the UPR as “unique and remarkable” – the agreed system through which each State has its human rights record appraised by other States. “Implicit in this cycle is the need for every country to make progress regarding a number of benchmarks and recommendations that arose during the round [before],” Ndiaye said.
The Uganda State Minister for Foreign Affairs (Regional Affairs) Asuman Kiyingi, officiating at the launch, observed that “twenty years ago, no one would have expected countries to send high-level delegations to Geneva to respond to the questions in the previously strictly domestic areas of human rights. Now we all take the Universal Periodic Review for granted,” he said.
The Minister explained that the concept of the Plan recognizes that “no country has a perfect human rights record and that each country must start from its own actual political, cultural, historical and legal circumstances.”
Instead of “defensively” resisting change”, he said, government should acknowledge there are “things we need to do”.
“The important thing is to make a start. This is where we are,” Kiyingi said.
The process has been initiated by the Government and the Uganda Human Rights Commission with the support of the UN Human Rights Office and the Austrian Government.
The Uganda Human Rights Commission was established in 1995 “in recognition of [the country’s] violent and turbulent history that had been characterized by arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, torture and brutal repression with impunity on the part of security organs during the pre and post independence era.” This excerpt from the website of the Commission is a reference to two decades, the 70’s and 80’ in Uganda when it is thought as many as half a million people died as a result of abuses perpetrated by the governments of the day.
The head of the UN Human Rights Office in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Birgit Gerstenberg, acknowledged the many areas in which improvements have been achieved in the human rights situation in Uganda, among them, the enactment of anti-torture legislation; the development of a transitional justice policy; and the integration of human rights in the national planning process. The Uganda Human Rights Commission has achieved national, regional and international credibility and respect and the prison service and police force, she said, had moved to create internal structures to enhance respect for and protection of human rights.
Gerstenberg also drew attention to some human rights challenges which might be addressed by a national human Rights Action Plan. Corrupt practices had to be eradicated, she said and more resources allocated to health and education. There should not be undue limitations on the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
A national action plan, she said, is not an all-encompassing solution but “can be a great tool for mobilizing social energy, for increasing basic social consensus through dialogue and for promoting respect and tolerance for each other.”
Surveying the state of global human rights now, twenty years on from the World Conference on Human Rights, Ndiaye recalled that in 1993 “the global context was ominous” and the same could be said now. This, despite significant advances in the ensuing two decades, including in the advancement of women’s rights, combatting impunity and the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which now has representatives in 58 countries, he said
The single most important challenge of our time, Ndiaye said, “is translating States’ human rights commitments into reality.”
6 November 2013