Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Norbert Mao urged opposition figures and human rights activists to refrain from using political rhetoric when advocating for human rights. He accused some activists and politicians of employing derogatory language when referring to government leaders, institutions, and President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
Mao made these remarks during the 5th Human Rights Convention of 2023 in Kampala, held under the theme “Migration and the Quest for Peace and Inclusive Societies.” The discussions at the convention primarily focused on legal frameworks, regulatory enforcement, civic space freedoms, fair trials, access to justice, accountability, and development dimensions.
Furthermore, it highlighted the role of national human rights institutions as crucial drivers of migration and strategies for fostering sustainable peace, inclusivity, and societal development. While addressing the participants, the Justice Minister lamented the deteriorating relationship between civil society organizations and the government.
He criticized both parties for using derogatory language, citing instances where the opposition referred to him as someone collaborating with ‘a junta,’ undermining efforts toward transitional justice and dialogue. Mao also appealed to President Museveni to show utmost respect when engaging with CSOs and to cease labeling them as enemies of the state.
Additionally, Mao cautioned CSOs against taking political stances, advising them to leave politics to politicians. He suggested that when involved in political discourse, they should be prepared for the consequences. Regarding abductions and kidnappings, Mao urged CSOs to take proactive measures instead of merely expressing concerns about human rights violations.
He encouraged them to submit petitions to relevant offices for necessary actions rather than solely lamenting in press conferences and events. During the event, the German Ambassador to Uganda, Matthias Schauer, demanded a report on alleged human rights violations surrounding the 2021 general elections. Mao expressed surprise at this, noting that local CSOs had not brought this matter to his attention previously.
Dr. Busingye Kabumba, a Law Don at Makerere University, highlighted a significant challenge to human rights today, emphasizing the need to recognize the inherently political nature of human rights as a means of resisting power abuse, including through public interest litigation.
“If anything, now is the time to appreciate and embrace the deeply political nature of human rights – as resistance to abuse of power – including through the mechanism of public interest litigation,” Kabumba told URN. Dr. Zahara Nampewo, Chairperson of the Board of Directors at Chapter Four Uganda, emphasized that the convention provided a platform for human rights defenders to hold the government accountable on matters of rule of law, governance, and accountability.
The Human Rights Convention coincided with ongoing demands from the opposition National Unity Platform for the release of political prisoners arrested during and after the 2021 general elections, marked by riots that resulted in over 50 fatalities. Since November 2020, more than 50 civil society organizations and civic leaders have faced what courts have labeled as arbitrary and high-handed state-imposed restrictions.
Several bank accounts of these organizations have been frozen or blocked. Chapter Four Uganda, the organizer of the convention, faced challenges in 2021 when the Non-Governmental Organization Bureau suspended its operations for alleged failure to file returns for five years.
However, in 2022, the High Court declared the indefinite suspension of their activities as irregular, stating that it lacked a specified time frame and was intended for comprehensive investigations into the organization’s operations.