HRAPF works to protect the rights of marginalised groups including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and sex workers. The group reported that unidentified assailants broke into its office overnight, disabled parts of the security system, and slashed two guards with machetes, severely injuring them.
The break-in continues a string of burglaries and attacks on the offices of independent nongovernmental groups in Uganda, including a previous attack on HRAPF in May 2016, in which a security guard was beaten to death and documents were stolen. The Uganda police neither identified nor arrested suspects in that attack. According to DefendDefenders, a Kampala-based regional human rights organisation, over 30 organizations in Uganda have experienced similar break-ins since 2012. No one has ever been prosecuted for any of the attacks.
“In failing to effectively investigate attacks on nongovernmental groups, the Uganda police send a clear message that human rights defenders are on their own, and cannot count on the authorities for basic protection,” said Maria Burnett, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We are deeply concerned that the pattern of attacks and consistent lack of police investigations is a tactic to intimidate Uganda’s outspoken human rights activists.”
Following a series of attacks on nongovernmental organizations in 2016, including the attack on HRAPF, Human Rights Watch and 30 Ugandan and international human rights organisations sent a letter to the inspector general of police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, expressing grave concern about the wave of break-ins and assaults. The letter requested the police to issue a public statement clarifying the steps police had taken to investigate the attacks, and how the police would ensure that human rights defenders who had been attacked, including the HRAPF defenders, would be effectively protected from further acts of violence. The inspector general did not respond or issue such a statement.
The targeted groups work on a range of sensitive issues. HRAPF, for example, provides pro-bono legal aid services to LGBTI people and sex workers and conducts research and advocacy, including with the Uganda police. On February 8, the day of the attack, HRAPF staff had held a training session for police officers in the Elgon region on the rights of LGBTI people. Organisations working on land rights and the rights of journalists and women have also experienced break-ins, and in some cases, their security guards were attacked.
As a party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Uganda is obligated to uphold a resolution adopted at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in May 2017 to take “necessary measures to provide human rights defenders with a conducive environment to be able to carry out their activities without fear of acts of violence, threat, intimidation, reprisal, discrimination, oppression, and harassment from State and non-State actors.”
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in November 2017 calling on countries to actively support the work of human rights defenders, including by “duly investigating and condemning publicly all cases of violence and discrimination against human rights defenders.”
“The Uganda Police Force should respect its obligations under African and international law to protect human rights defenders,” Burnett said. “Police indifference to attacks targeting activist groups needs to end.”