Press Conference by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay - Visit to Uganda, June 2010

Opening Statement

Good morning,

Thank you for coming. I would just like to give you a brief overview of the purpose of my visit to Uganda, and some key issues that have arisen during my meetings with senior members of the Government, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, civil society organizations, and other UN organizations working in Uganda. And last, but not least, with my own staff here – this is one of the largest OHCHR country offices in the world, with around 40 staff based here in Kampala and in six offices in key locations across the country.

I would like to thank the Government of Uganda for facilitating the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights here in Uganda, not least by signing an important new Memorandum of Understanding last October.

I believe there are two reasons for this good cooperation. Firstly, Uganda believes in human rights: they are enshrined in the 1995 Constitution, and the country has signed and ratified many of the key international human rights treaties. And secondly, I believe Uganda realizes that OHCHR does not come simply to criticize, but it also offers advice and legal expertise that can be of practical benefit in dealing with existing problems or preventing future ones, as well as helping countries live up to their international commitments.

One reason for my visit at this particular time was to take part in the ICC Review Conference. Immediately before becoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I spent four years as an ICC judge, so the Review Conference is an event in which I have a particular interest. As High Commissioner for Human Rights, I also view accountability – especially for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – as a priority.

I commend Uganda for volunteering to host this very important review of the Rome Statute and of the ICC – the establishment of which has often been described as the most important development in international justice for more than half a century.

Uganda has, of course, been something of a pioneer in the recent history of international justice – it was the first country in the world to refer a situation to the ICC. It is my fervent wish that the three surviving LRA leaders for whom ICC arrest warrants have been issued will very soon be captured and prosecuted. I am also impressed that Uganda has established a War Crimes Division of the High Court, one of the first countries to take such a concrete step in its efforts to reflect the Rome Statute in its domestic legislation and institutions. One of the four judges appointed to the War Crimes Division was on the same panel as me at the Review Conference, discussing the relationship between the ICC and national justice systems.

The nature and quantity of the atrocities committed by the LRA in northern Uganda have caused a trauma that will take years to heal, and I am concerned that the very difficult processes of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reintegration are not fully under way.

The good news is that three-quarters of the Ugandans displaced during the long and dreadful conflict with the LRA have gone home. However, some 240,000 remain in camps. The important National Reconciliation Bill, which includes elements dealing with reparations as well as legal provisions on victims’ rights, has not yet been tabled in Parliament, and I urge those in a position to do so to expedite its passage, as the people in the north need every bit of help they can get.

An entire generation of young people have been deprived of education and the opportunity to learn a vocation. Health services, educational facilities and other fundamental services are still sorely lacking. Single mothers, many of whose partners were killed by the LRA or who bore children as a result of rape, are deprived of access to land and property rights because they do not have a male relative. This is impractical and inhumane, and I urge the authorities to abolish this discriminatory practice without delay.

There needs to be a massive effort to inject new life and opportunities into the ravaged north, and to give those reclaimed from the LRA a real chance to rebuild their lives. Vital elements include a genuine truth and reconciliation process to help diminish the trauma and bitterness, financial reparations to compensate for the destruction of lives and livelihoods and well-targeted development projects to stimulate the local economy. The Ugandan Government and its international partners – including the United Nations – have years of hard work ahead, if we are to successfully repair the damage.

Uganda has many things going for it on the human rights front, including a well-established, independent and respected National Human Rights Institution –the Ugandan Human Rights Commission – with whom OHCHR is developing a very useful and cooperative relationship.

Uganda also has some vibrant and highly articulate civil society organizations, around forty representatives of which I also met with yesterday. Their presentation of the main human rights issues in Uganda was one of the most thorough and lucid ones I have ever received during a country visit.

Among the many situations we discussed were issues relating to freedom of expression and the right to information; treatment of women, human rights defenders, refugees and certain social groups facing discrimination; ill-treatment by various security agencies, and problems concerning detention.

Both the Ugandan Human Rights Commission and civil society organizations have also played key roles in analyzing and dealing with the topic which has been most prominent during my discussions with all interlocutors, including the Vice President, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and State Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. That topic is, of course, Karamoja.

The situation facing the Government and the UPDF in Karamoja is extremely difficult. Raids by armed cattle-rustling gangs, including cross-border raids to and from Kenya and South Sudan, have led to an unacceptable level of insecurity and are having a terrible impact on desperately poor pastoral communities who live under a constant threat of losing their sole means of subsistence.

The Government’s aim to disarm the trouble-makers and stop the wholesale theft of cattle is both responsible and laudable, as is its desire to develop the region. However, I believe that the overall approach both to development and to disarmament has been flawed and to some extent counter-productive.

Community leaders, most of whom are eager to see an end to the cattle-rustling and a successful disarmament program, have been largely excluded from the process, and they and their communities have grown increasingly disillusioned by heavy-handed efforts to force them to shift from their traditional cattle-raising to farming – in a largely barren, drought-prone region that is for the most part not suited to agriculture. Traditional communities like these must appreciate and want change for it to work. Imposed development that involves a radical break with tradition almost always fails, and I urge the Government to rethink its approach to the much-needed development of Karamoja.

Even more damaging has been the general approach to disarmament, which has involved soldiers rounding up – and sometimes mistreating -- large groups of people indiscriminately, leading to a climate of fear, rather than one of cooperation. In addition, my staff, acting in concert with the Ugandan Human Rights Commission and a handful of committed human rights defenders, have thoroughly investigated three particularly violent UPDF operations that took place earlier this year, which led to heavy loss of life – including of women, children and elderly people.

The first of these attacks, which involved at least one helicopter gunship as well as ground forces, took place from 4-7 January and led to 13 confirmed deaths, including six children and youths, two women and two elderly people. However, it is believed the real death toll may be substantially higher. A second attack on a kraal on 22 January, also involving troops and a helicopter, led to at least six more deaths, and possibly many more. And a third incident on 24 April, resulted in ten confirmed deaths, including five children and youths and two elderly men, with up to 25 more believed dead. I welcome the fact that a Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the April attack (though not, as far as we are aware, the ones in January). However, it would be preferable for a Commission to be independent of the UPDF to ensure a fair, transparent and impartial process. All officers in positions of command during the execution of these three incidents should be investigated, pending possible charges, and, clearly, in the circumstances, they should be removed immediately from Karamoja.

The Government has a difficult task in improving the situation in Karamoja, and there is, I think no doubt that it wishes to do so. My office will continue discussions on the three military operations, and related human rights issues, and we stand ready to help in any way we can.
Thank you.

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