In the second half of the year 2023, Protection International organized a webinar and a Regional Conference (October 11th-13th, Nairobi) on Public Policies for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Africa.
Both events brought together various stakeholders from the region. HRDs, representatives of national human rights institutions (NHRI), and authorities attended to exchange good practices and discuss future steps towards stronger public policies for the protection of all HRDs in Africa.
Both events also facilitated the exchange of knowledge and ideas concerning the evolving protection environment in the region. We also had the opportunity to conduct a series of interviews with the panelists and other participants. In this case, we present the highlights of our conversation with Robert Mugisa, Head of Programmes at Human Rights Centre Uganda. Find other interviews conducted with key actors Public Policies for HRDs in Africa here.
Robert Mugisa (he/him) is Head of Programmes at Human Rights Centre Uganda and a vibrant and creative human rights defender. He is also a private lawyer and human rights consultant. He has extensive experience on the subject of human rights defenders and has been involved in the development of a draft law for the protection of HRDs in Uganda by a coalition of civil society organisations. As an advocate for human rights defenders, he has produced op-eds on the national bill and continues to work for its adoption in Uganda.
Interview conducted by Megan Thomas on 13 October 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Is there a dedicated public institution or mechanism in your country focused on safeguarding the rights of all being aborted?
Yes, there is a public institution called the Uganda Human Rights Commission, which really focuses on human rights generally, but it also has a human rights defender’s desk, which means that human rights defenders can go to that institution, present their issues, and they are listened to. The only challenge is it’s not really strong enough to handle issues of well-being for human rights defenders. So it means that we can only take our cases there, they can receive them, probably offer some protection, but they might not have a lot of other support to human rights defenders.
In terms of avenues for redress, they are there but very slow, very, very slow avenues and not strong enough to respond in a way respond in real time to the needs of human rights defenders when they are facing threats under attack. The commission is not very responsive compared to civil society organisations.
Given the significant role of political will, could you identify what specific public institutions spearheaded the efforts to support and initiate the development of legislation and mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders?
In Uganda, we have the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill. And even in the very initial processes, the only institution that we consulted and worked with was the Uganda Human Rights Commission. The other ministry that we consulted was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in terms of foreign policy and the UN declaration. But also there was the Ministry of Internal Affairs and then the Ministry of Justice.
So those are public institutions, ministries, agencies and departments of state, which helped us and listened to our requests for specific law or policy to protect human rights defenders in Uganda. But the one that we continue to work with to date and who we think will even host us is the Uganda Human Rights Commission. The others are just called in for purposes of […].
Have EU embassies played a role in the development of this legislation?
EU is seen in terms of calling for proposals to support HRDs and when we write proposals of course they have a clear selection process. So the role they have played is in supporting human rights defenders to do their work. I’m not so certain about bringing legislation on board, though. I have not really interacted with the fact that they have supported the legislation that we are talking about for protection of HRDs.
What is common is the annual award for human rights defenders, EU award for protection of HRDs. That means in a way they are contributing to the protection of human rights defenders by making them and their work known. What we now would ask for is the specific support towards the law and the policies because there are people who think we might not need a new law, we might need to work on the existing policies and legislation.
So I think EU would come in handy to support those processes. We have not consulted or asked for this support yet specifically, but I think it wouldn’t reject our request. So EU is very supportive of the embassies, but it could play a bigger role in the development of the policy.
What coalitions and regional groups exist to take these issues forward? Are there any being developed currently?
Uganda has the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders. It is an umbrella organization where we all subscribe as members. Currently, it is doing a lot of work. It has some support in terms of funding that is given to the processes around legislation and policy development.
Of course, the issue at hand is the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill, which is being developed and it is in its furthest draft which is ready to be taken to parliament or taken back because it had once been taken until the interruptions of the 10th parliament lapsing.
HRDs are free to join the coalition upon application and paying membership fees, 300,000 Ugandan shillings a year. So it’s very easy to join the coalition. We pay an annual subscription and then we are able to participate in the activities. It has thematic groups of HRDs so it gets us for all categories of human rights defenders in the country and it is very inclusive.
What strategies would you identify to encourage a greater number of countries or provinces to enact such policies? What practical measures can be implemented and what specific steps can be taken to take forward these initiatives?
We might not give a definite answer because different countries have their way of looking at the development of their policies and laws. Protection International has brought us together to share experience. This has informed us a lot about what’s going on in other countries. So the strategies are continued collaboration and engagement amongst ourselves as human rights defenders and human rights defending organizations. For the rest, we can continue to have bilateral meetings with the relevant public authorities and bodies. We can continue to fundraise because all this collaboration, bilateral meetings, needs fundraising and resource mobilization. Because the processes around legislative drafting and development are very resource taking. Both for people, technical support, and their salaries, or the services that lead to laws being in place.
In our country as well, these processes need the relevant stakeholders to be facilitated in terms of their time and ability to sit and listen to human rights defenders and give them the support they need. There has to be some input on our side. So I think those three could work as very effective strategies.
And of course, continued engagement of organizations like Protection International that are at a regional level to exert some more pressure on our countries to be able to move these motions and have these policies and laws in place to protect us as human rights defenders.