Freedom in the World
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During 2004, the Constitutional Court voided restrictions on the freedom of political parties to function. The government had also recommended to parliament that multiparty politics, which had been limited since 1986, be restored. The government, however, is also proposing lifting the two-term restriction on the presidency, which would allow incumbent Yoweri Museveni to be a candidate in elections scheduled for 2006. This change would require voters' approval in a 2005 referendum. Intermittent violence in the North continued throughout the year.
In the years following its independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda experienced considerable political instability. An increasingly authoritarian president, Milton Obote, was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971. Amin's brutality made world headlines as hundreds of thousands of people were killed. His 1978 invasion of Tanzania finally led to his demise, as Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles routed Amin's army. After Obote returned to power in 1980 in fraudulent elections, he and his backers from northern Uganda savagely repressed his critics, who were primarily from southern Ugandan ethnic groups.
Obote was ousted for a second time in a 1985 army coup. Conditions continued to worsen until the Museveni-led National Resistance Army entered the capital of Kampala in January 1986 and assumed power. The new government imposed a ban on most formal political party activities, including the sponsoring of candidates for elections and the staging of political rallies. In June 2000, a referendum was held on whether to lift the ban. Almost 90 percent of those voting supported continuation of the de facto single-party system; however, opposition parties had called for a boycott and overall voter turnout was just over 50 percent.
Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) comfortably won presidential and legislative elections in 2001. However, the elections were held under conditions that called their legitimacy into question. Reports by human rights groups and donor countries concerning the March presidential election noted that state media and other official resources were mobilized in support of Museveni's successful candidacy, and that the ban on most formal party activities further hindered the opposition. Most observers believe, however, that Museveni would have won in an open contest and described the actual balloting and vote-tabulation processes as largely transparent. The opposition, which claimed that the elections were rigged, boycotted the subsequent parliamentary elections in June; the NRM's comfortable majority was buttressed by dozens of special-interest representatives nominated by the president.
In 2002, parliament passed the Political Parties and Organizations Act, putting forth the conditions under which political parties could be registered and could fully function. In 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional, as they effectively prevented political parties from carrying out their activities. Despite the Constitutional Court's ruling, the NRM continues to dominate the nation's political life through direct and indirect means.
Regional tensions diminished somewhat in 2003, as Ugandan military forces withdrew from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These units had been sent to suppress rebels who had been perpetrating attacks across the border into Uganda.
International human rights groups, however, have criticized Uganda for continuing to support armed militias in eastern DRC in 2004. Tensions with Rwanda over influence in the region have remained high. In addition, a cult-based guerilla movement, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), continued a gruesome insurgency in northern Uganda, with human rights violations committed on both sides.
Uganda has 1.5 million people living with HIV or AIDS. The latest records show that the rate of prevalence has gradually fallen from a national average of 30 percent in 1992 to about 6 percent today, the lowest in the sub-Saharan region.
Ugandans do not have the right to elect their government democratically. The only open multiparty elections were held in 1961 in preparation for the country's independence from Britain. In 1986, arguing that majoritarian democracy exacerbates religious and ethnic tensions in Africa, President Yoweri Museveni substituted a "no-party" system with only one, supposedly nonparty political organization - the NRM - allowed to operate unfettered. Uganda's 1995 constitution extended the ban for five years until the results of a 2000 referendum on the establishment of a multiparty system, in which the electorate approved the status quo. In 2004, the government sent to parliament its official recommendation that multiparty politics, which had been limited since 1986, be restored. At the same time, however, it also proposed lifting the two-term restriction on the presidency, which would allow incumbent president Museveni to be a candidate in elections scheduled for 2006. These proposals are subject to parliamentary approval and a referendum, which would be held in 2005.
Opposition parties have continued to protest about restrictive party registration requirements and the predominant status of the NRM. Other controversial issues include federalism, voter and candidate eligibility, the use of government resources to support NRM candidates, and the use of illegal paramilitary groups such as the Kalangala Action Plan to intimidate voters.
Parliament asserts some independence vis-a-vis the executive branch. High-level government officials have been censured, and several government actions and policies have been influenced or altered as a result of parliamentary oversight.
Some governmental corruption has been reported in the media. The inspector-general of government has accused the government and courts of frustrating the fight against corruption. He said cases took many years in court and culprits were not prosecuted. Under the 1995 constitution, new institutions were set up to investigate corruption and human rights violations and promote the return to democratic governance. These have made some headway in the fight against corruption and abuse of office by public officers, although a number of alleged corrupt acts by government officials have not been fully pursued and prosecuted. Uganda was ranked 102 out of 145 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
There is some freedom of expression. Independent print media outlets, including more than two dozen daily and weekly newspapers, are often highly critical of the government and offer a range of opposition views. Several private radio and television stations report on local political developments. Buttressed by legislation limiting press freedoms, however, the government at times selectively arrests or harasses journalists. A sedition law remains in force and is applied selectively to journalists and others who hold views that are at variance with those of the NRM. The largest newspapers and broadcasting facilities that reach rural areas remain state-owned. Journalists have asked parliament to enact a freedom-of-information act.
There is no state religion, and freedom of worship is constitutionally protected and respected. Various Christian sects and the country's Muslim minority practice their creeds freely. The 2003 U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom commended the extent to which religious freedom is promoted in Uganda. Academic freedom is generally respected.
Freedom of association and assembly is officially recognized. The government has demonstrated increased respect for these rights in the constitution but continues to place some restrictions on them in practice. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) currently make a significant contribution to Uganda's social, economic, cultural, and political life. They encourage the expression of different views and, significantly, have been willing to address politically sensitive issues. Local human rights organizations have shown an increasing interest in monitoring abuses and in conducting advocacy activities in comparison with their past focus on less controversial human rights education activities. The existence and activities of NGOs are, however, subject to stringent legal restrictions. The government continues to control civil society groups through the manipulation of their registration requirements, compelling NGOs to be nonsectarian and nonpolitical through the Non-Government Organizations Act. Security forces have halted numerous political rallies, some through force, and leading opposition activists have been harassed and, sometimes, subjected to arbitrary arrest.
The National Organization of Trade Unions, the country's largest labor federation, is independent of the government and political parties. An array of essential workers are barred from forming unions. Strikes are permitted only after a lengthy reconciliation process.
The judiciary is still influenced by the executive despite increasing autonomy. The Constitutional Court's interpretation that parts of the Political Parties and Organizations Act were unconstitutional showed considerable resolve to uphold independence and liberalism. However, sensitive human rights issues such as police brutality, rape, domestic violence, and vigilante justice remain serious concerns. Prolonged pretrial detention, inadequate resources, the army's occasional refusal to respect civilian courts, and poor judicial administration combine to impede the fair exercise of justice.
Prison conditions are difficult, especially in local jails. More than 500 prisoners die annually as a result of poor diet, sanitation, and medical care. Although there is registered progress towards the improvement of conditions in the prisons, conditions in both local administration and centrally administered prisons are poor. Pretrial detainees comprise more than half of the prison population.
The 2002 Suppression of Terrorism Bill, which defines any act of violence or threat of violence for political, religious, economic, or cultural ends as a terrorist act, imposes harsh penalties on suspected terrorists and has raised fears that it could be used against political opponents. The unlawful possession of arms is also defined as terrorism. Publishing news that is "likely to promote terrorism" can result in up to 10 years' imprisonment.
The Uganda Human Rights Commission 2003 report highlighted serious human rights violations by both rebel groups, including the LRA and the Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF). Torture by the security forces has continued despite the government's assurance that there is no institutionalized sanction of its use. The report also commended some elements of the security forces for protecting the rights to life and property amidst challenges posed by armed robbers and the LRA. The northern part of the country has been racked by an LRA insurgency for more than 18 years. Nearly 1.6 million people have been displaced, 20,000 children have been abducted by the LRA, and thousands more have been caught up in the fighting between the UPDF and the LRA, which is thought to be composed of 80 percent children. Both the UPDF and the LRA have been accused of systematic human rights abuses.
Manipulation and exploitation of ethnic divisions pose a serious, continuing threat to peace in Uganda. Baganda people in the country's South continue to demand more recognition of their traditional kingdom. Proposed legislation, however, may make traditional chiefs subject to removal from office by the government. Northern ethnic groups complain of official neglect; that region especially is subject to continuing guerilla activities.
Although the constitution enshrines the principle of equality between women and men, discrimination against women remains pronounced, especially in rural areas. Incidences of domestic violence and sexual abuse, including rape, are often not registered by police and are rarely investigated. There are no laws protecting women from domestic violence; draft laws such as the Domestic Relations Bill and the Sexual Offenses Act have been introduced in parliament but have not been approved. Cultural practices like female genital mutilation continue to exist. Up to 12,000 children in the conflict-affected districts of northern Uganda are estimated to have been abducted by the LRA since June 2002 alone. The Uganda Human Rights Commission and other NGOs indicate that sexual abuse of minors is increasing.
Uganda has legislated quotas for women officials in all elected bodies from village councils to the national parliament. Almost 20 percent of Uganda's parliament is female. One-third of local council seats must, by law, go to women.