Ugandans fight for human rights

May 15, 1998

UGANDA boasts a decade of relative peace, its first in recent history. Yet even with a liberal new constitution, rewritten in 1995, and a human rights commission, forging democracy is daunting.

"The entire history of this country has been a history of the violation of rights," said Sam Tindifa, of Uganda's Makerere University human rights and peace centre.

"Colonialism itself was a violation of people's rights. After independence all our governments had their very existence founded on the violation of rights so there has been a history of a lack of respect for and promotion of human rights."

The centre was founded by Makerere law academics in 1991 and is linked to the University of Florida in Gainesville. It is the first such centre in Sub-Saharan Africa to popularise the teaching of human rights and to promote the research and the study of peace.

"People need to know these rights because that is the only way that you can protect them," said Professor Tindifa.

One might imagine that teaching such principles as part of a law degree course would be simple. However, many law students are more interested in commercial legal practice than defending the rights of the underdog.

Joe Oloka-Onyango, dean of the law faculty, said that it was the same in the early 1980s when, as a fresh graduate, he tried to practise law during Milton Obote's second dictatorial reign. If enough lawyers then had been dedicated to preserving fundamental human rights, they might have been able to make a difference, he said.

"It was easier to practise under Obote than under Amin, but you still faced a 50-50 chance of getting clients off," said Professor Oloka-Onyango. Lawyers also faced the same odds of being next in line to be prosecuted.

The challenge for the centre became how to graft human rights onto the course framework so that it became as much a part of young lawyers' training as the degrees they carried off into their commercial ventures.

"I teach the law of torts, which covers the rights of individuals against violation of their personal security or in respect to their property," said Professor Tindifa. "I try to relate the subject matter with basic principles of human rights as found in international, common and domestic law."

Students are then able to make the connection between criminal trespass and world human rights standards because both principles are geared toward protecting individuals against others' actions.

But centre staff believe they are failing in their objective of getting human rights into all courses because many are options. The women's studies department, for example, offers gender and the law, political science incorporates human rights in governance and democratic theory, and medical and environmental studies puts it in ethics.

"Bridging the gap between the purely academic and the practical" is something Professor Oloka-Onyango believes human rights teachers can do. "Perhaps one fundamental right that has been too long ignored is the right of Ugandans to hold their government officials accountable." He wants to provoke his students to "invoke a sense of outrage". "Why do we accept a minister who has stripped a parastatal company and yet we lynch a thief?" Although Uganda's stability under President Yoweri Museveni is widely acclaimed, international human rights organisations continue to question the ban on political parties. Uganda has experienced some of the world's most rapid economic progress, but Professor Tindifa said that "economic growth has not translated into benefits for everyone".

"I would like human rights to work as a kind of subversive factor," said Professor Oloka-Onyango. "There would be much more an attitude of questioning than acceptance ... a little more boldness in how we approach life at the end of the day."

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