STATEMENT BY HUMAN RIGHTS AWARENESS AND PROMOTION FORUM (HRAPF) ON THE CONTINUED VIOLATION OF THE RIGHTS OF VULNERABLE MINORITIES IN LIGHT OF THE COVID-19 RESPONSE
Presented at the 68th Ordinary Session of The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights held in Banjul, The Gambia.
Mr. Chairperson, Commissioners, and distinguished delegates.
Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum would like to extend its appreciation to the Government of Uganda for the valiant efforts towards combating the COVID -19 pandemic. We note that the pandemic greatly taxed the state’s resources, and thus negatively impacted the state’s ability to adequately respond to all the socio-economic challenges arising out of the measures instituted in the fight against COVID-19.
In a bid to enforce the restrictions imposed by the state to curb the spread of COVID-19, law enforcement agencies have embraced the use of a range of broadly defined offences, specifically the offence of “doing a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease” and “disobeying lawful orders” under sections 171 and 117 of the Penal Code Act, respectively. These sections have been employed heavily by law enforcement agencies to arrest huge numbers of people in mass raids/ police operations for offences such as being outside after 9.00 pm, not wearing a face mask, distributing food stores without government authorisation, being too many people in a home (as happened in March 2020 when a shelter for homeless LGBTI youth was raided because it was “overcrowded” and all residents arrested) with punishments ranging from cautions, fines and community service to 7 years imprisonment, at the discretion of the presiding magistrate. HRAPF is concerned about the continued arrest of people for such offences, which has led to congestion of police cells and prisons in Uganda.
These offences join a slew of petty offences previously relied on by police authorities to arbitrarily arrest persons, particularly the poorer and more marginalised sections of society, such as sex workers, street vendors/ hawkers, and boda boda riders, for offences such as being “a common nuisance”, a “rogue and vagabond”, and being idle and disorderly. In addition, Uganda still maintains laws that criminalise consensual same sex relations and sex work, under sections 145 and139 of the Penal Code Act Cap 120 respectively, and these laws are actively enforced.
Both the pre-existing penal provisions creating petty offences and the newer curfew restrictions greatly affect already criminalised minorities such as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Persons as well as sex workers, as the restrictions encourage and give legal cover to homophobia and violence. For LGBT persons, the majority of whom are employed in the entertainment sector, the closure of bars and places of entertainment left many of them out of work, as has been the case with sex workers, and yet in many parts of the country, these groups were deliberately excluded from government food aid programs at the height of the pandemic, forcing them to persist in working even under the restrictions and exposing them to wanton violence and abuse from both law enforcers and the general public under the guise of enforcing COVID-19 guidelines.
In the year 2020, HRAPF documented 387 human rights violations, 289 of which were committed against LGBT persons and 93 sex workers, with the overwhelming majority of violations being perpetrated by state actors. This by no means presents the full picture of the violations committed against these communities as the strict lockdown imposed between March and July 2020 shut down several avenues for access to justice and as such most violations went unreported and without redress.
Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum calls upon the African Commission to;
- Urge the Government of Uganda to reevaluate all measures still in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 for their socio-economic impact on the poor and vulnerable, and immediately take steps to provide the necessary social support for the most affected.
- Urge the Government of Uganda to decriminalise and declassify petty offences and/ or adopt alternative punishments for petty offenders in order to decongest police cells and prisons and therefore reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 and other illnesses in detention places.
- Urge the Government of Uganda to decriminalise consensual sexual conduct among adults by decriminalizing sex work and same-sex sexual relations in order to offer greater protection for the rights of groups marginalised by this criminalisation.
- Urge the Government of Uganda to respect its human rights obligations to ALL its citizens as provided under the Constitution of Uganda, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and other international human rights instruments.
I thank you Mr. Chairperson