The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Uganda is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Uganda is also a party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Uganda is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Uganda is also a party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights but has not accepted the right of individual petition.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under the 1995 Constitution of Uganda, every person has the freedom to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition the government.
The 2013 Public Order Management Act is the primary legislation governing assemblies in Uganda. There is a notification regime under the Act, but which functions de facto as a request for authorisation. Notification must be made at least three days in advance under Section 5 of the Act.
Section 6(1) permits the government to refuse permission to hold a proposed public meeting because “notice of another public meeting on the date, at the time and at the venue proposed has already been received by the authorized officer; or the venue is considered unsuitable for purposes of crowd and traffic control or will interfere with other lawful business.” Section 8 authorises the police “to stop or prevent the holding of a public meeting where the public meeting is held contrary to the Act”, and to order the dispersal of a public meeting where “reasonable in the circumstances”.
Section 10 requires organisers to provide sufficient stewards for an assembly and ensure that it is concluded peacefully before 7 pm. Participants are required not to obstruct traffic and avoid disorder. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in criminal prosecution and liability.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
The 1994 Police Act regulates, in part, use of force by the Uganda Police Force. There is no general obligation to use only necessary and proportionate force. A specific provision in the Act governs the use of force in the dispersal of an "unlawful" assembly as determined by national law. Section 36 provides that:
If upon the expiration of a reasonable time after a senior police officer has ordered an assembly to disperse ... the assembly has continued in being, any police officer, or any other person acting in aid of the police officer, may do all things necessary for dispersing the persons so continuing assembled, or for apprehending them or any of them, and, if any person makes resistance, may use all such force as is reasonably necessary for overcoming that resistance, and shall not be liable in any criminal or civil proceedings for having by the use of that force caused harm or death to any person.
This does not comply with international law. Indeed, in May 2019, in its judgment in Moses Mwandha v. Attorney General, the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional the provisions under the Police Act authorising police to disperse public assemblies, including the broad power of the police to use force to disperse an assembly under Section 36. They were declared inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed under the bill of rights in Uganda’s Constitution and applicable international norms.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
The 1994 Police Act specifically governs the use of firearms by the police:
A police officer may use a firearm against—
- a person charged with or convicted of a felony who escapes from lawful custody;
- a person who, through force, rescues another person from lawful custody;
- a person who, through force, prevents the lawful arrest of himself or herself or of any other person.S. 28(1), 1994 Police Act.
This is an extremely permissive authority that contravenes international law.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Uganda has not come before the Human Rights Committee in recent years.
In its latest national report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (in 2015), Uganda claimed with respect to the right of peaceful assembly that:
Many times the assembling individuals are not cognizant of the obligations that come with this right, namely; issues of national security, public safety and the rights and freedoms of those who are not part of the assembly.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Uganda:
Freedom of assembly is restricted by the 2013 Public Order Management Act, which requires groups to register with local police in writing three days before any gathering, public or private, to discuss political issues. The police have authority to deny approval for such meetings if they are not deemed to be in the “public interest,” and to use force to disperse assemblies judged unlawful.
In August 2018, security forces shot and killed at least six demonstrators in Kampala and other cities who were protesting the arrest and alleged torture of Bobi Wine and other opposition politicians.
In December 2020, following the mass shooting by police of unarmed demonstrators, a national human rights defender called publicly for the establishment of an effective, independent police oversight body.