Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
CHRI Home   Contact Us
Volume 14 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2007

A Reflection on Real Security for Uganda

Gudrun Dewey
Intern, Access to Justice Programme, CHRI

On 1 March 2007, President Museveni's Black Mamba squad raided the Ugandan High Court in Kampala. The Black Mamba is the sinister heavily armed anti-terrorism division of Ugandan government security. They are cloaked in secrecy and take orders from the President. During the raid 25 Black Mamba members and 20 prison officers forcibly rearrested five People's Redemption Army (PRA) suspects who had just been released on bail after being charged with treason and terrorism. The Human Rights Network in Uganda states that the Black Mamba 'unleashed brutal violence against the suspects' and their lawyers, leaving one lawyer 'bleeding after he attempted to intervene in the unlawful arrest'1. The following day the five suspects were charged with new allegations of murder and presented before a military court. In a display of outrage at the arrests, judges, magistrates and others working at the High Court accused the Government of undermining the independence of the judiciary and went on strike.

This is not the first time the Black Mamba have intimidated the judiciary. The suspects were first arrested in 2003 and held in illegal detention until they were released on bail in 2005. The Black Mamba were at Court to rearrest the suspects as they were bailed and returned them to a maximum security prison. The Ugandan Government uses a military approach to security to intimidate the population and assert its might and power over any possible opposition. It is an example of a government putting its own interests above the true security of its people. True security demands the unswerving respect for human rights standards, the rule of law and the ability of the community to express opinions openly and without fear.

Civilian policing in Uganda is a sad tale of brutal police and army joint operations, direct political interference in policing and militaristic policing units. Policing units include the Black Mamba Special Military Unit, the Joint Anti-Terrorist Task Force, the Members of Kalangala Action Plan, the Violent Crime Crack Unit and the Presidential Protection Unit. These groups – and the force and techniques they use – are undermining any potential to achieve true security for Uganda. As civilian policing is confused with military operations and civilian police are given extended military and counter-terrorism style powers and mandates, the legitimacy of the police is undermined as are the checks upon it. The trust that the community has in its police service, which is essential for good policing, is also damaged. The police are meant to protect and serve the community. In Uganda, the police protect and serve the ruling regime. This has manifested itself recently in the police use of the Media Council to stifle free press, the brutal police response to legitimate protest, and the Government’s use of the military to carry out traditional police functions relating to criminal justice.

March saw the police force exercising powers beyond its jurisdiction when it filed petitions to the Media Council – the regulator of all media in Uganda – complaining of critical articles published about the Government, with the claim that these articles were threats to national security and therefore a police concern. The Monitor, a privately owned Kampala newspaper, reported that out of the 53 complaints filed by police officers, all related to independent press and none to the government run New Vision newspaper. When asked by the Media Council to issue a written defence, lawyers from The Monitor declined on the grounds that the complaints were invalid because ‘the police [are] not a legally designated representative of the state’ and had ‘usurp[ed] the powers of other designated institutions to represent the state.’ In characterising the press and journalists as threats to security, the police and the Government are stifling healthy, legitimate debate within the community. In doing so they are damaging the key elements of a free, functioning and secure democracy. While newspapers do continue to publish, many journalists claim that they now have to self-censor for fear of becoming police targets.

The Government continues to use the police to crack down on political dissent and opposition. On 12 April there was a large protest over the Government’s decision to allocate a significant area of national park to a privately owned Asian sugarcane company. The protests turned violent and some of the demonstrators began attacking those in the community of Asian origin. While the demonstrators began to engage in unacceptable conduct, and the police were required to step in and diffuse the situation, the actual Government response – through the police – was vastly excessive and described as a ‘brutal’ and ‘menacing show of force’ in which at least two people were killed by officers. Two opposition members of Parliament, along with 24 others, were arrested and charged. Just a few days later in a related protest, the police again showed their strength by using live bullets, water cannons and tear gas to stop the demonstration.

Meanwhile, conflict continues to ravage the North Eastern Karamoja region of Uganda where the presence of the Ugandan Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) and a general failure of civilian policing has led to increased insecurity. In this arid region bordering Kenya and Sudan, which is often labelled the ‘forgotten area’, the Karimojong people are pastoralists who depend on cattle for their livelihoods. They are also heavily and illegally armed and the harsh conditions have created a culture of violent inter-tribe cattle raids and fighting whose casualties are devastating. In an attempt to end the complex tribal conflict, the Government installed a disarmament plan in 2001, starting with a program of voluntary disarmament and then assigning the UPDF to the region to forcibly recover illegal arms. In addition, the UPDF have combined with civilian police, working with the Ugandan Police Force to arrest armed Karimojong. Although the Government run New Vision newspaper declared this April that the security situation has improved this year and that local leaders ‘praised the armed forces’ and ‘hailed the new UPDF leadership in the region for improved performance and better relations with civilians’, independent observers paint an entirely different picture. This April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement of concern over security forces from carrying out using indiscriminate force and methods of torture in Karamoja in the disarmament process. She found that between November 2006 and March 2007, ‘the force of the [UPDF] resulted in the killing of at least 69 civilians [and] 10 cases of torture’. The Commissioner has also received reports of other UPDF human rights violations including extra-judicial killings, arbitrary executions and the destruction of property.

In all of these examples the central problem is that police act outside their designated powers – often with Government sanction – or officers are explicitly authorised to use excessive force and engage in conduct that violates human rights standards, the rule of law and the basic foundation stones of democracy, including judicial independence. This is exacerbated by a lack of accountability. When the actions of the police are poorly controlled, lack transparency and are immune from prosecution, a culture of impunity flourishes and real security for the people is even less attainable.

The lack of accountability is worsened by the emergence of more and more forms of policing in Uganda, whereby security is now the responsibility of many different Government actors. Where civilian police units take on military style powers or military forces are given the traditional civilian police power to arrest, as in the case of the Black Mamba in Kampala and the UPDF in Karamoja, they employ more brutal militaristic techniques and their conduct is outside normal civilian policing oversight structures such as reporting or judicial review. Also, where there are joint army and police operations, like those occurring in the arrest of criminals in Karamoja, the jurisdictional boundaries of the military and police are dangerously blurred. As the actors have no clear role it is impossible that they will have any clear accountability for their actions. While there may be instances where military intervention is necessary, it must always be carried out separately and in addition to a strong civilian police and judicial structure that exists to protect the community. Civilian policing tasks and roles must stay within the jurisdiction of civilian police.

Karamoja demonstrates how the human rights violations of the army in the region have led to an intense distrust from the community towards any security agency attempting to enforce law and order. This undermines the establishment of an effective community police service, which is essential for stability and the security of the people, especially where there is a need to protect those who have disarmed and consequently are more vulnerable to cattle raids and attacks from neighbouring tribes who have not. Similarly, aggressive police tactics to control public protests create further community mistrust. In contrast to a brutal approach, policing that respects human rights can build peoples’ trust and confidence necessary that benefits effective policing by reducing violent community reprisals, heightening police morale and building up effective community/police communication and intelligence networks.

As the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala approaches (November), the attention of the Commonwealth should turn to the massive human rights violations that are being perpetrated in Uganda by police and security forces. The Ugandan Government is not simply directing the police to clamp down on criminal and terrorist activities. It is using the military and police force to bolster its own regime. Its actions are impacting upon the mechanisms that underpin democracy and ensure the proper functioning of the rule of law in a society: a free and deliberative people informed by a diverse press and assured justice by the judiciary. The police do have an important role to play in providing security and maintaining law and order in Uganda. However, real security for the nation, the Government and the people of Uganda can only be achieved if the role and the actions of security bodies are in accordance with the rule of law and respect the fundamental human rights enshrined in Uganda’s treaty obligations and its Constitution.

CHOGM Report

Coinciding with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, CHRI will be releasing a major report examining the effects of anti-terrorism legislation on policing in the Commonwealth. The report will look at increased police powers, enhanced discretion, and how new laws and policies have enabled police to use disproportionate force, arbitrarily arrest and discriminate against suspects. It will also look at the dilution of absolute human rights, such as the prohibition on torture. The counter terrorism measures of the Commonwealth must be consistent with fundamental human rights standards and ensure police are accountable for their actions. The report condemns increased human rights abuses committed by police, and the current disregard of many Commonwealth Governments towards their international human rights obligations in the name of maintaining security.


CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2007

Editors: Aditi Datta, & Peta Fitzgibbon , CHRI;
Print: Ranjan Kumar Singh,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

Copyright Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Published by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, B-117, 1st Floor, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi - 110017, India
Tel: +91-11-26850523, 26864678; Fax: +91-11-26864688; Email:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.