June 20. 2024. 1:57

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Uganda orders withdrawal of UN human rights office

The United Nations human rights office has been told to withdraw from Uganda this month, as concerns continue about the repression of opposition supporters, LGBT+ citizens and other vulnerable people in the east African country.

“We confirm that we have received a Note Verbal informing of non-extension of our host country agreement and that the office continues discussions at highest level with the authorities on this matter,” said Bernard Amwine, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in an email to The Irish Times on Wednesday.

“We are in discussions with the government of Uganda at the highest levels to see what can be done to continue our important work in the country. A conversation is being scheduled between the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, and the President of the Republic of Uganda. The High Commissioner’s view is that there should be a UN Human Rights presence everywhere,” Mr Amwine said.

Human Rights Watch, which regularly publishes reports on Uganda, called for a reversal of the decision. “Shutting down the UN human rights office is just the latest government action to stifle those working to promote respect for human rights in Uganda,” said Oryem Nyeko, a researcher with the organisation, in a statement. “Instead of removing another critical voice from the human rights ecosystem, Ugandan authorities should create an enabling environment for rights advocates to work.”

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The UN Commission on Human Rights established its office in Uganda in 2005, amid the devastating war in northern Uganda, which saw government forces, as well as members of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to Human Rights Watch, it developed into the largest standalone UN human rights office in Africa, offering training for human rights defenders and security officials, as well as monitoring human rights abuses and carrying out a range of other activities.

In its letter saying that the body’s mandate would not be extended, the Ugandan government said the government’s own “commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights”, and the existence of “strong national human rights institutions and a vibrant civil society” were the reasons behind the decision, according to a Human Rights Watch statement.

The Ugandan government has suspended or revoked the licences of civil society organisations and other non-governmental organisations over recent years. This included last year banning prominent organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda from operating. The organisation had been heavily involved in supporting the rights of persecuted LGBT+ Ugandans.

The repression of Ugandan opposition supporters most recently came to a head around the 2021 election, which saw 78-year-old president Yoweri Museveni win a sixth term in power, in a vote that was highly disputed. This week, former opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, who is popularly known as Bobi Wine, posted photographs on Twitter that appeared to show torture scars on a man he said was a supporter. “This has been the fate of hundreds of our supporters who are regularly abducted,” Mr Kyagulanyi wrote.

A Ugandan government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.