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Ugandan activists take social and economic rights concerns to UN





Kampala/New York, 5 October 2016: Ugandan civil society representatives are meeting with members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva today to brief them on the human rights situation in the country.

Their meeting comes ahead of Uganda’s appearance before the Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on November 3, when the country will be called to account for its performance with regard to a broad spectrum of human rights. The ‘pre-sessional’ dialogue, organized by the Geneva-based NGO UPR Info, brings together civil society organizations, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission and Geneva-based diplomats to discuss key developments since the country’s last review in 2011.

For economic and social rights defenders involved in the process, one of the key matters under discussion will be the human rights issues at stake in Uganda’s development plans. As illustrated in the multiple civil society submissions, and in a series of short briefing papers produced by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) and the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), a sustained period of stability and economic growth has failed to deliver meaningful change in the lives of most Ugandans. Although the number of people living in poverty has fallen in recent years, two out of three people are still living on less than US $2 a day.

ISER and CESR’s research demonstrates that the government’s efforts to accelerate economic transformation have not paid enough attention to the rights of the most vulnerable, with the predictable result that they are being left behind – and in many cases further marginalized – by the country’s much vaunted economic progress. There is growing concern over forced evictions and land grabbing, for example, as businesses fail to seek free, prior and informed consent before displacing indigenous communities from their ancestral lands.

Crowded out by investment in large-scale infrastructure, public resources dedicated to key social sectors also remain low and what funding is allocated is often spent ineffectively. The health budget for 2016/2017 is 8.9% – far below the Abuja Declaration target of 15% that the government has committed to – and total health expenditure is only 1.3% of GDP. It is hardly surprising, then, that the country continues to face a high burden of unnecessary death and disability from preventable causes such as malaria and lower respiratory infection.

Uganda’s spending on education – at 2.4% of GDP – is also manifestly inadequate and ranks far below the spending of its neighbors, not to mention the 6% target it committed to in the Dakar Framework for Action on Education. Only one third of students complete primary school, as compared to 78% in Tanzania; 81% in Rwanda; and 84% in Kenya.

The country also has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, but efforts to realize the right to adequate housing are likewise falling desperately short, with inadequate funding, poor planning and dysfunctional implementation fuelling the spread of slums and informal settlements and the concomitant social problems that come with them.

A significant number of Ugandans do not enjoy even minimum essential levels of the right to adequate food: a third of the population is undernourished and food insecurity remains widespread, especially among subsistence farmers.

Underpinning all of these issues is a development dynamic that has systematically excluded the most vulnerable groups – such as rural women, indigenous communities and people with disabilities. All the while, fiscal efforts to generate resources through taxation – and corporate taxation in particular – have been extremely deficient. Uganda’s tax-to-GDP ratio is 13.4%; barely more than half the 25% target set out in the East Africa macroeconomic convergence criterion.

ISER will discuss these economic and social rights concerns in depth when the pre-sessional dialogue with Ugandan civil society groups takes place on 5 October 2016. The event is intended as an opportunity for members of the Human Rights Council to gain a better understanding of the government’s compliance with its international human rights obligations before the formal dialogue with representatives of the Ugandan Government takes place on November 3. It provides a space for civil society organizations and the national human rights institution to challenge the government’s narrative and present an alternative view on the state of human rights compliance – a crucial perspective for ensuring a meaningful review.

The series of factsheets produced by ISER and CESR in advance of this important dialogue was designed to complement the joint civil society submission, endorsed by 41 non-governmental organizations, and ISER’s submission on Progress Safeguarding The Right To Education, Right To Health And Rights Of Vulnerable Groups In Uganda that was also submitted to the Human Rights Council.

“Uganda’s forthcoming review will provide a crucial opportunity for both the government and civil society to reflect on the country’s socioeconomic development and progress towards the full realization of human rights,” said ISER’s Executive Director, Salima Namusobya.

The UPR differs from other United Nations human rights oversight bodies in that countries are evaluated by a group of their peers in the international community rather than by a committee of independent experts.

While it provides a welcome opportunity for non-governmental human rights organizations to contribute to the process, a recent study by CESR and Sciences Po revealed consistent biases and shortcomings in the UPR’s coverage of economic and social rights issues. “This initiative is part of growing civil society efforts to strengthen the UPR’s effectiveness in holding states accountable for preventable deprivations of economic and social rights,” said CESR’s Executive Director, Ignacio Saiz.

Following the session, the Council will issue a set of recommendations designed to advance progress across the spectrum of human rights issues in the years ahead.