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Uganda: Gatherings of Three or More People Without Prior Police Approval Outlawed

(Aug. 14, 2013) On August 6, 2013, Uganda’s 388-member unicameral Parliament passed the Public Order Management Bill, 2011 (POMB), which, among other measures, mandates police approval of “public meetings” involving at least three people. (Uganda Public Order Bill Is ‘Blow to Political Debate,’ BBC NEWS (Aug. 6, 2013), Parliament of the Republic of Uganda website (last visited Aug. 7, 2013).) The majority of the Parliament’s elected seats, 70% of the total number, are held by the National Resistance Movement (NRM), President Yoweri Museveni’s party. (Factsheet: Uganda, Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy website (updated Aug. 2012).) The President must approve the legislation before it can take effect. (Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (as amended through 2006), § 91, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) website.)

The legislation adopts a broad definition of what constitutes a “public meeting” and restrictive procedures for the scheduling and conduct of such meetings. A “public meeting” is:

a gathering, assembly, concourse, procession or demonstration of three or more persons in or on any public road … or other public place or premises wholly or partly open to the air–

a) at which the principles, policy, actions or failure of any government, political party or political organisation, whether or not that party or organisation is registered under any law, are discussed; or

b) held to form pressure groups to submit petitions to any person or to mobilise or demonstrate support for or opposition to the views, principles, policy, actions or omissions of any person or body of persons or institution, including any government administration or government institution. (Public Order Management Bill, 2011, § 6, Parliament of the Republic of Uganda website.)

A notable provision in the legislation mandates that an organizer of any public meeting give prior, written notice, which is to include a letter of clearance from the proprietor of the venue where the meeting is to take place, to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), no later than seven days and no sooner than fifteen days before the proposed date of the meeting. (Id. § 7.) An organizer who fails to comply with this requirement commits an offense of disobedience of statutory duty, a misdemeanor punishable by two years’ imprisonment. (Id.; Penal Code Act of 1950, § 116 (June 15, 1950), WIPO website.)

The IGP maintains the power to veto a proposed meeting for, among other reasons, “any reasonable cause,” a term not defined in the legislation. (Public Order Management Bill, § 8.) However, a veto by the IGP may be appealed to the High Court within 30 days of its issuance. (Id.)

Another notable provision authorizes police officers to use firearms in a number of circumstances, including:

  • in self defense or defense of others from an imminent threat of death or injury;
  • to prevent the commission of a serious crime that may endanger life or cause serious injury;
  • when a person who presents a danger resists arrest;
  • to prevent a suspect from escaping police custody;
  • when a person uses force to break free another person from police custody; or
  • when a person uses force to resist arrest or to prevent the arrest of another person. (Id. § 11.)

The passage of the legislation has drawn strong criticism from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Citing the government’s recent closures of two newspapers and two radio stations for reporting an alleged plot by the government to assassinate opposition Members of Parliament, Amnesty International stated that the legislation was “part of a pattern of repression” on the part of the Ugandan government. (BBC NEWS, supra.) On August 5, 2013, in anticipation of the legislation, Sarah Jackson, the organization’s deputy Africa director, characterized it as “a serious blow to open political debate in a country where publicly criticising the government is already fraught with risk.” (Uganda: Public Management Order Bill Is a Serious Blow to Open Political Debate, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (Aug. 5, 2013).) A senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division wrote: “[t]his is Uganda’s latest restriction on space for expressing dissent and critiquing governance, which has been slowly eroded over the last few years.” (Maria Burnett, Dispatches: New Law Undermines Rights of Ugandans, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Aug. 6, 2013).)