International human rights standards should guide the use of force during riots in Uganda.
In October 2018, Uganda’s President, His Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, wrote a letter to the Uganda Police Force containing guidelines on the use of force to disperse ‘rowdy crows’. In it, he mentioned that under certain circumstances, the Police could use lethal force. However, the letter obscured the full extent of the international standards governing such use of force.
While national and international laws permit lethal force including during riots, they also set high human rights standards for it. The Ugandan Constitution, the applicable United Nations (UN) Conventions as well as the UN Basic Principles on the Use of force and Firearms for Law Enforcement Officers (UN Principles) protect and uphold the right to life, which informs key law enforcement standards on the deployment of lethal force. Specifically, the principles of proportionality and necessity guide law enforcement officers to exercise restraint and avoid using force including lethal force, where the harm they would inflict outweighs the gains to be obtained from using it. Thus, officers must determine in advance, the seriousness of the offence they are responding to and the objective they seek to achieve by using lethal force. This objective must be lawful. Thus, targeting crowds in order to subdue support for the President’s political opponents as has been the case in Uganda, would not be a lawful objective. The police must also always use nonviolent means first as far as this is possible before they resort to lethal force. The UN guidelines specifically prohibit the use of firearms where the sole aim is to protect property against theft or vandalism. Therefore, while riots are indeed criminal under Ugandan law, by these standards, police officers cannot use live bullets solely to avert destruction to property. They may do so to avert a threat to life, or serious injury, under the UN guidelines and such threat must be, “imminent”; expected to materialize into actual harm in a split second or in a matter of seconds. By contrast, the President letter, guides security officers to use live ammunition to protect property.
The UN guidelines also emphasize the legality principle, which requires that justification and means of force be explicitly set out under domestic law. The Uganda Police Act and Penal Code give overly broad justifications for force including lethal force, by allowing police officers to use ‘all means necessary’ for dispersing riots or unlawful assemblies without boundaries. The police Standard Operational Procedures, which purportedly contain some guidelines as to the boundaries of force, are inaccessible to the public, making it hard to assess their compliance with recommended standards. Another key principle obscured in the President’s letter is the principle of accountability, which requires individual officers, commanders and those responsible for planning operations to submit to independent oversight institutions for investigations into deaths, injury or human rights abuses following the use of force. This issue should have been amplified in the letter especially considering that under Ugandan law, police officers are immune from any criminal or civil proceedings for any death or grievous harm arising from exercising their broad mandate to use force against riots or assemblies which they deem unlawful.
It is critical to secure a peaceful and stable environment for the enjoyment of rights and the consolidation of economic gains in Uganda. However, this should not come at the cost of constitutional guarantees on the sanctity of life and at the hands of the very government mandated to protect it. With the right training, resources and legal amendments, the Uganda Police Force can effectively manage riots while preserving life within human rights standards.