Uganda: Public Order Management Act

In this brief, ARTICLE 19 analyses the Ugandan Public Order Management Act (the Act), signed into law by President Museveni on 12 September 2013. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that despite some positive amendments, the Act remains seriously flawed from a freedom of expression perspective. We call on the Ugandan Parliament to reform the Act in line with international human rights standards.

The Act contains welcome improvements on the earlier draft of the Public Order Management Bill (the draft Bill), addressing several of the concerns that we raised previously, including:

  • Greater prominence of rights-based language, including to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly;
  • The removal of most problematic language from the definition of “public meeting”;
  • A reduction in the notification period from 7 to 3 days;
  • An exemption from notification requirements for spontaneous assemblies;
  • The removal of prohibitions on amplified noise equipment;
  • The removal of problematic provisions on the use of firearms;
  • The narrowing of civil liability of organisers for loss or damage as a consequence of an assembly.

Nevertheless, serious flaws remain in the Act, and substantial reforms are required to ensure that the right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly are safeguarded in Uganda.

In summary, the most serious shortcomings in the Act are that it:

  • Fails to establish a presumption in favour of the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, or the duty on the State to facilitate peaceful assemblies;
  • Defines “public meeting” by reference to “public interest,” potentially excluding critical meetings from the scope of the Act;
  • Establishes a de facto authorisation procedure for peaceful assemblies that is unnecessarily bureaucratic with broad discretion for the State to refuse notifications;
  • Fails to make provision for the facilitation and protection of simultaneous and counter-demonstrations;
  • Prohibits public meetings, except those in Town Halls, between 7pm and 7am;
  • Prohibits public meetings at and around democratic institutions, including Parliament and Courts;
  • Allows the Interior Minister broad powers to designate “gazetted” areas where assemblies are absolutely prohibited;
  • Grants law enforcement authorities broad powers to use force to disperse assemblies, with no guidance for alternative methods of managing public order disturbances;
  • Criminalises organisers of assemblies for the unlawful conduct of third parties;
  • Provides no protection to the rights of the media, including bloggers, to access and report on assemblies.

We believe that many of these problems with the Act could have been avoided if the drafting process had been more transparent, and had more effectively engaged stakeholders including civil society organisations.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Ugandan government to amend the Act through Parliament to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly are protected.

We also call on the Minister of the Interior to ensure that any implementing regulation taken under Article 14 of the Act comply with international standards. Absent reforms to the Act itself, the implementing regulations should seek to address the shortcomings of the Act as far as possible.

Summary of Recommendations

  • The Act should establish a presumption in favour of the right to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly, and an obligation on the State to facilitate and protect the exercise of these rights; 
  • The definition of “public meeting” (Article 4) should be content neutral; references to the “public interest” should be deleted; 
  • The notification regime (Article 5) should be substantially narrowed so that its purpose is to provide authorities with notice of only the information absolutely necessary to assist in the facilitation of a peaceful assembly; 
  • The coincidence of two demonstrations at the same location and time should not be the basis for rejecting a notification (Article 6(1)). The Act should establish that it is a responsibility of the State to facilitate peaceful simultaneous demonstrations, including counter-demonstrations. Where this is not possible, the law enforcement authorities should provide a suitable alternative in agreement with the organisers;
  • The definition of “spontaneous public meeting” (Article 7(3)) should be read to include circumstances where organisers are unable to comply with the requisite notification requirements or where there is no existing or identifiable organiser;
  • The time restrictions in Article 5(2)(c) and Article 10(e) should be repealed. Any time restrictions on assemblies should be justified accordingly to an individualised assessment of their necessity and proportionality;
  • Any regulation on the manner of an assembly must comply with the three-part test of Article 19(3) and Article 21 of the ICCPR;
  • Article 13 prohibiting assemblies at specific locations of public interest should be repealed. Any restrictions on the location of an assembly must justified on an individualised basis according to the three-part test under Articles 19 and 21 of the ICCPR;
  • Article 12 and the power of gazetting areas as no protest zones should be repealed. Any emergency powers to derogate from the right to freedom of peaceful assembly must comply with the obligations of Uganda under Article 4 of the ICCPR;
  • The provisions regarding the use of force to disperse assemblies (Article 8, Article 9(2)(f) and Article 7(2)) must be revised to ensure consistency, and must clearly establish that force may only be used as a last resort and only where necessary and proportionate, where alternative methods of public order management, which should also be specified in the Law or regulations, have been exhausted. There must be a clear command authority and provision for subsequent review of the use of force;
  • The Act should establish the principles governing the use of firearms in compliance with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials;
  • The Act should clearly define “organiser”, and provide greater clarity on the extent of their obligations to cooperate or coordinate with law enforcement authorities, with primary responsibility for maintaining public order resting at all times with law enforcement authorities;
  • Article 10 of the Act should be revised to ensure that organisers are not held criminally liable for failure to comply with legal requirements where they have made reasonable efforts to do so;
  • Article 10 of the Act should be revised ensure that organisers of assemblies are not criminally or civilly liable for the acts of third parties not acting in compliance with their directions or those of law enforcement;
  • Article 10(1)(d) requiring organisers to refrain from making unlawful statements to the media should be repealed;
  • The Law should make clear that law enforcement should ensure access of the media and assembly monitors to assemblies so far as is possible. This must include the freedom to report on the assembly itself as well as the policing operation.

You can download our legal analysis here.