Uganda: Proposed law on the regulation of public meetings by the police threatens human rights

Published: September 15, 2010

Amnesty International is deeply concerned that legislation proposed by the Ugandan government for the ‘regulation of public meetings’ provides for restrictions which will violate the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression. The draft Public Order Management Bill, 2009, a copy of which has been obtained by Amnesty International, is reportedly set to be discussed by cabinet and, if adopted by the cabinet, will subsequently be tabled in Parliament to be enacted into law.

According to the Preamble to the draft Bill, it is ostensibly aimed at “safeguarding public order and other related matters”, the meaning and context of which is not defined. While the protection of public order is one of the purposes which international human rights law recognizes as a permissible reason for placing certain restrictions on the exercise of the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression, no such restrictions may be imposed for this purpose unless such restrictions are demonstrably necessary and proportionate. In this context, the proposed broad powers for limitation of the rights to freedoms of assembly and expression cannot be justified. The Bill would expand police powers to refuse or permit public meetings, and regulate aspects of their conduct on the basis of broadly worded and undefined criteria. Such broad powers carry a very high risk for violations of the rights to freedoms of assembly and expression.

The draft Bill provides that any proposed public meeting must be notified to the police at least seven days in advance, giving wide discretionary powers to the Inspector General of the Police to require proposed meetings to be rescheduled or relocated. The definition of meetings which are subject to such regulation (Article 6 of the Bill) focuses solely on political meetings: “any gathering of three or more persons in a road or other public outdoor place… for the purpose of discussing, demonstrating about or protesting about policies or actions of government or governmental institutions”. The Bill proposes restricting the permissible hours for such meetings to after 6am and before 6pm and that a public address or amplification system can only be used with police permission. It gives a government Minister power to declare certain locations prohibited for public meetings of more than 25 persons without a permit on the basis of the Minister’s opinion that such a prohibition “is desirable in the interests of public tranquillity”. The Bill also proposes to give the police wide powers to regulate the conduct of public meetings, including to ensure (Article 9) that statements made at them to the media and public “do not conflict with the laws of Uganda”, and (Article 10) to disperse meetings if they have “reasonable grounds to believe that a breach of the peace is likely to occur”.

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