Uganda: Government should reverse decision to ban workshop (Amnesty International)

AI Index: AFR 59/014/2010
19 November 2010

Uganda: Government should reverse decision to ban workshop intended to discuss human rights issues affecting sex workers

Amnesty International today condemns the decision by the Ugandan government’s Ethics and
Integrity Minister to ban a three-day civil society workshop that had been intended to discuss
human rights issues of concern to sex workers in Uganda and other East African countries. The
organization calls on the Ugandan government to reverse the Minister’s decision stopping this
workshop. The government must also unequivocally state its commitment to supporting human
rights work.

The workshop organized by Akina Mama Wa Afrika – an international women’s rights nongovernmental
organization (NGO) with offices in Kampala — was to be attended by sex workers
human rights defenders and activists. It had been scheduled to take place at a hotel in the
outskirts of Kampala between 18 and 20 November. In a letter dated 17 November and addressed
to the management of the hotel, Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo, ordered the
hotel to cancel the booking for the workshop and stated that:

“…I should inform you that prostitution is a criminal offence in Uganda. By allowing your
premises to Akina Mama Wa Afrika for purposes of conducting this seminar, it is concluded that
the hotel is an accomplice in an illegality…”

The hotel referred to this letter as the basis for cancelling its booking for the workshop.

Amnesty International considers this decision by the Minister to be an unjustifiable restriction to
the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association which are all crucial for
human rights work and are provided for under the Ugandan Constitution and international law to
which Uganda is bound. In addition the decision is contrary to Uganda’s commitment to allow
human rights defence work under the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of
Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human
Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”), which was
adopted by consensus by UN member states, including Uganda, in 1998. The Declaration
explicitly provides for the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in
the defence and advocacy for human rights.

Although ‘prostitution’ is illegal under the provisions of the Ugandan Penal Code Act it is of note
that the purpose of the workshop was to deliberate on the plight and human rights violations
suffered by persons, mostly women, engaged in sex work. According to Amnesty International’s
research the fact that sex work is unlawful and that women could be arrested for ‘prostitution’ in
Uganda means that sex workers are left entirely without legal recourse or redress if they fall victim
to violence and other human rights abuses. In addition, there is no policy to address the health
needs of this group. This is a pressing problem because sex workers are particularly at risk of
exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. NGOs working in this area fear being
accused of breaking the law, while politicians and religious leaders argue that legalizing sex work
would corrupt public morality and fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS. These are issues that should be
the subject of discussions within the government and civil society.

The realization of the right to health requires the removal of all barriers interfering with access to
health services, education and information, including in the area of sexual and reproductive
health. International human rights require States to refrain from censoring, withholding or
intentionally misrepresenting health-related information, including sexual education and
information, as well as from preventing people’s participation in health-related matters.

To ban a workshop which had been organized to discuss these issues simply demonstrates further
evidence of a recent trend by sections of the Ugandan government to unduly restrict human rights
work in general and in particular work on some specific issues.

Another example is the restrictions imposed on human rights defenders working to protect the
rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, who
continue to face discrimination and other human rights violations. This is in part because the
government does not take action to stop these violations, ostensibly because homosexual conduct
is proscribed under Ugandan penal law. A proposed law – the Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009,
currently pending in Parliament – seeks to entrench the criminalization of homosexual conduct
and further proposes to criminalize human rights work on LGBTI rights.


The Penal Code Act (sections 136-139) makes ‘prostitution’, living on the earnings of sex work
and keeping a house for sex work an offence. Sex work is a criminal offence punishable with seven
years’ imprisonment. However there is no law against procuring the services of sex workers. This
provision in effect restricts punishment to the women, and not to the persons to whom they
provide services, who are overwhelmingly men.

In March 2008 the Ugandan government banned a similar workshop aimed at discussing human
rights issues of concern to sex workers. At the time, the Ethics and Integrity Minster was quoted
in media reports as saying that: “We don’t take any delight at all in the idea that prostitutes are
coming together to devise ways of spreading their vice”.

A recent Amnesty International research report published in April 2010 and documenting general
lack of access to justice by women victims and survivors of violence, including sex workers, as a
particular group with even less protection, can be found at:


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