Human rights abuses by the Ugandan People's Defence Force

Introduction

The Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF), the government armed forces of Uganda, face accusations of significant human rights violations. As one of the larger militaries in its region, the UPDF plays an important role in conflict resolution and peacekeeping in both Uganda, and the wider East African region. In recent years, the UPDF has been engaged in operations in Uganda, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.

Operations in Uganda

The UPDF has a long history of alleged human rights violations in its own country.

Since 1987, the UPDF has been engaged in active warfare with rebel political organisation, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who, the UN reports, have been responsible for more than 100,000 deaths across East Africa since 1987. This war has left many Ugandan citizens displaced and has forced them into displaced person camps.

In 2003 a report from Human Rights Watch detailed human rights abuses committed against the civilian population during the conflict against the LRA. These included child soldiers being recruited into the army against their will and sometimes subjected to torture. Samuel Tindifa, the then director of Human Rights Watch, reported that girls as young as 12 had been raped and had subsequently tested positive for HIV, most likely as a result of the sexual abuse.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that the Ugandan military were continuing to kill, rape, and uproot citizens in Northern Uganda. They have also alleged that a particular battalion committed numerous deliberate killings and beatings of civilians during early 2005 when it was assigned to the displaced person camps.

In 2007, Save The Children reported further abuses committed by the UPDF: they stated that the UPDF was responsible for the deaths of 66 children in an incident in the Karamoja region. These allegations were confirmed by a report from the UN which urged the Ugandan government to curb human rights abuses against civilians and condemned “indiscriminate and excessive use of force” by the Ugandan military.

African Union Mission in Somalia

In 2007, UPDF soldiers were sent to nearby Somalia to participate in the UN-supported African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), whose purpose was  to provide peacekeeping services during the Somali Civil War. But in 2014, soldiers from AMISOM, including soldiers from the UPDF, reportedly sexually abused and exploited vulnerable Somali women and children at their bases in Mogadishu.

Further to this, a Human Rights Watch report found soldiers raped or assaulted women who came to the army bases and paid vulnerable women for sex. This directly contravenes the UN Secretary-General’s rules which prohibit peacekeepers from exchanging any money, goods, or services for sex. Some women were found to have contracted sexually transmitted infections after the assaults, with several also describing being slapped and beaten by the soldiers.

An investigation also uncovered evidence of sexual exploitation of women seeking medicine for sick babies at AMISOM military bases and reports that soldiers gave some women food or money after they had been raped in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex.

Only one rape case was ever brought to Ugandan military court, although a number of soldiers were suspended for misconduct. In an official response, AMISOM said that the alleged rapes were ‘isolated incidents’.

Operations in the Central African Republic

In 2009, members of the UPDF were sent to the Central African Republic to suppress the LRA’s activity in the Republic. The UPDF presence was further increased in 2011 and 2012 in an attempt by the African Union to eliminate the LRA.

In 2016, the UN reported 14 cases of rape by the UPDF in the Central African Republic including cases involving children. The UN High Commissioner stated that he was deeply concerned by these “credible” and “deeply worrying” allegations of human rights violations.  Most recently, Human Rights Watch - in findings released this week - found accounts of rape and sexual exploitation by the UPDF in interviews that they conducted with women in the country. Similar accounts were revealed in a BBC report which detailed how a 12 year old girl was raped by a UPDF soldier on the way to the market.

There have been a number of accounts of women being left pregnant by Ugandan soldiers. Reports suggest that women have had sex with UPDF soldiers in military bases despite strict rules from the African Union explicitly prohibiting this practice. In each incident the soldier who had fathered the child subsequently left the country and provided no support to the mother. Ugandan military investigators have claimed to have engaged with some of those affected, but this has been widely denied by survivors. One young woman told Human Rights Watch that she was warned not to speak with Ugandan investigators. A military spokesperson quashed the allegations stating “our soldiers did not get involved in such unprofessional behaviour”, and that the investigations were completed.

Conclusion

Uganda is now withdrawing its troops from the Central African Republic and many soldiers have already returned home. However, the Ugandan government has still failed to address the serious, credible, and consistent accounts of sexual abuse and violence committed by Ugandan soldiers in Uganda, Somalia and the Central African Republic. Critics argue that investigations by the Ugandan military have been wholly inadequate and have not held alleged perpetrators to account. Some human rights organisations have now called on the African Union and the UN to undertake independent inquiries into the actions of the soldiers and to require the Ugandan government to take action if the allegations are corroborated.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue