Hailed as a hugely significant step in promoting and protecting human rights, Uganda’s new law looked set to be an example for other African countries. But despite the hope and the hype around the new legislation, the law has not yet taken effect. This despite presidential assent eight months ago. Now the failure to publish this important new law is being challenged in court.
Four months ago, we published an enthusiastic story about a new law in Uganda. It was headed, ‘Uganda’s brave new human rights law takes enforcement to a new level’.
This important new law introduced a number of ways to ensure that human rights were respected, including holding state officials responsible for all or part of the legal costs if they were found to have infringed the new law, Officials would also be liable for part of any damages awarded.
One feature that we mentioned was that no suit brought under the new law ‘shall be rejected or otherwise dismissed … merely for failure to comply with any … technicality’.
While courts in other African jurisdictions wrestled with the problem of what do where a technicality had been overlooked in an important human rights case, ‘the Ugandan courts may now cross that off the list of problem matters to decide,’ we wrote.
But it turns out we were wrong, and the courts have not yet been able to implement the new legislation. That’s because the law remains unpublished, has not yet appeared in the Government Gazette and has thus not officially begun to operate – even though it was assented to by President Yoweri Museveni during March this year.
Human rights activist James Mubiru is now asking the court to sanction the Uganda Printing and Publishing Corporation (UPPC), publishers of the Government Gazette, and order it to print and publish the new law immediately.
Mubiru’s case against the UPPC, launched when he filed his application in court this week, included a summary of the important benefits of the new law in protecting human rights in Uganda. This included the right of everyone to freedom from torture as well as inhumane and degrading treatment. It also specifically outlaws police torture in custody and makes it easier to petition the courts on behalf of someone whose rights have been violated.
Mubiru claims parliament had deliberately not included deadlines for publication and he asked the court to declare that the UPPC’s failure to publish the new law was unlawful. He also argues that the UPPC and its staff would in no way be prejudiced if the court ordered them to print and publish the Human Rights Enforcement Act, 2019 immediately.
The dispute brought by Mubiru will be heard by Justice Lydia Mugambe, although a date for hearing has not yet been settled.
In a second application against the UPPC that may or may not be related to the case brought by Mubiru, the managing director of the UPPC Gazette, Irene Muwanguzi, has also asked for the court’s help against the printing company.
She wants the court to block plans to sack her and to prevent anyone being appointed in her place. According to Muwanguzi, her contract as managing director of UPPC was not lawfully ended, and yet ‘she has been prevented from accessing her office since May 2019’.
* No explanation has yet been given for why the UPPC has failed to gazette the legislation. While there may be a number of reasons for its non-appearance, experts say that access to African legislation in its gazetted form is not always easy.
Gazettes.Africa (https://www.gazettes.africa/), a new project partnering with JIFA and dedicated to collecting and publishing Africa's gazettes, notes several difficulties.
Government printers across the region are struggling to print enough hard copies of the legislation supplement of gazettes. Sometimes even academic and judicial libraries are left without copies of important legislation. In some African countries like Nigeria for example, publication of legislation in the official gazette takes months, and the Interpretation Act no longer requires promulgation (in any form) before an act commences.
This is a serious problem as a government gazette is meant to contain the public record and inform citizens with the greatest certainty about the laws in force or repealed in their jurisdiction. Because legal certainty is so important for the proper functioning of the rule of law, we believe that government printers should be supported to move to digital publication platforms that allow the widest circulation of their gazettes.