Commonwealth Fetes Uganda Tyrant

The Times – London – 14 November 2007

Zimbabwe a decade ago. The Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, is a new Robert Mugabe in the making, a budding tyrant who is subverting democracy and human rights (according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) through voter intimidation, hounding opposition politicians, detention without trial, torture, extra-judicial killings, media censorship, corruption, suppression of protests, homophobic witch-hunts, and crackdowns on universities and trade unions.

And how is he rewarded for these abuses? By being given the honour of hosting the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala in two weeks’ time. The Queen and Gordon Brown will accept the hospitality of a despot who has abolished limits on presidential terms in a bid to ensure that he remains president for life; framed the opposition leader Kizza Besigye on charges of rape and treason; and who is implicated in massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and northern Uganda.

While thousands of Ugandans are searching for loved ones held without trial in Museveni’s secret detention centres, the Commonwealth Secretariat is fussing obscenely over hotel standards for delegates and whether Kampala’s upgraded mobile phone and internet connections will be ready in time for CHOGM.

Museveni was once Uganda’s great democratic hope. He now heads an often lawless, criminal state. Last month, the East African Court of Justice found Uganda guilty of violating the rule of law and the rights of its citizens. Previously, in 2005, the East African Court of Justice ruled that Uganda must pay the DRC up to £5.6 billion in compensation for its war of aggression, plundering of resources and killing of civilians.

Similar abuses have been happening in the civil war in northern Uganda. More than 1.5 million people were herded into camps by the Ugandan Army. Some were beaten, raped and killed; many more fell ill and died from unsanitary conditions. In the worst period, fatalities peaked at 1,000 a week.

Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth for breaching the Commonwealth’s 1991 Harare Declaration on good governance and human rights. Uganda’s violations have, in contrast, merited barely a murmur of criticism. Why the double standards? The Commonwealth’s tacit collusion with Museveni’s abuses is the most shameful betrayal of the Ugandan people since its feeble response to Idi Amin’s murderous regime in the 1970s. If the Commonwealth won’t defend its humanitarian principles against autocratic leaders, what is the point of its existence?