Talking Social Justice in Uganda

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I cannot remember hearing of the term “Social Justice” before 5 years ago. It seems to be one of those ‘newer’ terms that have been made popular by the things that are happening in society. Or the growing awareness of the injustices that we face today.

Because of that I went to great lengths to talk to a gentleman who has made fighting for social justice a way of life in Uganda.

Masake Anthony works at Chapter Four Uganda, a Ugandan civil liberties group. He describes himself as a seasoned human rights defender and social justice advocate. I met with him to have a conversation on social justice in Uganda – find some excerpts of the conversation below.

 Why did you choose social justice instead of commercial law or something more profitable? 

I am a passionate defender of rights. This comes with identifying with a certain value system; a system that speaks to social justice. Social justice embodies principles of equity, diversity, inclusion, and respect of human dignity – the need for fair and just relation between individual and society. Regardless of someone’s profession, a person who really cares about these values will care about the need for social justice.

As a human rights defender, I find myself engaging in the core activities of promoting social justice through my human rights work. Social justice and human rights are so intrinsically interwoven that you cannot talk about one, without the other.

Social justice is important to all of us – whether engaging in for-profit or not-for-profit activities. This is why we now have an increasing call for profit-oriented businesses to respect human rights and work towards promotion of equality. It is only through continuous championing of social justice that we can have sustainable and prosperous communities. There can be no diversity and meaningful peace without promoting principles of social justice.

Social Justice is not a term that you and I grew up hearing about – What changed? Why do we have it as a household name? 

Nothing much has changed. To appreciate this, there is need to delve into what social justice really means – beyond the term. At the core of the foundation of social justice are several principles that have for long, been part of our communities.

Certain principles such as the respect for life, the respect for principles of rights and responsibilities, spirit for championing the common good and solidarity, dignity of work and the right of workers to earn a living, have always been part of our communities. Whereas it may be argued that the situation may be way better today, there is no doubt, these are values that our cultures and customs acknowledged long before the wide spread of social justice and human rights terms. At its foundation, it is not a western phenomenon.

This explains why we have arguments of whether to accept social justice in its original form or to subject it to the local context. Whatever one’s opinion, there is no doubt there are certain universal values that are non-negotiable because we are all humans, first – principles such as respect for the right to life and human dignity.

What are the most vivid memories of your work with Social Justice and why? 

The most vivid memories that I have experienced in my work involve securing the freedom of people after their arrests, often on frivolous charges, and supporting them have equal access to justice despite of their disadvantaged position. Personal liberty, just like other rights, is viewed as universal and yet they are the world of the individual person. Forget about the world; obtaining justice is so personal. It is always humbling to secure freedom of my clients – something I have done for over 8 years now.

However, the freedom never washes away the concern of what they and their families have to endure at the hands of an arbitrary process. To have meaningful social justice, in this context, our criminal justice system has to develop to respect human dignity of all people. One should only be arrested when there is a prima facie case against them. We have to stop the repeated arrested that lead to no meaningful prosecution, that ultimately delivers no justice.

As a lawyer – what are the parts of the law of Uganda that every social justice activist needs to know? 

A social justice activist needs to familiarize him or herself with Chapter Four of the Constitution of Uganda. That is our bill of rights. It is difficult to be an effective social justice advocate without being an empowered human rights defender. The values that one has to defend to promote social justice are so fundamental to human rights. The experiences of some of the world’s largest social justice movements – struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, campaign to end slave trade, and the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s in the United States – prove this.

Human rights principles are critical in demanding that every man, woman and child accesses equal justice, equal resources, equal opportunities, and equal dignity, without discrimination. This is the only way to challenge inequalities, exploitation, and violence to enhance the quality of life for all in pursuit of social justice.

As an activist: if one gets caught up with police for one reason or the other – what should they do? 

They need to know their rights, responsibilities and what a police office can or cannot do.

The specific rights they are supposed to know include the right to ask a police officer to identify him/herself, right to remain silent after introducing yourself, right to be informed reason for the arrest, right to a lawyer, right to make a phone call to any person, right to be treated humanely without torture or degrading treatment, right to access medical help if necessary, right to disclose to anyone where you are being detained, right to apply for police bond, right to read through and make corrections to your statement before signing, and right not to be paraded before the media for news purposes.

Your responsibilities include the need to remain calm and polite to an officer, not to obstruct the police if they are engaging in lawful acts, give police your identity details even if your lawyer is not present, not to resist arrest, call your lawyer, read statements before signing them, and duty to complain to your lawyer, magistrate or a human rights defender if any of your rights are violated.

That is quite a mouthful: Is that all?

It is also important to note that whereas a police officer has the right to restrict, arrest or detain you with reason, they do not have the power to use threats or force to obtain a statement from you, forcefully parade you to the media for news purposes, threaten/assault or treat you in a degrading way, take anything from you without acknowledging it, detain you in a place not gazetted as a safe detention area, and demand a bribe in return for a service e.g. for police bond.

Most important, do not forget to contact your lawyer or human rights organisation such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission or Chapter Four Uganda in case any of your rights are violated. Efforts to bring perpetrators to account start with you filing a complaint.

 What does your day as a Social Justice advocate look like? 

It typically starts with a quick glance through the local dailies and periodic monitoring of other news channels such as social media networks and radios through out the day for media reports of injustices – as you can imagine, I sadly come across that a lot these days. I also take time to analyze research reports and review patterns of injustices to identify common patterns of abuses for strategic public interest litigation. Strategic litigation provides an opportunity to avert wide scale injustices that can happen in one strategic case.

The obvious question: what are the challenges of the job?

Impunity and corruption often present challenges in efforts to ensuring access to justice for all. High-income inequality further exposes many people to abuse and other challenges associated with attaining social justice, a call that is beyond just successful legal intervention.

 

 

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