2019 SGS Student Dinner Featuring Human Rights Attorney Nicholas Opiyo
Articles,  Blog

2019 SGS Student Dinner Featuring Human Rights Attorney Nicholas Opiyo

Good evening everybody. Take your seats
my name is Jeremy Weinstein. I’m a professor of political science. And I’m
the director of Stanford Global Studies. And it’s my great pleasure to welcome
you to the SGS annual student dinner. This is our fifth year of doing this
dinner and it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to bring together students from
across campus. Undergraduates, graduate students who are affiliated with
different area studies programs, interdisciplinary degree programs,
master’s programs, but all sharing a common interest in issues that transcend
borders. That are associated with different parts of the world that often
don’t enter into the core curriculum that you might find in a given class on
campus. So we applaud your interest and commitment to that set of issues and are
really pleased to welcome you tonight and to celebrate you at this annual
dinner. We’ve used these dinners as an opportunity to expose students who are
interested in different parts of the world, or in some of these cross-cutting
issues, to some unbelievable leaders who are working as activists, as journalists,
as scholars investigating or tackling critical issues in regions where we have
strengths as a university. And so Uganda tonight or issues on the African
continent may not be what you’re focused on if you’re traditionally interested in
Latin America or East Asian Studies or international relations, but by having
Nicholas with us tonight you get the opportunity to see some of
these issues as they’re playing out where some of your colleagues may be
focused on this part of the world, even if you haven’t been focused on it
traditionally. And so it’s my pleasure to introduce Nicholas Opiyo. He’s an
extraordinary civil rights activist. We’re unbelievably blessed to have him with us
tonight. He is a lawyer, a civil rights activist. He leads an organization in
Uganda called Chapter 4 that has been working on
some of the most contentious issues in Ugandan politics over the last decade.
From issues related to torture, issues related to the constitutional future of
the country. The question of whether the sitting head of state can continue to
stand for election and change critical aspects of the Constitution to keep
himself in power. Really highly contentious issues around the rights of
LGBTQ populations on the African continent in Uganda in particular. And he
has an extraordinary personal story that has driven him to do this work that
relates to growing up in a part of Uganda that was afflicted with horrific
violence committed not only by the Lord’s Resistance Army, but also by the
government of Uganda in Northern Uganda during his childhood that affected his
own his own family and also turned him into someone who wanted to get dedicate
his life to civil rights and to human rights. And so we’re extraordinary
blessed to have him with us he’s been the recipient of too many awards to name.
But rather than name the awards I just wanted to read some of the quotes that
people use to describe him, people who’ve given these awards to Nicholas for his
work. So he was the recipient of the Alison Des Forge award from Human Rights
Watch. This is an award named after an unbelievable woman, who’s no longer with
us, who had dedicated her life to understanding what had happened with the
Rwandan genocide and bringing to light the violence that was committed inside
this country. And so when he was given this award in her honor by Human Rights
Watch they said “Nicholas’s clear-eyed
commitment to justice and non-discrimination, his passion and
positivity are infectious. Those who work with him and benefit from his knowledge
and dedication are better off for having listened to him”. And a couple years ago
he received the German Africa prize and the former president of Germany,
Frank Walter Steinmeier said “Nicholas you have become a key figure for your
country’s democratic development and your courageous fight for equal rights
has been giving hope to so many people in Uganda and beyond”.
And I just want to add a bit of a personal note to my introduction, which
is when I decided to get a PhD and started doing
research for my dissertation, the first country I went to was Uganda. And I
located myself in Kampala, Uganda and I was really interested in this country
that hadn’t really been at the center of the study of African politics. Up to that
point, people were focused on Zimbabwe or South Africa or Kenya, Senegal, major
kinds of powers, Ethiopia on the African continent.
But Uganda was in the midst of at that point, you know a quite fascinating set
of political developments that began with the overthrow of a corrupt regime, a
civil war that succeeded in the victory for a rebel movement. They were
implementing a system that at that point was called no party democracy, because
they believed that people should have the right to vote, people should have the
right to choose their leaders, but they shouldn’t make those choices on the
basis of the tribal and ethnic labels that had so dominated Ugandan politics
up to that point. They developed their constitution through a Constituent
Assembly where people were elected to debate the terms of the constitution. It
was an incredibly optimistic moment for Uganda’s political life and evolution.
Here we are 33 years after Yoweri Museveni came
to power in 1986 and the story is not so positive. The story is one of the
changing of a constitution, crackdowns on independent media, opposition politics,
attacks on marginalized groups. And in that kind of environment one could be
incredibly pessimistic about the turn of events that have happened in this
country. But it never, you know, sort of I’m always amazed by the fact that when
I interact with Nicholas and others who are doing this kind of work, that he’s so
motivated by the goal that he and his colleagues are trying to achieve in
Uganda. That they see the justness of their cause and they put their head down
and they continue to do this work. And so I think it’s an extraordinary
opportunity for us tonight as we think about the challenges in Uganda, we think
about the challenges in different regions
that you might be studying or working in, or we think about the challenges at home
here in the United States to have the opportunity to hear from someone who’s
dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice and the protection of human and
civil rights. So Nicholas, we’re so pleased to have you. Well thank you very much Jeremy for a
very warm introduction. You have summarized quite eloquently the
history of Uganda’s politics and the optimism that many of us had when Museveni came to power. Thank you very much for that introduction.
I must admit from the very onset that a part of me is divided whether I should
stand here and speak this evening or should follow my twitter feeds to
follow what’s happening in Uganda. Because in just a few hours the Supreme
Court in Uganda will deliver a landmark decision that we’ve all been waiting for
for the last four months. That decision is about whether President Museveni can
still contest for elections in 2021. You see about two years ago
the president set on a path to amend the constitution to lift the only impediment
to him contesting for elections. Having removed all others before that, including
term limits, he was coming up against an age limit that would have barred him
from contesting for elections in the next election. So he set upon a process
of amending the constitution and in doing so succeeded. What was
heart-wrenching is the manner in which he went about doing it. For the first
time in the history of our country soldiers stormed the floor of parliament
and beat opposition MPs to pulp. Many of them are still nursing the injuries they
sustained in that beating. Some of them will be disabled for their lives. And in
that process the Constitution was amended and allowed
the President to contest for elections for as many times as he wanted.
That process was challenged in the courts.
We had a small role to play in it and the Constitutional Court gave a
judgement last year and that judgment is coming up for final decision from the
Supreme Court. So a part of me feels like I should sit down look at my
feed and see what’s happening. But I’m also happy to be here to share with you
the story of Uganda. Stories that many of you would never have a chance to read
perhaps for your life. And this is the story of a beautiful country. And those
who have been there can testify just how beautiful the country is. Good
weather, good food, good people, good history. And an abundance of wildlife
right on the equator — beautiful country. But that in spite of its beauty, the
country suffers from many, many things, including bad governance. The country is
still reliant on aid for much of its national budget. The country which was
promising to be a beacon of hope in the region is increasingly becoming more
autocratic and a basket case in many respects. That is the country that I live
in. And you may ask what drives you then to do what you do if your country is
autocratic? I’ve been asked this question far too many times, that in telling it I
feel like I’m playing the music back to myself. But I will tell it to you again.
The reason I do what I do is really because of my history. You see I was born
and raised in Northern Uganda and Northern Uganda was the epicenter of a
very brutal conflict between a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army
and the government of Uganda. Growing up in that area meant that I was a
front-row witness to cases of human rights violation
from as young an age as five. I was what you used to call night commuters. Jeremy
would know this, these were young children who trekked miles everyday to
find safe shelter in open public spaces in the heart of the city in northern
Uganda. In the hope that they would survive being abducted by a vicious
rebel group, whose method of growing its numbers was the abduction of young
children into rebel ranks. So I was that child sleeping on the street.
Back then it was fun I can tell you this it was really fun. I think as a child you
just kind of forget what you’re living in and just trying to enjoy the moment.
It was fun because we would do the things we’ll never do at home when our
parents were watching. You know you’d play the games you’d never play at home.
You’d go to bed, well if there’s a bed anywhere, you go to sleep when you wanted
to. But in that situation was a very difficult life sleeping in open public
spaces, everyday walking miles in the morning to go to you know primary school,
and in the evening to walk back to find your place to sleep. In a bus park, in a
little church corridor, church varanda and and in many places. The second thing was
that then you had every day, had to see cases of dead bodies. People who’ve
been shot and killed on the streets in the night. People who have their heads
cut off, their limbs cut off and this became normal. You know you’d see it and
just walk past it. And then this leaves a mark in your mind as a child
and sends you, you know, asking questions about why this and why these
things were happening. When I grew older and went to an all level school, I was lucky to
go to a boarding school. A small school called St. Joseph’s College Layibi on
the outskirts of Gulu town. Now you’d think going to a boarding school would
give you some safety, but that wasnt case.
We still had to study for very short times of the day because often times
you’d have to flee hearing that rebels were approaching your school. Our school
was a boys school so it was a target for for rebels to come and recruit the young
boys in my school into their ranks. And so we would still as a teenager have to
run into town and then go and sleep in open public spaces. There was a very
funny story that I’d like to tell. One night when we were sleeping we had known
to sleep with our shoes on. We had known to sleep, you know, with your clothes on
because anytime it’s time for running. But before we knew that one night in the
deep of my sleep, you woke up and just had people running, you didn’t ask why
they were running you just ran. So I ran for about four miles and when
we stopped and we discovered that I was stark naked, you know, completely naked as a teenager. Luckily a lady that I don’t even know
gave me what you call a lesu, to tie myself. But that was our lives
growing up and trying to avoid abduction. As if the crimes committed by
rebel groups weren’t enough, we also had to do with crimes being committed
against our people by government forces. For me the picture I have in my mind is
March the 6th of 1988, when my father a tall, dark, British trained 92 year old
now was picked up by government soldiers for no reason.
but just being an adult in Gulu town. And severely beaten, frog-marched into a
stadium and made to sleep in the open while it rained for three days. As a
young child your father is the big figure in you in your life, so watching
your father go through this was traumatizing. I watched my mother line up
for relief food from World Food Program from Norwegian and Fiji council from US ID.
And back in the days the larger your family the more food rations you’d get.
So my father was blessed, he had more than 40 children, he had about three
wives and so he would line all of us to go and line up you know to show just why
he needed more food than everybody else
in that place. It was humiliating to see that happen and growing up in that
environment just sent me on a search for meaning
besides for what life is about. And what I could do to change my lot. And in that
search, I wanted to be a journalist. I really wanted to tell the story of what
was happening in my neighborhood. I thought that by being a journalist
I’ll tell the story, the world would know and something would happen. So I began to
get interested in listening to news programs, reading newspapers, writing short
stories in my school newsletter. But I also wanted to be a journalist for
another reason. There was a very young white lady called
Anna Borzello who was a BBC correspondent at the time. Anna Borzello would report the
news from my district and I would see her in the day and I would hear her on the
radio in the evening. So I wanted to be like Anna Borzello and tell the story on
the BBC. But the story is even more interesting because the BBC was my
father’s way of teaching me to speak English.
My father would leave his box Sony radio and ask you to listen to the
BBC focus on Africa program at 6:00 in the evening. And you would have to tell
him what was on the news. So you can imagine a village boy struggling to
listen to a British accent of a guy called Robin White. What that did to me
was it exposed me to what was happening around the world. It inspired in me the urge
to become a journalist. But more importantly taught me that I could do
more than what I was seeing in my neighborhood. So I wanted to be a
journalist and I began to write I began to take part in public affairs. But that dream was quickly dashed when I
discovered that telling my story alone wouldn’t change my situation. And
therefore I went on a search to become a lawyer and I did become a lawyer.
Really by 1) sheer luck, but 2) because of the generosity of many people across
the world. My father with his numerous wives and many children was unable to
pay my school fees to go to law school. But some people came together and
through their support got me through law school. Now as a young lawyer you thought
wow all is good I’m now a lawyer, I’m gonna wear fancy suits, do fancy cases,
I’ll be respected in my communities. But it quickly dawned upon me that I was a
privileged child to have gone through law school. See I wasn’t the best in my
class. There were many kids who used to beat me, who never had the chance to go to
law school. But I went to law school. And so I had the resolve that I should use my law degree and my skills as a lawyer to defend the rights of vulnerable people
in my country. And I spent all my early years just working in Northern Uganda
helping women who are fighting for their land rights or fighting domestic
violence. I was working on the legal aid project of the Law Society then,
providing pro bono services to rural Uganda in Northern Uganda. Then when that
got exciting I grew in career and joined one of the leading human rights
organizations in Uganda called the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative where
I was a researcher, human rights advocacy officer. That was exciting but as I
practiced the law, what I confronted as a child came right back in my face. Cases
of grave violations for human rights. In an attempt to hold on to power, the
regime in Kampala had unleashed upon its nationals violence, blocking peaceful
demonstrations, jailing people who are seen as
dissidents, who are seen as disagreeing with the regime in Kampala.
So many people have lost their lives and I felt I should dedicate my life to
defending this kind of people. And so we have done numerous cases in our attempt
to try and defend the rights of individuals in my country. So I’ll speak
about two cases just to illustrate the point. The first is the case of Thomas
Kwoyelo. Thomas Kwoyelo was a rebel commander with the Lord’s Resistance Army. He was
abducted as a child and was captured by the UPDF in a war in eastern DRC
about 11 years ago. Thomas Kwoyelo came from my part of the
country, from the village where my father got to teach as a teacher in his early
years. And so Thomas Kwoyelo’s father requested my dad to ask me to represent
him. It was the most agonizing decision of my life given the fact that Thomas Kwoyelo was involved in the abduction of my own sister who spent several years as
a sex slave within the LRA ranks. But we took up his case and I was among the first
defense lawyers in the war crimes court in Uganda defending the right of a rebel
commander to a fair trial before a court system. That case ten years later hasn’t
concluded and he is still in pre-trial detention for various reasons. But I took
up that case in spite of my own difficulties because I believe very
strongly that those faced with any crime before a court of law, regardless of the
crime, are entitled to due process. And that if we allowed Thomas Kwoyelo to be
unfairly treated, who knows who next will be unfairly
treated. So for ten years I was part of his legal team defending him before the
war crimes court. That case is still going on before the courts in Uganda. I
faced difficulties from my own family. Why do you take on these kind of cases?
But because I believe very strongly in the principle of a fair trial, the principle
of a good judicial system, I offered my services to help him for free. The second
case that I want to share with you is perhaps the case many of you have read
and I share this with a lot of reservations. The challenge against the
country’s anti-gay law. In 2009, a combination of American evangelical
groups inspired Ugandan legislators to enact a law that became known in the
West as the “kill the gay” bill. A law that provided for imprisonment for just who you love. For sanctions against organizations providing services to the country’s
LGBTI community. A law that would have required in its early stages when it was
proposed that doctors, teachers would have to disclose the sexual identity of
their students, of their patients and their clients. We took up this case as part of
a broader legal team. I wasn’t the only one involved in this case, there were many other
people involved. But the reason I tell you this story is to express to you the
personal difficulties you have to go through in handling this kind of cases.
In taking up this case, I was at the time the Secretary-General of the National Bar
Association. I was quite a big guy in the national bar association. But for taking up this
case, a section of the Law Society called the Uganda Christian Lawyers Fraternity
mobilized to get me out of office in the law society. And at the Annual General
Assembly in 2014 got me ejected from my office of the Law Society. At
a very personal level, the family level, I had people who in my family disowned me
as a disgrace to the family for taking up these cases and defending the
country’s LGBTI community. I had people confront me and spit in my face in
public and accused me of being an agent of Western powers. I wish I had received
money from Western powers to do this case.
Maybe I would suffer, I would suffer with a smile, but nothing could
have been further from the truth. Who are simply moved by our desire to defend the
country’s LGBT community and thankfully in 2014 we won the case. And so we do
work in a very difficult political environment. There are activists who are
being imprisoned because of posting on social media. As I speak now, a university
professor Dr. Stella Nancy has been in jail since November of last year for
posting, in perhaps very colorful language, stuff about the President on
social media. We have young people who are being prosecuted for this good
banter on social media about the president. We have in Uganda now an
attempt to try and limit access to social media. On several occasions the
president shut down social media and mobile money in times when he thought
social media would be used mobilize people in the country. He also imposed
the tax on the use of social media. In Uganda now, to be able to access Facebook
or any other social media platform, you have to pay daily tax. That is besides
the tax you pay on your own data you have to pay what is called an over-the-top
tax. So we do work in a very toxic environment, but this environment allows
us a little bit of room to do what you can do. And that is where I think the
nuances are important. The president, Museveni, in the West is hailed as a
progressive partner in the fight against terrorism.
He’s been the first African leader to deploy Ugandan troops in Somalia to fight
al Shabaab, we have an open-door policy for refugees to come in from all over
the region. And in many senses those are good things he has done but the flipside is
that that has placated him from real criticism about domestic politics and
what he’s doing in the country. He is beating up opponents. He organizes
elections that only he can win. Just a couple of days ago a leading opposition
leader was speaking at a radio station, just speaking on a radio station, not even
holding a rally. The police fired tear gas in the studio of the radio
station and switched off the radio as a whole for many hours. They are unable to
organize rallies and be able to mobilize people. At the end of last year were
defending a young musician who had just captivated the imagination of people
in the country. the Honorable Robert Chaplin properly
known by his stage name was Bobby wine Bobby wine has arrived three attempts at
his life on two occasions people close to him was shot and killed including his
driver he is unable to hold music concerts I was on the phone with him
just a couple of days ago he’s planning to hold music concerts for the Easter
season and police are just blocked him from just taking the stage to sing he’s
facing charges of treason before the high court in Uganda for simply leading
by election that humiliated the president and he lost him in that part
of the country and so while the situation in Uganda is as dire as I
describe it there is still some space for which lawyers can do what they do
NGOs can do what they can do it is part of the cleverly weaved process of giving
semblance of democracy in Uganda you have courts giving you sometimes very
good decisions and I hope that the ruling today is one of those good
seasons but many times the courts are aware in matters where the president is
personally interested you would have difficulties getting a good judgment. The
impact of a nearly thirty four year rule in power means that every single
judicial officer in our court system is appointed by the president. Every one of
them cause the appointment to Mr. Museveni and many of them are party candidates,
many of them all allegiance to him and his rule, and in that situation makes it
extremely difficult to expect a good decision from the court. But nonetheless
we have been able to use the courts in my view for three reasons. Even if we
know that sometimes they don’t get good judgments from the courts we still go to
the courts because we use the courts not just as a place to win a court judgment
but to create a public record and shape public narratives around particular
issues. We also use the courts to give voice to victims who otherwise would
never, never be had in any place in that country. Take, for example, the case of the
Ugandan gay community. It’s extremely difficult to even hold a meeting like
this if you are in a meeting like this the police would storm it and break it
up and charge people with all kinds of crimes and so we used the courts as a
space for advocacy for shaping narrative and for giving voice to victims. So
regardless of whether the courts are free and fair or not, we still see the
four walls of the courthouse as a good space, as a springboard for what we can
do in the country. And so I was asked to speak for 20 minutes, and it’s 23 minutes my apologies I could go on and on the whole evening, but I think it is best to stop
here and perhaps leave the rest for a Q&A. Thank you so much for listening
to me. I appreciate it. There will be dessert, just in case
anyone is concerned. That would typically be the first question that my kids would
ask. I want to tell you that Nicholas is the dessert, but no. In fact, through that door
when we finish up our Q&A there will be a dessert buffet and some more time to
mingle but first let’s take the opportunity that we have with Nicholas
to investigate further some of the issues that he raised and I’m gonna
start with with two questions that are on my mind before opening it up to the
group. So let me ask the first one, so you kind of laughingly talked about yourself
as potentially described as an agent of Western powers. You kind of wish you were an
agent of Western powers because maybe it would come with a four wheel drive
vehicle and a security detail and a swimming pool and all the other things
the Western powers have in Kampala. But I want I want to investigate that a
little bit further because especially around these LGBTQ issues, there was
extraordinary sensitivity inside Ugandan domestic political environment about the
role of the West not only in sort of shaping a climate in which homosexuality
right or you know the sort of behavior that that that the sort of Ugandan law
was designed to prevent that the West was somehow associated with creating
that community but also I think challenges because I was serving in the
Obama administration at the time from the perspective the president and our
senior team about whether there were effective ways for the United States to
stand in solidarity with activists on the ground and with vulnerable
communities without further creating this narrative that you know the West
was somehow imposing a set of values on a Ugandan political
community that wasn’t accepting of those things and obviously Museveni was happy to sort of encourage those kinds of critiques so I think it’d be useful to
hear a bit from your perspective how do you think about the role of Western
countries, the role of the United States in the context of these very contentious
debates about, as you said at our table, not gay rights but human rights, right? especially when it’s such an effective
political tool for those who want to marginalize or undermine the activists
or the people who themselves are suffering. Well, first of all, let me just
give a shout-out to the Africa table team here. They’ve been my home. They have been my home since I came here in January so shout-out to Laura and all the good guys. Thierry and all of you guys. To your question, Jeremy, first and foremost, I think that we should not be
blind to the context in which this discussion is being had this discussion
takes place within a political climate that is yearning for a scapegoat to
deflect public attention from the democratic records in the country the
LGBTI community is just one of those communities and to focus only on that
community would be to to play along with what the regime in Kampala would want to
do. I think that Western countries that are partners to the Ugandan state in
their economic, geopolitical interests or even security interests must be invested
in democratic governance and practice as a whole as opposed to LGBTI rights
precisely because of the context in which these things happen
the second reason is then that if you only concentrate and that is the mistake
I think that if we had to say something negative about the Obama administration
and many other Western countries did was to focus on the LGBTI issue as the most
important issue and play to the narrative and turn communities against
LGBTI groups for example in protest of some of the things they did like
suspending aid, public condemnation of of the country’s leadership those things
were in some way, somewhat counterproductive and so I think that
critical investments must be made not just in the LGBTI, which is a very
small part of the equation, but on the overall human rights and democratic
system in the country. The American Embassy in Kampala gives us every year
what they call their report to the Ugandan people. If you see where the vast
majority of its investment goes it’s to issues of climate change, which is great,
healthcare, education are not an equal amount of investment in time on human
rights and and rule of law so I think that we must first of all
approach that from that context. The second broad thought that I would have
in that regard is to say this is really our struggle. We know the context, we know the issues we know the nuances we know the drivers that make our leaders do the
things they do and in trying to help push back on these issues, Western powers must not be a replacement for local voice and activism because it’s their lived experience. It is what they know, it is
what they live every day so they know best how to approach it,
so any support from Western governments and powers must not be to replace local
activists but support them to be the ones to lead the
campaign against homophobia especially in the case of Uganda. Lastly I think
that there is a lot of leverage the you know in the hands of Western governments
that they don’t use enough, and I’ll give an example. In the middle of this
discussion about the country’s LGBTI law in 2013 when the State Department issued
this powerful statement against Museveni The U.S. Ambassador in Uganda then, Scott DeLisi, had a tremendous interview on the BBC. You had military generals from
Africa in Germany decorating Ugandan soldiers in Kampala. It felt as though,
for those of us who are on the ground, it felt as though in the USG, the State
Department was not speaking to DoD and while the State Department was
condemning Museveni for what he had done , Museveni’s generals were being decorated
and you know celebrated by the U.S. so we’re speaking they were just
disagreeing. I wish they could put the act together and speak in unison. I think
for us that was counterproductive in so on so many levels. I want to ask you one other question which goes in a slightly different
direction, and maybe to frame this like many I think in the room probably you
may have been a part of a religious institution when you were a kid. I was a
part of a synagogue, and I finished my religious school education and I
approached something called confirmation right at the end of your religious
school education, and I was asked to give a speech at our confirmation ceremony.
The problem was that I didn’t believe in God, and so I went to the rabbi and I
said I’ve got a real problem. I’m supposed to give this speech, but I don’t
believe in God. He said I’m not sure I do either, and that was like a big
eye-opener for me and we had a sort of really interesting
conversation about faith and and when you have faith in when you lose faith so
I want to ask you about faith in the law right as opposed to faith in God and I
want I want to hear a little bit from your own perspective about how you
maintain faith in the law and what would make you lose faith in the law because
you exist in an environment where as you described everyone in the judicial
system has been appointed by the president where if a judge decides to
strike out on his or her own they could expect to lose their appointment so at
what point do you look at that system and say it’s so broken as a mechanism
for honoring the rights of people either as reflected in the constitution
or that you believe are universal rights that you say playing in this game of
trying to enforce the rule of law no longer makes sense and you need to
pursue some alternative to stand yourself as a political candidate —
nonviolent civil disobedience on a mass scale, taking up guns to challenge the
Museveni regime. These are all alternative pathways to affecting the
kind of change that you want so what sustains your faith in the law and when
do you lose faith in the law? So the law is a tool and like all other
tools they can only be effective to the extent that those who use the tools mean
well, are people of good faith people of integrity people who can exercise the
discretion judiciously and so my faith is not just in the law but in the people
will enforce the law and I think the reason that we are where we are at is
because there are people within the system sometimes low-level mid-career
individuals who mean well and would go to the extent of risking their lives and
their jobs to just do well that is what keeps me going the belief that in this broken system there are moments of brightness there are
individuals in the system that will do what is right even at huge expense to their jobs and to their you know sometimes lives and
so they keep me going they are the people who speak to you quietly and say
I may be serving this government I may be working in the system but I don’t
believe what is being done and who would give you information would give you tips
on what to do who may give you sometimes even secrets and you can be able to do
what you can do so I don’t have a lot of faith in the law but I have faith in the
people that are working in the system who mean well and and are able to do what
they are supposed to do. The other thing is to say that there are many options that we can take as imagine to confront this autocratic regime in Kampala but none of
those options in my view should include violence taking up arms to fight the
state I think that my country has bled enough. We have never had a peaceful
transfer of power since the country got independence in 1962. Every other
subsequent regime has come at the cost of a coup, lives,
disruption of people’s lives, so I don’t think that my country and certainly not
myself having grown up in that kind of environment and seen the impact of war
should go back to a state where transfer of power must be by armed
rebellion or loss of lives. I believe in confronting the regime
head-on using all possible means except violence and that’s why every day we go
and litigate cases we go and do a lot of advocacy work with development partners
in Uganda because we believe that those options can still work and deliver in
terms of holding public office I don’t think that and I’ll be honest with you
if I contested for elections in my village I probably have a good chance of
becoming an MP, Member of Parliament, but I don’t think that in a system in which
the MPs work I’m able to achieve what I’m doing right now. In fact if I were in
Parliament I would have said I would have achieved less than what I’ve been
able to achieve precisely because the system of elections, the system of
running government is just no in terms of lawmaking is not efficient and I would
rather have the social capital and influence to make the MPS do what I want
them to do as opposed to being one of them and so the investments that we have had
is creating networks and systems that have influence on the levers of power
and an agenda give you an example in 2005 I drafted the country’s prevention
and prohibition of torture act, a law that was long overdue but that nobody in
parliament wanted to do and put together a group of organizations and individuals
that advocated for this law and the MPs did what we wanted them to do and that
law is now law in the country I don’t think that if I were an MP I would have
done that on my own being in parliament so I don’t
think that elections are necessarily what I want to use as a platform for
change but having the influence on the levers of power because power really is
not the office it’s not the physical office. Power is the ability to be able
to make former systems of government do what you think is right what you
think they should do and I think that my investment in time is an understanding
that level of power and being able to use it to influence the country and I
think that that perhaps in the long term will work. My bet is on it working.
That’s great that’s a very inspiring answer. I think to that question. I want
to turn it over to you. I’d ask as you take the microphone to ask your
question that you introduce yourself tell us what year or what program you’re
in at Stanford what you’re studying and who wants to start us off with a
question for Nicholas. Yeah. Hi my name is Ben I’m a first year masters student in
East Asian Studies I study LGBTQ issues in Japan. So specifically kind of in
terms of law and how you approach cases about LGBTQ individuals if there is no
precedent set in your country yet for a law for you know an issue like marriage
or some sort of equality what how do you approach cases like that do you use
something within your own country do you look outside to an international kind of
stage to set a precedent or how do you think you would approach those types of
cases or issues? Well first of all the Ugandan Constitution is one of the most
progressive constitutions right at least in theory and in the Bill of Rights
contained in chapter 4 of our Constitution it captures the
International Human Rights language the coppice of Rights and the thing
that you know you’d expect in any law like that so in terms of law there are
actually laws that prohibit non-discrimination that talks about
privacy and so the law itself has as a law is not a problem in terms of
providing for the coppice of Rights what is in fact the problem is the
limited application and interpretation of the law by people who are supposed to
apply the law and the challenge you have to do is to try and expand their mind
and make sure that they interpret those provisions in the broadest way possible
and the second thing is that we as a common law country draw what we call
precedents our judges are very conservative they look at what other judges have said
before them and hold similarly and so there are many common law countries that
have decisions that are very helpful to us so we’ve used a lot of cases from
South Africa from Australia from Canada less less in the US. The U.S. system is a
bit complicated for us but but those countries provide inspiration and give
us judicial decisions that we can use. The second source of law that we used in
the course is really soft law in respect to the LGBTI issue we have had some very
progressive soft law decisions from say for example the UN Human Rights Council
from say for example the Inter-American Human Rights Court or in fact even from
the African Commission you know we are not yet
you know progressive but at least there’s some decisions from from those
areas where we can use to influence the court system in Uganda but like I said
the problem really is not the law the problem lightly is the application
of legal principles in a very homophobic country like Ugandan courts and and
and people in government and you know how they apply the law determines really
how these issues are handled in in any system of government so I think that you know besides litigation there is
also a lot of advocacy work. I mentioned that sometimes we go to court not to win
because winning is not our objective in the court and using that space
creatively in ways that puts pressure on the courts puts pressure on the system
sometimes our justice what we think is our justice is not in the four walls of
the court it is outside the court is just a stage where we set out these issues
and so using the courts creatively using the laws of springboard for other extra-judicial in the positive sense way
not in the sense of killing without due process but processes outside of the
judiciary that would give you a lot of a lot of leverage so lots of training for
example of judicial officers I had the most amazing experience one of my staff
members going to a training of the prosecutors from all over the country
and she came back to office and said the prosecutors were extremely hostile and
felt they were trapped because they were called for this human rights training
and they were being trained by an open lesbian woman who had no apologies about
being lesbian and she had to go through a three-hour process of training
prosecutors about the rights of her community and so yeah we do besides
cases this work outside called the we do trainings and stuff like that.
Another question may be over here. Hi my name is Nathaniel I’m majoring
in International Relations and I’m here with the Islamic Studies department
and I was just curious just hearing you comment earlier about lack of social
media freedom I know that a lot of the the social media that has made it to the
West unfortunately from Uganda has been very like outrageous and throughout the
world that there’s definitely a pattern of social media. I’m focusing on or I
should say people choosing to make viral content that is more outrageous than
more moving towards progress. Do you think that there is a way for when
social media is more free for that for domestic positive domestic change to
occur as a result of it or do you think that it will lead in a similar direction
as say the way that social media has led to revolution in the Arab Spring into
more bloodshed? Well first of all I like your hair. I wish I could grow mine like
that. Mine grows in patches. But to your
question it’s a double-edged sword. Social media is empowering in fact it is
the only space that the country’s LGBTI community organizes in, there are closed
Facebook groups there are closed whatsapp groups that is a space where
people feel free to express themselves to mobilize and in that sense it’s been
extremely useful but like is the nature of social media it can also empower
homophobic groups hate groups and all kinds of of kind all kinds of people so
I think it’s a double-edged sword there’s just no one answer to how social
media can become this space that promotes only good because in a sense it
gives a megaphone to anyone and I think we’re all still grappling with how we
can make it a responsible community that that doesn’t promote hate crimes and
I think the responsibility of doing that now lies on the shoulders of you know
governments and these big tech companies and how that is gonna prepare I have no
idea but in terms of social media rights in Uganda and I think what is making the
regime in Kampala really scared is the ability of social media to be a space
for organizing. We’ve had protests in Uganda not in the scale of the Sudan the
Sudan is exceptional but in in terms of our context that space has been used
creatively to push back on a number of things. I’ll give you one example. For the
very first time in Uganda there was a women’s match last year that became a
space for women from all walks of life to just come in one space and express
themselves so you had commercial sex workers you had the country’s lesbian
community you had other women rights groups just coming
together to have this much that lasted for hours had way over a thousand people
a thousand in our context is really big you know had the US ambassador had the
French ambassador that entire march and mobilization for that march was clearly
done on social media and was only able to be held because the authorities felt
the pressure that was being exerted on them on social media and so social media
is a powerful tool but in my view it can also be a double-edged sword it can cut
either way and in the context of Uganda we are still not at the level where we
think that is going to be the spark for say a revolution in the sense of what
happened in Egypt or what did happen recently in the Sudan but it’s a growing
community and I think the response of the state only speaks to the fact that
they are afraid of the power it has as a space for mobilizing in my country. Great
yeah. Wow thank you. My name is Mason
I major in electrical engineering. I’m here with the Center of African Studies.
First of all I’d like to appreciate all the words that you’ve spoken about it’s
really incredible to be here. I also think it’s beautiful to be in the
presence of all of you who not only stand for these principles but are
invested in this region. My question is more in regards to the
region East Africa, having been born in and and raised in Tanzania I
think and as a young person I want to be hopeful and optimistic about
the future of the region but I also want to understand where it’s heading more
realistically like in Tanzania just a few months ago there was what what a lot
of people are referring to as the enabling act where the government has
instituted this law that is essentially going to police all these other
political parties in the country so I want to hear from you as somebody who’s
been involved in the grass roots movements in the region and who is aware
of the work that all the young people are doing where what do you see as the
future of East Africa in the next five years and the kind of role that young
people can play in adding value in just making this something that we all want
to be hopeful about. I’m a very optimistic person I’d like to look at
the features bright but I think that looking at events in East Africa
I think the East African community now is at its weakest if you look at the
regression in Tanzania what more fully has been doing in
Tanzania is a complete opposite of what we had expected in Tanzania over the
last couple of years the jailing of social media activists the one of my
friends who was the president of a law society had his office bombed simply
because he called the leader you know a small dictator and so what what is
happening in in Tanzania is not hopeful if you look further to the west of
Tanzania was happening in Burundi the perversion of democratic processes
for one man rule for the continued hang on to power by one man in Burundi at the
cost of you know people’s lives doesn’t give me a lot of hope in what I see as
the direction of the country if you look to our new member of this African
community in the Sudan and we saw the South Sudan. I think South Sudan is a
basket case of just a failed new state as I don’t think that I look
at the future of the East African community as a community as a political
community as being very bright what I do hope and have hope in is the young
people in the region. First of all speaking for Uganda it’s a country that
has the majority of them are young people 78 of our 78 percent of the
population people below the age of 35 that’s an extremely young population and
these young people don’t care about the past they care more about the future we
have no idea about miscellaneous wars in the bushes of Guerrero in 1980-1985, what
they care about is jobs what the care about is you know education schools
health care and if they don’t see it they’re becoming increasingly more
agitated and becoming you know louder and louder so I think that the hope for
me lies in our demographics a young empowered civically engaged young
population I think is the only hope that the region has for meaningful change. The
question is do we see our struggles as connected do we have young people
connecting in the region and seeing their workers as reinforcing of each
other. I had the fortune of traveling with Bobby Wine or Robicheaux colony the
young musician was now you know captured the imagination of the country to Kenya
last year and I think I saw many more young people
come forward to meet him to engage with him to discuss with him the future of
East Africa more than I had seen people in Uganda partly because you know he
knows feel organized in Kenya but also partly because the Kenyan young people
are just so engaged and so connecting our struggles and being able to have an
East African youth movement that looks at the future of the region perhaps for
me is the only hope that I see for the region. The last one and I think for me
this is perhaps addressed to you as a former federal government official is
that. Retired. Emeritus. The and I’m really sorry to
pick on you I know it’s not a good time to be associated with the federal
government but the point is that international blocks must re-examine their
relationships with the region President Clinton administration
described Museveni and Kagame our as the new cleared of African
leaders I think they were mistaken with the benefit of hindsight now we can
agree that all of these people turned out to be not they what they expected
them to be they are completely different from what they had hope they will turn
out to be and so we must re-examine our relationship with the original strong
men who hold power who in particular Museveni still the longest-serving
leader in this African community one of the last surviving the only surviving
signatories to this African community so it’s it’s a question of how do we relate
to the region what do we see in the region as as important to engage with
and I like to scare people when I tell them I said long-term the US interest is
better protected not by my seven strongman in Uganda but by more
democratic society in more open society. As long as you don’t have our own open
society we will continue to have refugees wash up on your Shores in the US or in Europe
that’s a fact people are gonna run over here for as
long as you don’t make our country accountable we’ll have ebola cases
getting onto a flight and coming to the U.S. and so focusing on long-term
interest of regional bloc’s must be premised on the principle that that can
only be safeguarded by a more democratic open society and that’ll call for them
to reexamine how they relate with people like President Museveni Minister. I just
wanna I have to ask a follow-up question not to defend a federal government or
Obama or anything it’s it’s actually about your faith in democracy as
opposed to your faith in the law so one of the statistics that I often show when
I’m teaching Stanford undergraduates is that if you poll people under the age of
35 in advanced economies Europe and the United States what you’ve seen over the
last decade is a declining faith in democracy as the form of government that
is the best form of government. People don’t say what they would prefer to
democracy and in most of these environments people haven’t had an
experience of anything other than democracy but now more than a quarter of
young people say that democracy is not the best form of government for their
country so you obviously see when you’re living here and when you listen to the
BBC and hear about brexit and read the newspapers and look at what’s happening
in Europe in the United States that democracy is having its own growing
pains not the kinds of growing pains that we used to think about it newly
transitioning countries but these are longtime democracies experiencing
profound growing pains Democratic dysfunction paralysis polarization so
just as a follow-up question to what you just said
why so much faith in democracy that democracy is the the set of institutions
and rules that will actually provide the kinds of
outcomes that you want for Ugandans and that you want for the region when here
in the United States and in Europe were seeing so much of the consequences of
democratic dysfunction. That is a tough question but let me let me respond to
this way that if you have lived in war you have seen violent transfer of power
you’ve seen forced disappearances maiming of people just to hang on to to
office the more attractive option is a more open society is a more democratic
society the only safety valve you have two leaders who hang on to power is the
possibility that they may have access to the instruments of coercion but that
that in itself can be you know removed from them in an election and so the
reason that I have a lot of faith in democracy as a system of governance is
that it does provide safety valves even in dysfunctional democracies even in all
struggling democracies in you know in in the West you still have the safety
valves to allow for that phase you know to be to be changed, and I think that the belief that dysfunctionalist is … you have strong institutions that will try and push back. You have a fairly independent electoral process that, even if you don’t like, the current U.S. administration, the most you
can suffer is eight years so I do think that those options are more attractive to us
than the option of original strong man will stay in power forever because a key part of long in power really … take the case of the Uganda just to explain to drive the point home is that, the longer President Museveni stays in power, the more repressive he becomes because he has to immobilize the opposition. He has to stifle independent
voices. He has to restrict civic space for NGOs in order for him to contain his staying power. Limit access to manipulation. Limit free assembly. But the second impact is that the system to keep him in power … he has to (inaudible) openings, he has to
maintain a constituency, so the cost of staying power for long is that you have not just
repression but gradually becoming the rule of the game and so we see that as
less attractive because we’ve seen what war, what transferring power can do, and then I think
that we find democracy with all its weaknesses,
more attractive to us, and I think for me my faith is that the democratic system
and strong institutions will give us safety valves, but also it will
protect us for we have when I’m living in Uganda — war, instability, corruption, and
repression. Great, we have time for a couple more questions so more hands.
Yeah. Hey, my name is John. I’m a physics major, second year undergraduate. I’m here with the South Asian Department. So my question is I
guess in response to your previous answer about using the levers of power
while not being in a setting and being yourself yourself, and I was wondering. I’m very curious to hear of more details about how what carrot or
stick you use as someone through the judiciary on the ones the ball of it and
how exactly you, I guess, more details about how you affect that kind of change —
what tools you use besides the law? What’s What’s the secret sauce? Let me give you the secret, if I may. And to use an example of the country’s LGBTI law in 2014. The truth of the matter is that power panders to a source of power, and those in office have fears in life, weaknesses in life, and so understanding those fears become really, really important and so the
analysis of power and power where where power is derived and how power is used is important in understanding the other ways in which (inaudible) … that we, in fact, impact power, and the way that we use it, to give you a perfect example, is when Museveni, in spite of promising
that he wouldn’t sign the anti-gay law in Uganda, signed it, we quickly did a analysis of the largest donors to the
country, and we discovered that the World Bank is a very big financier to Uganda, and to just go to the World Bank and say look your money is being used to promote
discrimination in the country … just about to sign a ten million dollar aid to
help the health sector, but the health sector is not providing treatment or access to
medicine to the country’s LGBTI. And thankfully, the World Bank
president and, without the approval of his board, his board of (inaudible) in the
Washington Post … he says they’re suspending that aid to Uganda, and a country that needs the aid, that needs foreign aid subsidies, a hugely efficient and corrupt system … that’s a very
important matter. It’s a very personal issue so the World Bank, they said forget about
it. If you want this money, do the following things, and we got the World
Bank to appoint a team of consultants to evaluate the country’s
response to the World Bank visa, and in the end we did get what we wanted. The health
sector completely open its gates and allowed for access to treatment, access
to medicine for the country’s LGBTI community. In fact, they even established a whole clinic
at the national referral hospital that deals with what they call “most at
risk population.” The National AIDS Commission has programming, has resources
that deal with such minorities in my country. A second example is what happened with the Scandinavian bloc. The most important and perhaps strongest partner to
human rights work in Uganda has been the Scandinavian bloc. You have, you know, countries like Norway, Denmark, and others, and we’re able to get them to speak in (inaudible), to say from this day
onwards, up until now, we are not giving any money for budget support to the country. So the behind the scenes work in advocating for providing information,
cajoling the people who give money to the Ugandan State they give us some some
some results, and so I think that the short response to your question is
understanding the drivers of power what places power would respond to. President Museveni went to the Africa EU summit in Brussels and couldn’t leave his hotel room. He couldn’t
leave because the strip mobilized people who were
demonstrating against him in front of his hotel, at the conference venue. He couldn’t leave his room. In fact, he did miss (inaudible) in his hotel room, and then flew black to Kampala. He was quite upset. So yes, understanding those things and making sure that you attach those passions are extremely important. So we have time for one more question. Let’s take the question in the back. Hello, my name is Pierce. I’m in the computer science program and the Iranian Studies
program here at Stanford, and I wanted to thank you sir for an incredibly
inspiring and incredibly informative presentation and for the honor of having
you here this evening. I wanted to ask you from the perspective of perhaps
ordinary citizens or even ordinary students if there’s anything that we
could do perhaps to help those on the ground and nations, such as Uganda, that
are suffering these abuses or that are agitating for change. Is there
anything that you would recommend we do or any way we can best help them in the
present capacities that most of us at least ordinary citizens would have
available to us? Thank you. Well first of all, just educate yourself and know exactly what is happening. You know, coming to the Bay Area, I’ve just been astounded by the limited knowledge about my country and my region I think you should spend more time at CAS than you do in computer science. Just learn about what’s happening on the continent. If I told you that Sudan has had three presidents in the last one week, many of you would think that it’s a joke, but that’s the truth! So, first of all, educate yourself, understand, know what’s happening. Because if you don’t know, you wouldn’t care, and if you care, you wouldn’t be unhelpful in doing what you’re doing. So just understand, learn, have interest in the region because, whether you like it or not, Africa is the place to be in the next century. It’s the best thing ever, and if you haven’t been, shame on you. The second thing is to understand what your government, your evangelical groups are doing in my country, and try and have influence on them. There are people in the
U.S. Senate who are deeply tied to the Museveni regime. I don’t think people here
know it. I don’t think people here put enough pressure on them, so if you know it
put pressure on them. Make sure that there is a U.S. government response that’s appropriate to what’s happening in Uganda. Ensure that you call your senator. Make
sure that Uganda’s is discussed at the right places in government. If you do
that, and influence your state policy and response to the region, you’d have done us a lot of good. Three emotions as as we sort of end our evening tonight. The first is a profound sense of the privilege that we have to be with you this evening. The word was described honor. It’s an honor to be able to share this evening with you and to
hear your perspectives and sharing your story, but it’s also I think a privilege
for all of us for you to speak so frankly and honestly about your
perspective on the role of people who are not in Uganda. The things that
you just described in answer to this question, I wish were words that people here lived by, but they’re really important words to
be spoken out loud about the importance of listening, of recognizing where you have
power and influence, and what it is you bring but also where expertise and
knowledge really reside. Those are important things to be said, not only in a university environment, but in Silicon Valley, in the United States, and
everywhere and so it feels like an enormous privilege. The second thing is
sort of I feel tremendous inspiration when we have evenings like this. I
sometimes feel it during the day too including when I’m teaching some of you in
this room but sort of being together with a group of people sort of engaging
seriously the experiences that you’re bringing to the table and also hearing
the questions that you all are asking thinking really hard about tough issues
sort of reminds being why this is such a special institution and this group of
people we have is so unique. And then the third is just a feeling of gratefulness for
the time that you give us, for the time that all of you give the communities
that you’re a part of on campus. Sometimes the English word fails me but
thank you very much and to all the warm loving fellows at CAS, I came here
depressed. I was running away from the possibility of being arrested and I go
back to Uganda re-energized but even more energized to see your
interest in you know these kinds of discussions here so thank you as well. So
please join me in thanking Nicholas for being with us.

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