I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue, which is of great importance to many people both inside and outside my constituency. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank hon. Members who have taken the time to participate in the debate.
Let me set the scene. Picture with me a quiet village on the Ugandan plains at night. There are lots of shacks, and the peaceful silence is interrupted only by the odd bleating of an animal. The children are asleep; all is at rest. The silence is suddenly destroyed by the noise of trucks, shouts and guns being fired. Families are literally dragged out of their homes. Children watch as their fathers are shot and their mothers are taken.
A little boy is pulled from his brother to stand in front of a man who points a gun at his head and tells him to shoot his mother. If he does not shoot her, he and his brother will be shot. He looks into his mother’s eyes as she slowly nods her head urging him to do it. He pulls the trigger, turns to his captor who says, “You are on my side now. You are my comrade in arms. You are a soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army.” All that little boy knows is that he has killed his own mother. All that he believes is that he is evil and worthless, and all that he hopes for is that he never comes back to this place. Some people say that such events happen only in the movies and that it is not real life, but the fact is it is real life for far too many in Uganda.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It is not only real life for children now, but it has been real life for people in Uganda for 25 years. Some 1.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, 20,000 children have been abducted to become soldiers or sold as sex slaves. They are used as cart horses, force-marched and kept hungry for days. Other children are used as target practice. Babies are slaughtered for cannibalism and villages are abandoned. Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter and hope that in this debate we can highlight the atrocities right across this country and beyond because action must be taken to stop this.
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. She is well known in this House for her compassion and interest in many countries across the world where abuse takes place on a regular basis. In my comments, I will probably touch on some of her points.
In some areas, what I have outlined is still life and something must be done to change it. Some 20,000 children from Uganda have been kidnapped by the LRA for use as child soldiers and slaves. That is 20,000 childhoods stolen, 20,000 hearts broken, 20,000 children ripped from their mother’s arms and forced, as in my example, into terrible situations, and 20,000 reasons for us, as Members of Parliament, to stand here today and ensure that everything possible is done to make a difference to those lives.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Lord’s Resistance Movement, is a so-called militant Christian group. There is certainly nothing Christian about its activities. It operates in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic and is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual slavery and forcing children to participate in hostilities—all grievous charges. Initially, the LRA was an out-growth and a continuation of a larger armed resistance movement waged by some of the Acholi people against the central Ugandan Government whom they felt marginalised them at the expense of southern Ugandan ethnic groups. The group is led by Joseph Kony, who proclaims himself to be the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium.
Since 1987, Kony is believed to have recruited between 60,000 and 100,000 child soldiers and displaced about 2 million people throughout central Africa. The LRA is one of the foreign organisations that the United States Government has designated as terrorist, and its leadership is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On 23 March, the African Union announced its intentions to send 5,000 soldiers to join the hunt for the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, and to neutralise him—its words—while isolating the scattered LRA groups, which are responsible for 2,600 civilian killings since 2008. This international task force was to include soldiers from Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those are countries in which Kony’s reign of terror has been felt over a great many years.
Before that announcement, the hunt for Kony was primarily carried out by troops from Uganda. The soldiers began their search in South Sudan on 24 March, and that search will last until Kony is caught. Over the weekend, hundreds of people turned out for a rally in Northern Ireland to highlight the atrocities in Uganda and to call for tough action, ever mindful of the fact that the African Union’s 5,000-strong army has pledged to catch him.
The Americans have laid their cards on the table and are supportive of this hunt. In his response, will the Minister tell us how we are supporting the capture of this evil man and his army? There is also the issue of his dynasty. This is a man who is rumoured to have 88 wives and 46 children—he has been a busy man—and his ideals are certain to be carried on. We must do all that we can to ensure that there is no succession in this case.
The ravages of war have left the country literally dying and in great need of help. The conflict in the north of the country between the Ugandan People’s Defence Force and the LRA has decimated the economy, retarded the development of affected areas and led to hundreds of thousands of gross human rights violations. Those violations have centred on the poor emergency provision for internally displaced persons fleeing their homes to avoid the LRA. It has been estimated that 2 million Ugandans had to flee their homes. Many ended up in refugee camps, rife with disease and starvation—almost a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Disease has spread further through Uganda due to the number of people who are passing through these camps. Many are suffering in rural areas. A simple shot or course of antibiotics could almost instantly end the pain and stop the spread of disease. Will the Minister tell us what medical help has been given directly to Uganda?
Does my hon. Friend agree that while we cannot even begin to understand this travesty or the human pain that exists within the country, there has also been a radical growth not only in murder—pastors have been killed and children have been forced to shoot their mothers—but in human trafficking and we need to do something radical about it. As the United Kingdom pays a lot of funding to these countries, surely something can be done.
Yes, human trafficking is a massive issue. My hon. Friend is well known for supporting and championing that issue. Northern Ireland had its first human trafficking conviction yesterday. Hopefully, that will be the first of many such convictions in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom as well.
In the six years since the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement, many displaced persons have returned to their homes and a rehabilitation and redevelopment programme is under way. However, standards of living are nowhere near what we in the western world would deem to be acceptable. I know that it is unfair to draw a comparison between the western world and Uganda, but in fact the conditions in Uganda remain closer to shocking than to any semblance of acceptability. If we think of the worst standard of living and then go beyond that, that is what it is like in some places in Uganda.
What is Uganda like now in terms of its Government? The President of Uganda is Yoweri Kaguta Museveni; I say that with my Ulster Scots accent. He is both Head of State and Head of Government. The President appoints a vice-president, who is currently Edward Ssekandi, and a Prime Minister, who is currently Amama Mbabazi, and they aid him in governing the country. The Parliament is formed by the national assembly, which has 332 members, of whom 104 are nominated by interest groups, including women and the army, so there is some representation for other groups in the country. The remaining members are elected for five-year terms in general elections.
Uganda is rated by Transparency International among the countries that it perceives as being “very corrupt”. Transparency International has a scale measuring corruption ranging from zero, which means “most corrupt”, to 10, which means “clean”. Uganda has a rating of 2.4, so it is right up there when it comes to human abuse and the violation of rights.
Under Idi Amin in the 1970s, Christians suffered restrictions and even intense persecution. The current Ugandan Government does not officially restrict religious freedom any longer. However, religious oppression still occurs in individual cases.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that, although the human rights situation in Uganda improved after Idi Amin, since Museveni’s so-called re-election a few years ago things have got decidedly worse? In Uganda, there have been a lot of arrests, restrictions on the press and abuse of human rights on a general scale that is getting worse by the day.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will speak about some of the human rights abuses in Uganda shortly, but they are at a worse level now than they have ever been in the past. Idi Amin was ousted, but at the end of the day what took his place was not necessarily for the betterment of the Ugandan people, and the hon. Lady has very clearly said that.
As I was saying, religious oppression occurs in individual cases, especially against Christians from a Muslim background. Where such Christians are threatened, the Ugandan state does not always seem able to protect them effectively prior to an attack or to provide them with justice following an attack. I will give three examples to illustrate that point. I know of these examples because of the Open Doors charity, which is a group that works on behalf of persecuted Christians right across the world.
The first example is that of Bishop Umar Mulinde, who was an Islamic teacher before his conversion to Christianity. Since then, he has often criticised Islam and has had to rely on police protection while preaching at large Christian gatherings throughout Uganda. Because of the threats he received, he and his family had to relocate within Kampala, the capital city. On 24 December 2011—Christmas eve—he was attacked by Islamic extremists outside his Gospel Life church in Kampala. The attackers were able to pour acid down his back and on to his face, leaving him with severe facial burns. The acid blinded one eye, which doctors had to remove, and threatened the sight in his other eye. His attackers were able to contact him after the incident to say:
“We are happy that the acid has disfigured your face, and also disappointed because our intention was to kill you.”
The second example is also important. It is that of Hassan, a former sheikh and a former member of a violent Islamic group. In 2007, he started exploring Christianity and was warned by his associates not to
“make such a mistake again—we are ready to help you. If you continue with this move, then we will destroy you.”
He reported the threats to the police in the sub-county of Insanje, in the Wakiso district. In response, his associates sent other threatening letters. He became a Christian in June 2011 and received more death threats, which forced him to flee to Kenya. He returned to Uganda in September 2011 and received further death threats. He reported those threats to the police in Chengera, who told him that they would investigate. However, in October 2011 he heard of a plan to kill him and he again fled Uganda. He is now in hiding in Kenya again, and his movements are severely restricted following yet more threats to kill him.
The third example is that of a 13-year-old girl from the Kasese district. She was placed under house arrest for converting to Christianity. Her father threatened to slaughter her publicly with a knife for converting, before locking her up instead. For six months, he kept her in a room with no sunlight. She survived only on the food and water that her little brother managed to smuggle to her under the door. When she was rescued, she weighed less than 44 lb and had many medical complications. In fairness, the local police acted quickly when they were made aware of the case and arrested her father. However, they released him without charge soon afterwards. Again, where is the law of the land in Uganda when people, such as that young girl, need it most?
What support is being given by Britain to deal with cases such as those? Perhaps the Minister, in his response to the debate, can indicate whether Britain has had any direct contact with the Ugandan Government, particularly regarding these types of cases. I understand that we cannot police Uganda, but surely we can guarantee that any help and support that is given by Britain is going to the right people. I know that the needs of Uganda are great and I also know that there are Members in Westminster Hall today who have visited the country. I have not visited Uganda itself, but I have visited nearby countries. A good foundation is needed in Uganda and the open protection of Christians is required to show that persecution in any form will not be tolerated, that religious freedom is a protected freedom and that all people should be able to live in peace and practise their faith as they strive together to rebuild Uganda.
Amnesty International has said:
“The Uganda government and various public authorities have in recent years resorted to illegitimate restrictions on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in response to some of the critical voices on a number of governance issues. In particular, journalists, civil society activists, opposition political leaders and their supporters risk arbitrary arrest, intimidation, threats and politically-motivated criminal charges for expressing views”.
That echoes the point that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) made in her earlier intervention.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous in doing so. I wanted to share the experience that I had while visiting Uganda in 2009 to mark international women’s day. I was appalled to read recently that Amnesty International have reported that Ingrid Turinawe has been arrested. I met Ingrid on my 2009 visit. She was an officer of the opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, and a leading women’s campaigner. It is appalling to think that she has been arrested for nothing other than organising assemblies and trying to exercise her right to protest.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is absolutely scandalous that that should happen. We live in a democratic society where we exercise our democratic rights and the people who vote for us do so as well, and examples such as that of democratic rights being restricted, blatantly wrong imprisonment and so on, are issues that I wholeheartedly want to highlight today, and hopefully our Government can get some response from the Ugandan authorities about such cases.
Amnesty International has also said:
“The measures taken by the authorities violate Uganda’s international and domestic human rights obligations”—
I share that view and the hon. Lady has also made that point—
“and have culminated in widespread official intolerance of criticism of some of the government’s policies and practices and a crackdown on political dissent.”
We cannot accept that, we cannot let it happen and we have to highlight it today.
A recent report by Amnesty International also highlights its concerns about official repression of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the failure to hold to account the perpetrators of human rights violations committed against political activists, journalists and civil society activists. Those perpetrators are not being held to account and they should be. The report focuses on the general clampdown on the right to freedom of expression, in particular press freedom, between 2007 and 2011, and on the official intolerance of peaceful public protests regarding rising costs of living in April and May 2011. The official response to those protests involved the widespread use of excessive force, including lethal force on many occasions, to quell protests. It also involved the arrest, the ill-treatment and the levelling of criminal charges against opposition leaders and their supporters; the imposition of restrictions on the media; and attempts to block public use of social networking internet sites.
A proposal by the President in May 2011 to amend the Ugandan constitution to remove the right to bail for persons arrested for involvement in demonstrations and other vaguely defined “crimes” points to increasing repression of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. That proposal also illustrates that what we have today in Uganda is a repressive system of Government that is taking away the basic rights of Ugandan citizens. Of course, Ugandan officials deny that there are undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly, and they contend that various Government actions are justified. However, international human rights law places clear limits on the restrictions that may be imposed on the exercise of those rights. A number of proposed laws in Uganda contain provisions that, if enacted, would result in impermissible restrictions on the exercise of those rights, which I believe would breach Uganda’s obligations under international law. So, Uganda is stepping outside the rules and regulations of international law. Perhaps the Minister can give us some idea of how this Government—our Government and my Government—are working to ensure that we address these issues.
Some cynics will say that we have enough difficulties in our own nation without borrowing trouble from others. I have even heard some people say that we should not give other countries financial aid when we are reducing the deficit, and that we should not become embroiled in political situations. I say clearly that we have to help other countries. This Government have led the way and have increased their portion of financial aid. I say well done to them for what they are doing. Christian Aid is one of the organisations that has lobbied us all. I fully and totally support the Government.
On the point about aid, I agree with my hon. Friend: this United Kingdom has led the way in helping countries that are deprived in many ways. Does he agree that there needs to be some way of controlling the aid? The LRA is moving into villages and removing food, clothes and water. People are being left to die from starvation and thirst. There needs to be some way of putting pressure on the Ugandan Government to control the aid and make sure it gets to those who need it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable contribution. Indeed, the questions we ask in the Chamber often address how to get aid, food and resources to the people who need it most, and how to do that without some of it being siphoned off at different places. That happens in many countries, where people whose activities are criminal siphon off some of the aid that we send through. The Government have led the way in championing financial assistance and aid to other countries. I welcome and support that, as I think everyone in the House does.
Although I consider the needs of my community and work together with others to see that those needs are met, I also understand from history that when we stand back and wash our hands of events, as Chamberlain did in the second world war, it does not mean peace and it certainly does not absent someone from evil or wrongdoing. We cannot live untouched by the suffering of those around us, and today is an opportunity to highlight the suffering of those in Uganda. I recently had the opportunity to visit Kenya with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was somewhat shocked to see what I had only ever seen depicted in films: absolute poverty. The standard of living there is something that, in our worst dreams or figurations, we will never completely grasp.
When I read about the atrocities, I understood that there was something that this Government and this people could do. Some might ask why we bother. Why do we have such debates in Westminster Hall or highlight such issues in the main Chamber? It is quite simple: evil triumphs when good people do nothing. That terminology is often used, but it is true. I have always loved history and there is a poem that I want to read out because everyone here will be familiar with it right away. What it refers to certainly will not be said about me, about many others in this Chamber or about this great House—this mother of Parliaments—that we have the privilege to serve in. I also hope it will not be said about this great nation, of which I am a member. The poem refers to Nazi Germany in the second world war. It states:
“ First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,”—
they are being persecuted in Uganda—
“and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
I do not believe for one second that the same circumstances that have happened in Uganda will happen to me, but will there come a time when we need help and support as a nation? Almost certainly. We all need each other. We can only hope that if and when such a time arises there are those who will speak for us. This House is the spokesperson today for those in Uganda who are suffering tremendous persecution.
A constituent recently sent me a letter, which touched me greatly, regarding the plight of those in Uganda. The letter was comprehensive, detailed and clear about what was required of me, and of all MPs. At the end of the letter was something that caused me to pause:
“Mr Shannon, I am not a charity worker, I am not a political activist, I’m a sixteen year old politics students who would like to politely ask you to forward my concerns”.
Some people will say that a 16-year-old is a child, but he is a young man who wants to do what he can to see change, and wants his MP to do likewise. We cannot do any less today.
In conclusion, we must speak out for those in Uganda who cannot speak for themselves. We must support our words with deeds. We must ensure that we help the people of Uganda in a practical and, I have to say, prayerful way. I pray for them every day. The Department has received many queries from MPs and Lords who are seeking to ensure that adequate action and help is effected. I seek assurance from the Minister that we will not wash our hands, but get them dirty and do our bit for Ugandans who are being oppressed: the 20,000 young children; the 2 million people who have been displaced; the hundreds of thousands who have been conscripted into the army; the Christians, with their civil and religious rights, who are being persecuted by militant Muslims; members of civil rights organisations; members of unions in opposition and in government; and women in government, whose rights have been violated. We can make a difference and we are dedicated to their plight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, particularly as you are my parliamentary neighbour, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and on the sincere way in which he put his case. He is gaining a great reputation in the House for the way that he handles things. He is entirely right to raise the issue of the Lord’s Resistance Army. My understanding is that, through military activity, the LRA has largely been driven out of north-east Uganda, which is more peaceful today than it has been for many years.
As the hon. Gentleman said, Mr Kony, the leader of the LRA, is indicted for war crimes and is still perpetrating atrocities in the countries in which he operates—South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The United Nations has operations in those countries, particularly in the DRC, but it does not have the resources to go after Mr Kony properly, and he is committing some of the worst human rights atrocities in the world. I hope that the UK will devote more attention to the matter.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is entirely right. We do not have the resources to send troops in directly, but through the UN, we can help to bolster operations, perhaps in the DRC, so that we can put greater efforts into trying to capture a man who is, I repeat, an indicted war criminal. He is highly mobile and never sleeps in the same place, so capturing him requires considerable resources, particularly helicopters, so that our troops can keep ahead of the game and catch up with him.
As the hon. Member for Strangford said, in recent weeks and months, we have seen a rapid descent and some of the most appalling abuses of human rights under the regime of the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni. The police and security forces now regularly use lethal force, especially during political demonstrations, and I should like to address the crackdown on opponents of the Museveni Government. Ever since his so-called re-election in May 2011, there has been a wave of opposition demonstrations, many of which have ended up in violence. Opposition politicians, their supporters and journalists all too often face harassment, beatings and arrest.
The leader of Uganda’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, Dr Kizza Besigye—a reasonable man whom I have met on a number of occasions—was recently attacked at an FDC rally, where police and military personnel surrounded him and cut him off from his supporters. They crushed his car screen and prevented him from leaving the scene.
Ever since the advent of the first multi-party elections in 2006, the Museveni Government have done whatever they can to prevent any opposition from playing on a level playing field. Before those elections, Dr Besigye was arrested on trumped up charges of treason and rape in an effort to prevent him from standing. On the occasions that I have met him, he has had to get special permission to leave the country, because he is still subject to those trumped up charges.
In another, more recent, incident, which I discussed with the Minister for Africa, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), Dr Besigye was leading a small demonstration by Activists for Change—the so-called A4C—outside a Government building, when a rock thrown from within that building hit a plain-clothes policeman, who subsequently, and unfortunately, died. The Minister for Africa told me these facts, so I know them to be correct. It seems reasonably clear that this was nothing whatsoever to do with Dr Besigye or any of his followers, yet scores of people were arrested, along with Dr Besigye, who was subsequently charged with unlawful assembly and placed under house arrest for a time.
The Ugandan Government declared on 4 April 2012 that A4C was an “unlawful society”, ahead of a planned demonstration on 5 April. The Ugandan Attorney-General, Peter Nyombi, also declared that, should members of A4C attempt to form a new group, that would also be banned—something that transpired after the members of A4C formed the new group called “For God and My Country”. The same Attorney-General said:
“If the old pressure group members are the same office bearers, the group remains illegal.”
Police and security forces continue to harass and disturb events and rallies organised by opposition supporters. At a recent meeting of the International Democrat Union’s Africa branch in Kampala, delegates—international delegates coming into Uganda—were harassed by the police force, which forced the Fairway hotel to cancel the IDU’s booking and attempted to force the Grand Imperial hotel to deny the IDU space.
Last week, several people, including a 12-year-old girl, were injured and shops closed in a one-hour battle between police and supporters of Dr Besigye, as the police attempted to stop him from accessing the Nakasero market simply to have his lunch.
Only yesterday, several women were arrested as they protested at the brutal manner in which the opposition FDC Women’s League leader, Ingrid Turinawe, was arrested last Friday. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) has already mentioned that incident, but it bears repetition. Ms Turinawe was assaulted on Friday as the police blocked a rally called by the opposition in Nansana, outside Kampala. Ugandan television footage clearly shows that, as several officers tried to pull her out of her vehicle, she was sexually assaulted and she is heard shouting out in pain. This is all part of a downward trend in the ability of political opposition in Uganda to fulfil its basic rights and to protest peacefully.
Worryingly, a proposed Public Order Management Bill, which is before the Ugandan Parliament, could further limit freedom of expression for demonstrators, if passed in its current form. Under the Bill, public meetings will be prohibited in certain circumstances. It will prohibit public meetings that are aimed at discussing Government policies and affairs of management. For journalists, the Bill will limit their role of seeking, receiving and imparting information, which is a vital aspect of freedom of expression and democracy. Journalists, along with political demonstrators, are also increasingly coming under attack by police and security forces.
The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda documented 107 cases of attacks on journalists in 2011, compared to 58 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. That demonstrates a worrying trend.
My hon. Friend mentions a number of repressive measures currently before the Parliament of Uganda. Is he aware of another Bill, which is being introduced in this session, that seeks to institutionalise further discrimination against the gay and lesbian minority and reintroduce the proposals current 18 months ago to implement the death penalty for having same-sex relationships? Is he as appalled as I am about that? Does he call on the Government to review aid strategy in the light of all the human rights abuses that we are hearing about this morning?
My hon. Friend does the House a service in bringing attention to such matters. When the highly discriminatory measures that she mentions—I totally deplore them—came before the previous Ugandan Parliament, they were subject to a lot of international criticism. If they are to be persisted with, which it seems that they are, I hope that Britain will join further international protests to try to prevent them from happening. The proposals are highly discriminatory.
Journalists in Uganda have been subject to shootings, attacks, arrest and detention. They have been prevented from accessing news scenes and their equipment has been taken away. Such actions are in violation of international human rights law and must be deplored. The UK has a particular responsibility in respect of Uganda and a deep-seated interest in the events taking place. As a member of the Commonwealth, we have a long and shared history with that country. Through the Department for International Development, we will spend an average of £98 million per year in Uganda until 2015.
As the country has many natural resources—in particular, emerging finds of oil— Uganda has transformed from a failed state to a fast-growing economy. The abuses of human rights taking place, however, are simply unacceptable. The Minister with responsibility for African affairs is fully aware of events on the ground in Uganda—he visited the country recently, when he met with President Museveni and Dr Besigye—so I hope that he takes note of what has been said today.
Through the African Union and the Commonwealth, pressure must be applied to the Ugandan Government to uphold their responsibilities to their people. As a country, Uganda has huge potential. It must, however, take action to rectify the seriously deteriorating human rights situation that has developed and that has accelerated since the recent election. I am always hesitant about criticising people who cannot answer for themselves, but my perception is that in the past Ministers and Foreign Office representatives on the ground in Kampala have been far too timid in their meetings with President Museveni in protesting about human rights abuses and, in particular, the right of the opposition to carry out their normal democratic functions. I sincerely hope that I am wrong, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that that is not the case.
I urge the UK Government to continue to support the rights and freedoms of all Ugandans and their efforts to persuade the Ugandan authorities to respect people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to the peaceful exercise of the freedoms of speech and of assembly that we expect in any civilised, modern, democratic state. Furthermore, the UK Government must encourage the Ugandan Government to ensure that the actions of the police and the security forces should be proportionate to the events that actually take place on the ground.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) in the debate. I was in Uganda for the 2010 elections, and to see the deterioration in the atmosphere in Uganda and the violent acts taking place at the moment was horrific.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing today’s debate. His speech touched on the effect of “Kony 2012”, which was astonishing, mobilising people throughout the world. While there has been some criticism of the film, the intention was clearly to simplify the issue and to communicate it to the masses, which it certainly did. Young people took to the streets in cities throughout the world during the weekend to show solidarity with the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the great lakes region.
Although the LRA has now been driven from Uganda, it is still active in the regions. Tragically, as the hon. Gentleman stated, tens of thousands of people in Uganda are still suffering from the aftermath of Joseph Kony’s terror spree. Families are displaced from their homes and villages. Men, women and children are living with the shame of being raped under Kony’s command, while others have to cope every day with the disabilities forced on them after being mutilated by the LRA. Joseph Kony remains a wanted and indicted war criminal, and I hope that the attention that has shone on him through the campaign will lead ultimately to his capture.
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the many non-governmental organisations that are working in the area to rehabilitate former child soldiers who were captured by the LRA. Voluntary Service Overseas is working with young people in north Uganda to empower them with skills to develop their own businesses. One of those young people is Betty, and a synopsis of her story will provide a good example of the tens of thousands of children that VSO is helping.
Betty was abducted aged just 15 and immediately married to an older man who was a lieutenant in the LRA. She was forced to kill people with an axe. She once tried to escape with a group of other women, but when they were caught, she was beaten with 100 strokes and still has health complications as a result of that attack. When she did finally escape, she discovered that she was HIV positive and had to return to her village with two children as a result of her marriage. She said that she felt stigmatised and was no longer accepted in her village, and she was left on her own to look after her children. With the support of VSO, Betty and other women and children like her have been able to set up their own businesses. Betty now has her own bakery in Gulu in northern Uganda. Help is getting to the area, but I ask the Government to do what they can to support such ventures and help the rehabilitation of victims of that war.
I wish to touch on another subject that has been briefly mentioned today and concerns human rights, which is the situation of homosexuals in Uganda and the abuse and vilification of that community. Last year, shortly after I returned from Uganda, the first man to live openly as a homosexual in Uganda paid the ultimate price—his life—for standing up for the courage of his convictions. His name was David Kato, and he was the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. His brutal murder in his own home shocked people throughout the world, including many Members present in the Chamber today.
As chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, I have been privileged to work with David’s successor, Frank Mugisha, who I am pleased to say was recently awarded the Robert F. Kennedy human rights award. He is respected in the United States and in this country for his work in Uganda, and he is currently risking his life to lead the fight against the anti-homosexuality Bill that is going through the Ugandan Parliament at the moment. As we know, that Bill could introduce the death penalty for homosexuals in Uganda. Not only would that be a retrograde step for human rights, but it could be severely damaging for public health in Uganda, given the HIV epidemic that still has hold of the country.
Criminalising a section of the population that is highly at risk of contracting HIV and denying people access to basic services, health care and education about the epidemic undermines individual human rights and could pose a devastating threat to public health in a country where more than 1 million people have been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Such a situation would be further undermined by the Bill on HIV and AIDS control and prevention that threatens not only the confidentiality of clients, but efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.
To make progress against the HIV epidemic we must encourage Uganda to take a pragmatic, public-health orientated approach, much like the one I saw when visiting Kenya, Uganda’s neighbour. There, even though homosexuality remains an offence, reaching out to homosexuals and educating them about the risk of HIV and how to protect themselves is seen as a public health matter and beyond that legislation. What works is to respect human rights, including the human rights of men who have sex with men, to enable to them to get access to HIV prevention and education services.
One of the most challenging aspects of the issue is that myths surrounding homosexuals and their activities are propagated by outsiders in Uganda. They have helped to perpetuate myths associating homosexuality with paedophilia, and politicised an issue that had previously remained underground for many years. When I was in Uganda, I saw publications such as Rolling Stone, which was allowed to out homosexual men in Kampala, leading to horrific violent attacks against them. However, outsiders can make a positive difference, too, and I welcome the strong line that the UK Government have so far taken with countries that impose harsher penalties for men who have sex with men. International pressure played a huge role in the withdrawal of the anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda last year, and I hope that that will continue.
The issue is a difficult and controversial one to raise. Talking so openly about sex and relationships can be difficult in our own culture and society, never mind in Uganda, but it is imperative that we frame the concerns in the context of human rights abuses, rather than solely talking about gay rights. The things that have happened are human rights abuses. As I have said, I am privileged enough to have visited the beautiful country of Uganda several times, and it is close to my heart. Like many countries, Uganda has a huge diversity of cultures, peoples, attitudes and beliefs. We cannot assume that the intolerance and hatred that are propagated in some sections of the press are reflected in the whole of society in Uganda. As Frank Mugisha has said:
“Still, I continue to hope. There are encouraging times when my fellow activists and I meet people face to face and they realise we aren’t the child-molesting monsters depicted in the media. They realise we are human, we are Ugandan, just like them.”
The right to marry is far from the minds of homosexuals in Uganda. All they are asking for at the moment is the freedom to live their lives without fear and discrimination—or possibly, even, the freedom to live at all. The message that I have from activists for homosexual rights in Uganda is that they do not want our country to withdraw aid from theirs. As they told me, they need to eat, too, and they need health care, too. What they want is for us to use our influence and discuss human rights for everyone in Uganda, as we are doing today. I hope that the Government will continue to use their influence in Uganda to stress that message at the highest level.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I, too, had the pleasure of visiting Uganda—first in 2006, with Oxfam, and then again in 2007, when I was one of the guinea pigs for the Voluntary Service Overseas parliamentary scheme, in which MPs are sent to work on short-term placements in the summer. I spent a few weeks at VSO head office in Kampala, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) that it is a beautiful country, with very friendly people. I very much enjoyed my visits there, although on my first one, with Oxfam, I was taken up to Kitgum, to the camps for internally displaced people who had been driven from their villages by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and it was certainly one of the most tragic sights I had seen—people living in huge camps. I think at that time about 1.8 million people had been displaced from their villages. They were in their mud huts, surviving on one meal a day. I always remember the sight of a young boy, who was probably about 11 or 12, and who was wearing a three-piece suit that had obviously been donated to a charity in a place such as the UK. It was 10 sizes too big for him, the trousers were all rucked up, and he had a little waistcoat. He was wearing it in the baking sun, but was obviously proud of his suit.
When I was there, there was talk of the peace talks beginning to make some progress. There were talks in Juba. However, it was several years later before people who had spent nearly two decades in the camps were able to return to their villages. It is important that the Kony 2012 campaign has drawn attention to the atrocities that have been perpetuated by the LRA, but it is somewhat ironic that it has come to international attention—and that so many celebrities have become aware of it and are drawing it to greater public attention—at a time when the LRA is no longer operational in Uganda and people have been able to return to their villages.
It is clear that the LRA has no popular support in Uganda and no clear political agenda. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, virtually all Christians would be absolutely appalled at Joseph Kony’s claim to be inspired by the ten commandments and that he is acting through some sort of Christian imperative. The UK leads on the LRA at the UN Security Council, and Lord Howell said recently in the other place that
“the UK Government remains very actively involved. We continue to work with international partners to disband the LRA and to bring to justice Joseph Kony and the other LRA leaders who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 March 2012; Vol. 736, c.GC199.]
I am not quite sure what that entails. I appreciate that the Minister may be in difficulties and that if operations are under way, he would not want to reveal them to us. However, it is not clear to me whether there are active attempts to track down Kony and bring him to justice, or whether it is a question of containment and of trying to prevent him inflicting more atrocities.
One thing that struck me when I was in Uganda is that the Acholi people have a concept of reconciliation that involves a ceremony. I cannot remember the details, but it is something to do with drinking something from a tree. When I spoke to people there, they were very keen to implement that and forgive people who had been abducted by the LRA and had committed atrocities, even if it came down to killing or raping people of their own tribe. That is their culture of forgiveness and they wanted those people back in their villages. Surely that process should not extend to the likes of Joseph Kony and the leaders of the LRA. It is incredibly important that he is brought to justice.
Does the hon. Lady share the concern of many people—including myself and many in this House and outside it—who are fearful that Joseph Kony could be going underground? In other words, he could hide for a certain period of time when there are 5,000 soldiers trying to find him and, at some time in the future if he is not caught, he could come out of the woodwork again and resume his violent activities and brutalisation of the people.
I do, indeed. I remember when I was in Uganda that Kony’s deputy, Vincent—his surname escapes me—was phoning in on Bush radio and taking part in talk shows. It seemed rather strange that although technically they were in hiding, in some ways they were quite visible. Yet, no one had managed to track them down and arrest them. We know that the LRA has been seen in the DRC and in South Sudan, and there is a real fear that it could be regrouping or that atrocities are being carried out in those areas, too.
The UN has also expressed concerns about acts carried out by the Uganda People’s Defence Force. There have been allegations of rape, torture and use of lethal force, especially during political demonstrations. Opposition politicians, their supporters and some journalists have faced harassment, beatings, and arrest. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) listed in some detail the pressure that Opposition politicians have been put under. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) mentioned—I think she was talking about the same incident—that, in January 2011, the police arrested 35 female activists from the inter-party co-operation coalition, who were protesting against the Electoral Commission of Uganda and accusing it of partiality.
There have also been reports—for example, by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—that violence against women and girls in Uganda remains widespread. There is an inordinately high prevalence of sexual offences and although it is promising to note that Uganda has ratified the protocol to the African charter on the rights of women in Africa, much more needs to be done.
On press freedom, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds, last year, Uganda dropped 43 places to 139th position out of 170 countries in the world assessed by Reporters Without Borders. Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda documented 107 cases of attacks on journalists in 2011, up from 58 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. Those incidents include shootings, physical attacks, unlawful arrest and detention, incarceration, denying the media access to news scenes, confiscation of equipment, defective and trumped-up charges and verbal threats. According to Amnesty International, at the end of 2011 up to 30 Ugandan journalists were facing criminal charges for activities that were a legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression.
[Katy Clark in the Chair]
Since the general elections in February 2011, a blanket ban has been in place against all forms of public assembly. I understand that President Museveni has been pressing Parliament to approve constitutional amendments that would curtail bail rights for people facing certain charges, including participation in protests. The proposed constitutional law would allow judges to deny bail for at least six months to people arrested for treason, terrorism, rape, economic sabotage and rioting.
It is the case that 56% of Uganda’s prisoners—more than 17,000 people—have not been convicted of a crime and are locked up awaiting resolution of their case, sometimes for years. According to Human Rights Watch, conditions in the prisons are appalling. Limited use of bail and inadequate legal representation contribute to the delays.
In the time left to me, I want to return to the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts—the anti-homosexuality laws. I am quite surprised: when this debate on human rights in Uganda was first called, I thought that the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights would be at the top of the agenda, because it has achieved much coverage lately. I hope that when the hon. Member for Strangford quotes, “When they came for the communists”, “When they came for the trade unionists” and “When they came for the Jews”, he also includes in that list “When they came for the homosexuals”.
When I visited Uganda in 2007, the issue had just begun to raise its head. That was because LGBT activists had started campaigning for their rights to be recognised. I was shocked on one occasion when I was walking down the road to see a billboard for a newspaper saying something like “Homos arrested in march”. I had no idea that such language was still used. What was often said to me then was, “If only they’d keep it to themselves, they wouldn’t be bringing this attention on themselves and would be able to just carry on quietly.” That language has been used since time immemorial to stop people asserting their rights against discrimination and persecution.
As was mentioned, the Ugandan tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone published in 2010 the full names, addresses and photographs of 100 prominent and allegedly gay Ugandans, accompanied by a call for their execution. The headline was “Hang Them”. One of those on the list was leading gay rights activist David Kato, who was beaten to death in January 2011. He was murdered shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine that had published his name and photograph, identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. There was a suggestion that he had been robbed by someone, but most people do not give that allegation much credence.
Then there is the anti-homosexuality Bill currently before the Ugandan Parliament. The Ugandan penal code already prohibits consensual sex between individuals of the same sex. However, the Bill goes much further. It originally called for the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts, but now calls for life imprisonment. However, it still introduces the death penalty for the offence of “aggravated homosexuality”, which is defined as an HIV-positive man having intercourse with a man who is HIV-negative. It also punishes those who do not report within 24 hours violations of the Bill’s provisions. That applies to people who do not accuse others of being involved in homosexual activity if they believe that they have been. The Bill also criminalises the “promotion” of homosexuality.
The Bill has been widely criticised by human rights organisations and Uganda’s diplomatic partners. President Obama called the Bill “odious”. Thankfully, President Museveni publicly distanced himself from the Bill when it was brought before the Parliament in 2010 and 2011.
I was in Ghana recently with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and ended up spending a day with a group of Ugandan MPs, who raised the subject with me. They said, “Whenever we see anyone from your country, all they want to talk about is our anti-homosexuality Bill.” It was disturbing that only one of the group was opposed to the Bill. All the others were supportive in varying degrees, and presented the old idea of predatory homosexuals preying on children as a child protection issue. They said that they did not care what people got up to in private, and that promotion was the real problem, but when I pressed them and asked why they were not just banning promotion, and why they were trying to impose life imprisonment—quite a few supported the death penalty—for consensual acts, they could not answer. That shows that there is still a long way to go.
Although the conversation was polite, it put us in a slightly difficult position. As one MP said, we took religion to them, and encouraged them to believe in certain things. We had a debate about whether it was a human rights issue, or a matter of religious belief, and whether that outweighs other people’s human rights. As they said, we told them that homosexuality was wrong when proselytising Christianity, but we are now saying that they must believe something else that we tell them. The colonialist agenda of trying to impose western values on them became quite an issue.
I have had similar conversations with Ugandan politicians. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to ensure that we are not seen as promoting a view or way of life on Ugandan people, but that the issue is human rights abuse? We need countries throughout the world to exert the sort of pressure that the UK Government are exerting. We must work with other Governments to ensure that we are not seen as an old colonial power imposing a belief on Ugandan people.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was in Jordan recently, and was talking to a couple of women political activists from the Islamic Action Front, which is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. We got on to issues such as gay rights, and alcohol consumption. Parts of Jordan are tourist destinations and women wear bikinis on beaches, and so on. We could not claim that wearing a bikini on a beach is a fundamental human right, but with gay rights there may be certain values, and we should not accept that people’s cultural or religious beliefs allow them to persecute or discriminate against people because of their sexuality.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s speech so far, and I have listened carefully. The thrust of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who introduced the debate, was the persecution of Christians in Uganda. I am interested to hear what the two Front-Bench spokesmen say about the representations about Christians. The hon. Lady has not placed much emphasis on that so far.
Uganda is quite a strongly Christian country. I have worked with organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Barnabas Trust and so on that have campaigned on the persecution of Christians in other countries. I had not had representations about persecution of Christians in Uganda until the hon. Gentleman spoke. I appreciate that there is a particular issue for people who have converted from Islam. They may have particular problems, and obviously their security should be protected because their right to practise whatever religion they choose is important, but that right cannot extend to supporting discrimination or persecution of people whose sexuality is different. It is important to flag that up in this debate.
I know that the Minister wants to spend some time responding to the debate, so I will finish. There are concerns about the HIV/AIDS prevention and control Bill, which was retabled in the Ugandan parliament in February 2012. It calls for mandatory HIV testing, and forced disclosure of HIV status in certain cases. I appreciate what a devastating impact the AIDS epidemic has had in Uganda and many other sub-Saharan African countries. When I was there, I saw the work of public education campaigns, and particularly those targeting older men who single out under-age girls because they think they will not be HIV-positive. I appreciate that the country wants to do more to tackle the AIDS problem, but forced disclosure and mandatory reporting and testing are likely to violate human rights on a number of grounds, so they are a matter for concern and vigilance. The Bill has also been criticised by gay rights activists because it excludes homosexuals from prevention programmes.
Finally, I return to UK financial assistance to Uganda. At one point, we withdrew some direct budget support to the Ugandan Government because of concerns about the 2006 elections. We enter dangerous waters when we introduce an element of conditionality into aid—the debate in the past has always been about economic conditionality, such as linking support to water privatisation programmes—but we should require certain standards from the countries to which we offer aid. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts that it would be a dereliction of our duty to the people of Uganda if we withdrew aid, but it is important that any aid we give the country is accompanied by strong messages and, where appropriate, criticism of Uganda’s human rights record. We should use aid not as a strong-arm tactic, but as leverage to get across our points to the Ugandan Government.
This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and it is a privilege to do so. I am grateful for the opportunity to conclude this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising this topic. He contributes to many debates on foreign affairs, and he always does so with great passion and authority.
I congratulate everybody else who has participated in what has been a very consensual debate, even though it has been full of strong feelings. It has also been full of important insights from Members on both sides of the Chamber, many of whom drew on their own direct observations. The passion communicated in all their speeches will be heard way beyond the walls of this room, including by many people in Uganda, whether or not they are in government.
Given that I have a little longer than is sometimes the case in such debates, let me, for the benefit of hon. Members, lay out in greater detail the British Government’s position on the wide range of subjects that have been raised. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the atrocities carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I assure hon. Members that we remain active in working with international partners to disband the LRA and to bring Joseph Kony to justice. Apprehending him will not be straightforward. About 300 remaining LRA fighters operate across remote and hostile terrain in a region the UN estimates is comparable in size to the United Kingdom. However, concerted international effort will overcome those obstacles and see Joseph Kony held to account and the LRA cease to exist. That is, very strongly, our objective.
I do not want to steal the thunder of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), but he asked what help the Government can give the 5,000 members of the African Union army in pursuing Joseph Kony. He mentioned helicopter support. Are the Government considering that? If not, could it be considered?
I do not have information specifically about the use of helicopters, but I was starting to explain what we are doing to try to bring the LRA’s activities to a conclusion.
The LRA, as many Members will know, was forced out of Uganda in 2006 and does not now pose a security threat to the country. It still operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Supporting those countries in efforts finally to rid central Africa of the scourge of the LRA remains our Government’s priority. Our efforts to do so have been set out by the Minister of State with responsibility for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), in correspondence that he has sent to all Members of the House of Commons.
In our role as UN Security Council lead on LRA issues, the UK secured the UN Security Council presidential statement of November 2011, which tasked the UN to deliver a regional strategy to combat the LRA. We have pressed the UN to make this strategy coherent, co-ordinated and results-focused and then to deliver on it swiftly.
Furthermore, we have ensured the specific inclusion of LRA issues in mandates of UN peacekeeping and political missions across the region. We have also pressed for robust language on civilian protection in these mandates and for better co-ordination and intelligence-sharing between peacekeeping operations.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UK offers vital financial support to the UN peacekeeping force, providing important protection to civilians from armed groups, including the LRA. We also support the UN’s disarmament and demobilisation efforts that are reintegrating remaining LRA combatants back into communities.
In Uganda, the Department for International Development is halfway through a £100 million programme committed to supporting development in northern Uganda as it recovers from two decades of conflict and from the terrible legacy left by the LRA. Through this programme we work with the Ugandan Government’s peace, recovery and development plan for the north, which has allowed the vast majority of Ugandans displaced by the LRA’s activities to return home. In terms of institutional endeavour, financial support and practical assistance, I hope Members will be reassured that the United Kingdom is taking the pre-eminent role in the world.
I had not intended to focus part of my speech on the LRA, but I do know a bit about it. The problem is that Joseph Kony is highly mobile. He never sleeps in the same place twice. He goes into a village and terrorises the villagers. What those forces require are helicopters to keep ahead of him and clever intelligence to find out where he has been and where he is going. Those two things have been lacking so far, which is why he has been able to get away with what he has.
I am grateful for that additional insight from my hon. Friend. Let me bring his observations to the direct attention of the Minister for Africa and, if it is necessary, of the Ministry of Defence, so that we can consider how we can more effectively assist in the ways in which he describes. I do not wish to go down the path of operational detail in this speech because I am ill-equipped to do so, but we all share the same objective of providing practical assistance wherever we can.
Like many countries in East Africa, Uganda has a turbulent history. We are all aware of the horrors the country suffered during the era of Idi Amin and the conflict that followed. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, Uganda remains staggeringly poor. As people who know the country well know, after decades of political turbulence and violence there is a lot to be depressed about.
It is also true to say that over two decades Uganda has developed from a one-party state to an emerging multi-party democracy with a strengthened Parliament. It has a largely independent judiciary. There is a budding, if fragile, culture of political debate, and its media is able to criticise the Government. There has been progress on gender equality—women play an active role in politics and Uganda has a system that actively encourages the election of female MPs. There is also growing freedom of religion, and faith groups are able to express themselves freely. As a predominantly Christian country, the church is politically active and plays an important role in society.
As the Minister has clearly outlined, there is religious freedom. But hon. Members have been saying that there are many examples of Christians being persecuted and the police and the Government of the land have not backed those people up. That is our point. Although I appreciate the Minister’s contribution, I want to underline that matter, because it is important that we do not let it pass.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for further underlining that important point. I say unequivocally that the Government—I am sure that I speak for hon. Members from all parties—deplore discrimination against Christians on the basis that the hon. Gentleman describes and always look to support the freedom of all citizens to practise whatever faith they hold true to themselves, as we do in this country. We will make further representations to reflect the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has brought vividly to our attention this afternoon.
Although I do not wish to make an overly flattering portrait of the situation in Uganda, we feel that there has been some genuine progress in terms of civil liberties and the wider debate in Uganda. It is important that Uganda has responded positively to the United Nations’ universal periodic review of the country, which was published in October 2011 and assessed the human rights concerns in the country. We are assured that the Ugandan Government are taking steps to create a national action plan for the implementation of universal periodic review recommendations on tackling human rights concerns, which were raised in that report. We will work with Uganda to do what we can to make sure that those honourable intentions bear fruit.
However, Uganda still needs to address a number of serious human rights issues to ensure that it makes further progress. Many of those issues were raised in our debate. The UK remains concerned about developments in the country that pose a threat to freedom of expression. In April and May 2011 there was heavy-handed suppression of opposition protests. Since then the authorities in Uganda have imposed further restrictions on freedom of assembly for protestors.
The Ugandan Parliament is currently considering legislation that aims to regulate public demonstrations. There are rules and regulations in all countries, including our own, but it is important that the right balance is struck between maintaining law and order and allowing freedom of assembly. The Minister for Africa raised our concerns about this issue with President Museveni when he visited Uganda in February. We will continue to raise concerns where we feel that that balance is not being correctly struck.
I am concerned that the perception of my hon. Friend or the Foreign Office and what is happening on the ground in Uganda seem to be at variance. Since the lure of having held the Commonwealth games and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, Museveni has been given greater free reign to carry out human rights abuses, which seem to have got significantly worse since the election. I should not like the Minister’s perception—what he said in his speech—and what is happening on the ground to be ignored. I hope that he will bear that in mind.
I certainly will. I confess that I do not speak from first-hand experience on these matters. I am not the Minister for Africa—he is in Africa, which is why I am replying to this debate—but I want to ensure that the Foreign Office’s understanding of the situation is entirely in accord with the reality, as perceived by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). We will take his advice seriously and I will ensure that it is understood and scrutinised properly by the African department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
This is particularly important. As I understand it, DFID has committed £100 million to post-conflict development in northern Uganda over the current five-year period. Building legitimacy, improving the capacity of local government to deliver services, supporting government, civil society and communities to engage peacefully and reconciliation are all important post-conflict work but, as we have heard today, conflict is still happening. There is still abuse and oppression, and I ask the Minister to discuss with his counterpart for Africa the £100 million dedicated to post-conflict work while so much trouble is still occurring.
We do not always get a clean break between conflict and the absence of conflict. The assessment of DFID and the Foreign Office is that progress is sufficient for us to make a difference with the types of programmes described by my hon. Friend. I understand her concerns, and in the time available I will address some of that issue and others, if I may continue my speech.
Laws against and repression of homosexuals were rightly mentioned at length by the hon. Members for Bristol East and for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) and others. For the avoidance of doubt, I will spell out the British Government’s clear position. The United Kingdom is strongly committed to upholding the rights and freedoms of people of all sexual orientations. The Prime Minister made the United Kingdom’s opposition to the criminalisation of homosexuality clear at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 2011. In Kampala, the United Kingdom continues to lobby strongly against the proposals in the Bill and is working closely with civil society groups campaigning against them. The Minister for Africa expressed our concerns to the President when they met in February, and the Minister for Equalities, who arrives in Kampala this evening, will underscore the United Kingdom’s opposition to the proposals when she meets the Ugandan Government. We are doing all that we can to give formal force to the views that were rightly strongly expressed by Members during the debate.
On the nature of the assistance that we provide to Uganda, to return to the previous intervention, UK aid is aimed at reducing poverty and at helping the most vulnerable people. Often those at greatest risk of human rights abuses in developing countries need our help the most. We do not attach conditionality to our aid for that very reason. We do, however, hold full and frank discussions with recipient countries about issues of concern, including human rights, as we have done with the Ugandan Government on the importance that we attach to equality and non-discrimination. We hold those Governments that receive aid through direct budgetary support to account, to ensure that that represents the best way of getting results and value for money for the United Kingdom taxpayer. If we cannot give aid directly to Governments, because we are not sufficiently confident about how that aid is being spent, we find other routes to help people whom we assess need our assistance because of the straitened circumstances in which they live.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on the £100 million available in aid, is it possible to review how to enable the benefits from Uganda’s oil reserves to filter down to those at the lower levels—in poverty—in those discussions that Ministers will be having with the Ugandan Government? That is a moral issue as well, but can the Minister introduce it into discussions with the Ugandan Government?
That may be a more appropriate matter for the Minister for Africa to discuss than for the Minister for Equalities, but I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representation, I shall communicate it and we shall see if it can contribute to any such discussions.
Women in Uganda continue to face a number of very serious threats, including high levels of domestic violence and the continuing traditional practice of female genital mutilation. Again, there has been some progress. Uganda has agreed to ratify the optional protocol to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Uganda passed the Domestic Violence Act 2010 and the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2009, which are significant steps for protecting the rights of women. The task is for those good intentions to be implemented. Through the Department for International Development, the UK supports civil society initiatives to promote knowledge and implementation of the legislation, and protection centres for victims. This week, our Minister for Equalities will visit those projects and lobby the Ugandan Government to ensure they implement its legislation to protect women from violence. This is a topical issue, which is being afforded attention by the Government at ministerial level this very week.
The Ugandan human rights commission’s 2010 report noted a high number of complaints about the use of torture. The UK condemns unreservedly the use of torture. However, there have been some recent improvements. Uganda has signed up to the optional protocol to the UN convention against torture. As Uganda reported at its universal periodic review, 36 police officers have been charged in court for torture-related offences. The UK continues to support Ugandan non-governmental organisations in their efforts to bring forward a private Member’s Bill aimed at enshrining the convention in domestic legislation and ensuring that those who torture are individually liable for their acts. We understand that the Ugandan Government support the Bill, and we look forward to it passing into law and being implemented. We also support civil society efforts against the death penalty and will continue to lobby for the Ugandan Government to abolish it entirely.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for raising this subject. He participates in almost every debate that I take part in as a Minister, which is to his great credit. His passion and interest in foreign policy issues, and the sincerity with which he contributes, shines through. He has given us a welcome opportunity to discuss Uganda and the wide range of concerns that exist regarding freedom of religious practice, intolerance and the persecution of gays, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the abuse of women. I hope that some of the encouraging signs demonstrate progress. The British Government will try to give maximum effect to that progress and will contribute in whatever way that is most useful. We are committed to having a strong and fruitful relationship with Uganda. I hope that that was demonstrated when I talked about the Minister for Africa’s direct interest and this week’s visit by the Minister for Equalities. Uganda is important to us. It has experienced turmoil and strife, and we want to ensure that the views expressed in the debate contribute to creating a much more prosperous, successful and peaceful Uganda.