Uganda’s parliament halts anti-IUU operation by military unit after human rights violations reported

Published on
January 16, 2020

The decision by Uganda to tackle illegal fishing on Lake Victoria with use of a specialized unit of the country’s military has run into problems after the country’s parliament halted the team’s work over allegations that violations of the human rights of fishing communities had occurred.

The Uganda People’s Defence Forces Fisheries Protection Unit (UPDF-FPU) was commissioned in early 2017 to fight the use of unauthorized fishing gear that decimated populations of juvenile fish in Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga.

The illegal practice is reported to have led to an acute shortage of fish in Uganda, leading to the closure of more than 80 percent of fish processing plants in the landlocked East African country.

According to a statement from the Ugandan Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries Vincent Bamulangaki Ssempijja, dwindling fish volumes had, by the time of launching the UPDF-FPU, forced the closure of 13 of the 23 fish processing plants in the country. Furthermore, those still in operation have struggled with a lack of fish supply and have been operating at below 20 percent of capacity.

Ssempijja said previous enforcement efforts failed, forcing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to opt for the creation of a specialized military unit to counter illegal fishing activities on the lakes.

“We used to have enforcements before, like [the] police and the army, but they failed to maintain order, with some people that were deployed to enforce instead indulging in criminalities,” Ssempijja said.

However, in mid-December 2019, Uganda’s parliament halted the operations of the UPDF-FPU after allegations of misconduct by the officers arose, including the use of excessive force, corruption, rape, destruction of fishing equipment, and unlawfully exporting confiscated immature fish to neighboring countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Congo-Brazzaville.

"Relating to the conducting of UPDF against the citizens of Uganda, this House directs that the operations of the Fisheries Protection Unit be halted with immediate effect," Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga said, according to Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

Ugandan Minister of State for Defense Charles Okello told Parliament acknowledged human rights abuses and unlawful actions by the UPDF-FPU had potentially occurred, but that they were being investigated and that any criminal actions would be punished accordingly.

However, Uganda’s Speaker of National Assembly said President Museveni has not taken any action on reports of increasing human rights violations by the UPDF-FPU team in the pretext of curbing illegal fishing, instead promoting several military officials accused of crimes.

Parliament’s vote to halt the UPDF-FPU’s operations may prove to be purely symbolic, as a top official of the UPDF-FPU told Uganda’s New Vision only Museveni can legally order the team’s disbandment or halt its operations.

Photo courtesy of East African Legislative Assembly

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