Uganda: Protection of Economic and Social Rights


Written by: Mr. Otim Denis Barnabas


The debate about human rights has led to different thinking on its origin, contextualization and consequential documentation. This has been portrayed in a number of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights to mention but a few. As a result, human rights have then become embedded in states’ constitutions and legislations. This paper seeks to study the understanding of human rights, from the perspectives of Economic and social rights, and the state as an agent in the protection of these rights. Analysis shall be based on the relevant national instruments and putting at the center of the study the case of Uganda.


Following the universalisation of Human rights, many states formulated and adopted some human rights instruments as means for the recognition, promotion and protection of human rights. This included in them the Civil and Political rights and Economic, Social and Cultural rights. In this discussion focus is based on the state and the protection of Economic and Social rights in Uganda. The discussion shall include; understanding human rights, and their sources, elucidation on what Economic, Social and Cultural rights are, and their domestication into the Uganda constitution, and the state mechanism used in the protection of these rights.


Understanding and defining human rights has been challenging, this is associated with first knowing what was right or what is right, and acknowledging what it meant to be right from a human centered perspective. In this aspect human rights becomes a subject of our own and individual understanding, influenced by our own judgement.
“A right is some thing to which one is entitled solely by virtue of being a person. It is that which enables one to live with dignity”, it is associated with human beings and their state of survival and livelihood, (Agbakwa, 2002).

This thinking is yet challenging in that rights have limitations and these could be due to the understanding, capacities, resources and the nature of their interpretation and implementation. Therefore, it becomes important to take a holistic approach to understand human rights, and their implementation.


In this section the aim is to trace Human Rights sources. Many theories have been advanced in the understanding of the source or origin of Human Rights by scholars such as Sophocles and Aristotle, John Locke and John Stuart Mills, Hegel and Herder. Focus is limited to the natural law and the positive school which shall influence the study of the state in the protection of Human rights and their treatment in Uganda.

To quote, John locke “No one is subject to the will or authority of other”, this quotation opens the debate between these two school of thought about Human Rights. According to Barash (2000, p.149), a brief history of Human Rights; he stated that it is debatable to claim that Human Rights are as old as Human species. Human Rights themselves are God given, inalienable and fundamental and that the issue of ultimate values in a society determines Human Rights. However, Lockes’ thinking is arguably influenced by the natural school of thought, as is presented below in discussing the sources or theories of human rights.

The natural law school (Thomas Acquinas, John Lockes, Sophocles and Aristotle)

They trace the origin of human rights from the enlightenment era in Europe which gave rise to the development to the concept of Universal Human Rights for all people and its prominence. The natural law school argued that Human Rights existed from the natural order of things which are: intrinsic and provable. The approach derived Human Rights from what is reckoned as the “natural law”, which is established by authority higher than that of Governments. Thomas Acquinas (medieval Christian philosopher), put great stress on natural law as conferring to certain immutable rights upon individuals as part of the law of God.

Positivism: the positivist school include the work of Thomas Hobbes, (1588 – 1679) and Jeremy Bentham.

They critique the natural law as being vague and hollow in that it is open to vast differences of interpretation. They argue that under the positivist law, instead of human rights being absolute, they can be given and taken away, and modified by a society to suit its need. They state that, existence and content of rights could be derived only from the laws of the state. Under the positivist theory, the source of Human rights is to be found only in the enactment of a system of law with sanctions attached to it. Example the Human Rights treaties adopted by the United Nations reflect a positivist set of rights, that is rules developed by the sovereign states themselves and then made part of a system of international law.

The debate on the sources or origin of Human Rights is some thing which is complex as expressed by the arguments in the previous paragraph. These theoretical underpinnings are important in helping us to examine and understand the context in which issues of rights are advanced and why they are necessary. In this case the positivism theory is the center from which the discussion is taken in the protection of Economic and Social rights in Uganda.


Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights include the human right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing, the right to physical and mental health, the right to social security, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to education. They are part of the body of human rights law that developed in the aftermath of World War II, and came to be recognized as vital rights globally.
Human rights law includes all economic and social rights, as well as civil and political rights like the right to free speech and the right to a fair trial. These rights are deeply intertwined: for example, the right to speak freely means little without a basic education, the right to vote means little if you are suffering from starvation. On the other hand, the right to work means little if you are not allowed to meet and assemble in groups to discuss work condition. This expression illustrates the indivisibility and interdependence of these rights.

Economic and Social Rights consist of three integrated components of a more comprehensive component with obvious links to Civil and Political Rights. Equal attention should be paid to the implementation and protection of all the rights as provided for by ICESCR. At the core of Social Rights is the right to an adequate Standard of Living.

Therefore, one must have to agree that in order to enjoy the social rights, economic rights should as well be inclusive. These economic rights may include; the right to own property, as provided for in the constitution of Uganda Article 26, clause one and two, the right to work, and the right to social dignity. Thus, Economic rights and in particular rights to individual property right is vital in realisation of social rights. Economic rights have dual function, most clearly demonstrated in the right to own property and serves as a basis for entitlements which can ensure adequate standard of living while, on the other hand, it’s a basis of independence and therefore freedom.

In essence the document of Economic and Social rights is a plea to states to take up as a duty to ensure and enhance that individual’s enjoyment of these rights and entitlements are achieved. It also recognizes that, these are progressive rights that are hardly attained easily and its dependant on states resource capacities and policies, which is a great challenge in most developing countries due to low finances and budget deficits. The next paragraph brings with it the starting point of the discussion and the area of focus.


The realisation of Economic and Social rights has not only been at the global level but also at the national level. The center of discussion is on Uganda and in particular the constitutional recognition of Economic and Social rights. The Economic and Social Rights that can be legally binding as they stem from the Bill of Rights are very narrowly defined and disappointingly few in number under the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda. This includes; the right to own property, right to education, the right to participate and join trade union activities and the right to clean and healthy environment. This position reflects the unwillingness of the government to provide substantive rights that would entail a judicial remedy.
Surprisingly, most of the Economic and Social rights such as; fundamental right to social justice and economic development, food security and good nutrition, protection of the age, right to development, access and provision of medical services, and clean and safe water, are enshrined under the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

From analytical view, Economic and Social rights have been allotted very little attention compared to the Civil and Political Rights such as; right to equality and freedom from discrimination, personal liberty, protection from inhumane treatment, and civic rights and activities. Much of the Economic and Social rights have been subject under the section of National Objectives and Directive Principle of the state. These are considered more or else as a set of guidelines and not entrenched in the International Bill of Rights, thus robbing a significant body of Human Rights of legal capacity, with no or minimal litigation measures.

A number of questions have been raised about who is responsible for the protection of Economic and Social Rights and no definite answer has been provided. However, various instruments at the national level have shown the state effort in the protection of Economic and Social Rights. These instrument have included; the 1995 constitution of the Republic of Uganda, state financing, programmes and institutions such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), The constitutional courts and the Inspectorate Government General (IGG). This discussion presents the prospects and challenges of the state in the protection of Economic and Social rights.

The state has minimum requirement it has to fulfill in the protection of ESR as regards its citizens. The human rights legal framework spells out these responsibilities with obligations to respect; which requires the government to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of ESCR: to protect; requires the government to prevent third parties such as corporations from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of ESCR, and the obligation to fulfill which requires the government to adopt the necessary measures to achieve full recognition of ESCR.
The state (Uganda) has used a number of instruments directly and indirectly in the protection of Economic and Social rights. The level of commitment is a subject of prospects and challenges; these instruments are discussed in the next page of this paper.

The constitution can be argued to be playing two roles. Firstly, it places a duty on the state to ‘respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bills of Rights. Secondly, it gives the state a blue print for a number of activities that should proactively guide and shape legislative action, policy, and decision making that enables the enforcement of Economic and Social Rights with redress. Besides, it gives an amount of recognizable Economic and Social rights such as the right to education, property and joining of trade unions and the right to clean and healthy environment.
In fulfilling its duty, the constitution has been a guide in the fulfillment of some Economic and Social rights, such as the right to education. For instance, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) lauds the government of Uganda for its efforts to promote the right to education to all through Universal Primary and Secondary education. However, the UHRC report still raises concerns about the low retention rate at schools, the quality of education and regional disparities in access to education. Another challenge is that, there are no judicial enforcement or remedy to the abuse of the right to education.


The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) is empowered with judicial functions under Article 53 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda that enable it to remedy the violations of human rights. The commission has been cited by Mubangizi in the protection of Economic and Social Right.This has been shown in the case of;
Kalyango Mutesasira V. Kunsa Kiwanuka & others (Complaint No. 501 of 2000), In this case, the Commissioner held that a person could claim for pension as a right and that refusal or delay in its payment was Human Rights violation. In Uganda pension services is part of social security and a package provided to civil servant after retirement.
The UHRC have shown efforts in the protection of ESR indirectly through activities such as sensitization and training of students, local council leaders, voluntary action groups, police officers and health professionals. It carries Human Rights Education (HRE) and publications, such as the four issues of ‘your rights’ magazine and primary school human rights readers for primary one (1) to four (4), this is a great effort to the realisation the right to education.

The commission has also been active in the protection of the right to health which is not mention in the constitution, except the constitutional objective which emphasizes that ‘ the state shall take all the practical measures to ensure the provision of basic medical services to the population’. The ‘right to health’ according to the UHRC belongs to the category of Economic, Social and Cultural rights such as the right to education, property and development, environment, food and housing. The commission further states that, these rights represent the social liberties that should be ensured “through the state”. The role of the commission is to ensure that the right to health, as in all human right is respected, protected and fulfilled. The commission carried a sensitization workshop in three districts of Uganda (Masaka, Soroti and Fort Portal), in educating the public, government officials, Non Governmental Organisations and Civil Society leaders about HIV/AIDS, in this workshop the nature of the violation of the right to health were examined and opportunities and responsibilities of every one discussed towards the protection of the right to health of persons living with HIV/AIDS.

However, the commission has not effectively decentralized its offices and only operates a handful of regional office who are swayed with the violation of Civil and Political Rights such as; right to liberty, freedom from torture, freedom from servitude and assembly. This limits the availability of remedies and violations of Economic and Cultural Rights at the community level under the system of decentralization.
The most prominent and realized case in the protection of ESR’s through judicial contexts, is the South African case as presented by professor John Cantius Mubangizi, in his article entitled “prospects and challenges in the protection and enforcement of Socio-Economic Rights: Lessons from the South African experience”.
In the case of:
Van Biljon v Minister of Correctional Services, the applicants were HIV-infected prisoners who sought, inter alia, a declaratory order that their right to adequate medical treatment entitled them to the provision of expensive anti-retroviral medication. It was contended on behalf of the applicants that because the right to adequate medical treatment was guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, prison authorities could not on the basis of lack of funds, refuse to provide treatment which was medically indicated. This argument was accepted by the court. In the view of the court, the lack of funds could not be an answer to a prisoner’s constitutional claim to adequate treatment. A prisoner had a constitutional right to that form of medical treatment which was ‘adequate’. The applicants’ order was granted and the respondents were ordered to supply them with the combination of anti-retroviral medication which had been prescribed for them for as long as such medication continued to be prescribed.


The Uganda constitutional courts have been vital in the protection of Economic and Social rights with strong decisions for compensation. This includes the ordinary courts and the high courts. This has been in accordance to Article 22, clause 1 of the 1995 constitution of Uganda which states that “whoever alleges that his constitution rights have been violated may apply to the high court for redress”. The primary type of compensation for violation of human rights has been monetary or damages. The courts have also awarded exemplary or punitive damages to a victim in cases in which the agents of state have conducted themselves in abuses of human rights. The other type of compensation is the restitution or restoration of property which have been wrongfully seized.
For example the expulsion of the Asian by the former and deceased president of Uganda Idi Amin in the 1970’s is argued to be in violation of their rights, which was coupled by seizer of their property. This was further elucidated by Edward Khiddu – Makubuya citing the cases of Twaddle: 1975, and Plender: 1972, ICJ: 1977). In response to the Asian case, the constitutional courts of Uganda in 1982 enacted the Expropriated Properties Act, (Act NO.9 of 1982) under which the expelled Asians were authorized to return to Uganda and reclaim their former properties. This laid a ground for the protection of individuals or groups to own property which is a constitutional right provided for under Article 26 of the constitution of Uganda.
However, there are limitations in the actions of the courts provided by laws, such as the limitation Act of 1969, which states that claims for recovery off land may not be brought to court after (12) twelve years.


The Inspectorate of Government (IGG) office, is another institution provided by the constitution of Uganda in the protection of rights under chapter thirteen, under Article 225, and 230 which talks about the functions and powers of the inspectorate respectively. The Inspectorate plays indirect role namely; prosecution, investigating, making reports and recommendation to any improper conduct in state public affairs by individuals and or institutions. Since its establishment in 1986, the Inspectorate has powers to receive complaints regarding violations of human rights and abuses of offices.
The Inspectorate has been significantly impacting on the structure and operations of the government in the socio-economic and political arena from where it has addressed both social and economic reconstruction, emphasizing reform and accountability within government and enhanced protection of human rights of the people. The actions of the Inspectorate is debatable in that it has a number of challenges, one which is prior is that it no judicial enforcement neither enforcement capacity either than making recommendations. It is also upon the willingness of the state to take up action to implement these recommendations.


Another state mechanism in protecting and promoting Human Rights is the state financing and budget allocations to the various sectors. This is to enhance the provision of public goods and services. In their budget proposal for financial year 2007/08, Kenya and Tanzania pledged to boost spending on education and health, while Uganda set a side funds for rehabilitating the conflict ravaged north, where internally Displaced Persons are returning to their villages. Uganda finance and Planning Minister (former) Dr.Ezra Suruma said funds would be made available for post conflict reconstruction and development of the North. He stated that “continuing participation and development of northern Uganda and the Karamoja region is the priority in the financial year 2007-2008 budget”. In the support of the programme, a total of Uganda shillings 18.6 billion (US $ 11 Million) was allocated for resettlement and further 5 billion (US $ 3 Million) was specifically for the provision of water in northern Uganda.


In Uganda the government has used decentralization as an approach to the provision of public goods and services. However, the majority of financing for decentralization comes from the central government, and one would argue that this is an aspect of government commitment in the promotion of Human Rights. Decentralisation is a tool for the promotion of Economic and Social Rights (ESR). However, ESR are merely being seen as aspirations, policies and programmes and not real rights. This has affected the manner in which it’s attended to in terms of protection and promotion. The centralized system of governance failed to deliver services to the local Ugandans this was substituted by Decentralisation that now targets and aim at delivery of public goods right at the local levels.
Laura (2007), challenges are faced in promoting the human rights based approaches to development especially in ensuring equality and non – discrimination, increased accountability and consideration of vulnerable groups for specialized and measurable interventions. The challenge is that there is no Economic and Social security for these vulnerable individuals. Non governmental organisations have tried to get them out of the trap but it seems resources and sizes make it difficult for such categories to realize their Economic and Social rights.

The strength is that, Decentralisation as a state mechanism being used in the promotion of Economic and Social Rights has structures of intervention right from the village and sub county levels. It is a strong approach of ensuring service delivery to reach the locals and gain their participation. The local government at this level plans and execute their priority. The initiative enhances mobilization of resources required for effective service delivery. The general mandate of the local government councils relating to Economic and Social Rights are detailed in the second schedule to the local government Act, 1997 which includes; education and medical services.

The protection of Economic and Social Rights has not only been limited to the state machinery, in this aspect one might think of the executive, judiciary and the legislature. Non state actors have as well plaid silent and indirect roles through advocacy and provision of social and economic services, though this is not the focus for the discussion
Much being said about the prospects in the protection of ESR, challenges can not go without mention. Among these challenges includes vital issues such as; Territorial sovereignty and the principle of non interference in domestic affairs of other states. This often ignores many concerns about the status of citizenry and human rights enjoyment and on the other hand states being made responsible to account, whether it has been able to exercise effective authority over human right watch. In guise of the principle of state sovereignty and development challenges a lot of issues about Economic and Social rights have not been attended to.

The gender diamension of Economic and Social Rights in Uganda is arguably a failure. The distinction between the poor is distinctively feminine; among the poor of the poorest are the females who shoulder the major domestic responsibility in unrecognized manner. Poverty is still a major hindrance to realisation of rights, this is evident by the 2005 Uganda’s Human Poverty Index -1 value of 34.7, which ranks 72nd among developing countries. Mortality rates, unemployment, exclusion and illiteracy are phenomenon that surrounds women; this has denied them the realisation of vital rights such as the right to good health, education and ownership of property. The government has not done enough yet to uplift the status of women, yet without the political, economic and social inclusion of all gender, the realisation of Economic and Social Rights is a dream yet to be realized.
The threat of demographic features to the realisation of Economic and Social Rights is a real global challenge and in particular in developing countries. Demographic factors have challenged ESR in terms of employment and under employment. According to Kevin Clement the world population is expected to grow from 6.1 billion to 7.2 billion in 2015. The resultant impact is the negative economic processes that generate malign social and political outcomes, this as well increases frustrations. The decline economic strength such as the global economic crisis is another contributive factor with Africa being worst hit. Demographic factors posses’ strains on labour markets and social services, with reduced quality and efficiency in the enjoyment of Economic and Social rights.. For instance it’s arguable to state that over 50% of services nation wide in Uganda are located within Kampala the City, this shows the challenges in realisation of ESR.

The relation between deprivation and conflict underscores the fundamental link between protection of Human Rights and stability, for instance in northern Uganda that has been facing violent conflict for a period of two decades. In a state of instability, the resulting effect is the denial of basic Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Apart from the instability it causes, the non –realisation of ESCR creates insurmountable obstacle to the enjoyment of Civil and Political Rights. Conflict has been debatably one of the factors that have caused a great challenge in the realisation of Economic and Social rights in some parts of Uganda such as the north and eastern part of the country.

The reflections and recommendations are based on grounds that initial mechanism for the states protection of Economic and Social Rights have loop holes, these reflections are possible prescriptions that can be adopted to ensure the realisation of these rights. However, the successes still depends on the will of the state and how issues of human rights are treated.

The first priority is the enforcement; Human rights are to be enjoyed by individuals in their own societies and senses without limitations but with clear respects to other individuals and persons. The recognition, implementation and enforcement should be done through laws and effective institutions such as the courts that should be entrusted with the obligations to sue and charge violators of such rights with punitive measures best prescribe by the state courts. Secondly, human rights provisions should be subject to direct judicial scrutiny given the necessity of ensuring effective protection of human dignity, the enjoyment and protection of all rights without discrimination.
Focusing at the drastic and negative indicators of poverty, human development and security, is a clear focus that the state is not doing enough in the protection of Economic and Social Rights. It is arguable that the causes and failure registered in these indicators are failures to provide better health, education, and food security to mention but a few. Thus it is vital that the state takes good care of these issues. More focus should as well be focused on creating enabling ground and increased sensitization and education about Economic and Social Rights, states should as well in this process be able to deal effectively with individuals and institution that obstruct the realisation of these rights.

Another recommendation can be taken from the work of Edward Khiddu Makubuya, who stated that, there is a need to articulate the very notion of gross violations of human rights. Existing law appears to cater for ordinary, and perhaps, occasional violations of human rights. And yet actual Ugandan experience over the years has shown that extensive, persistent and massive violations of human rights on a wide scale over an extended period of time have gone without redress. It is the latter type of violations (encompassing genocide, mass expulsions, disappearances, mass looting) which are considered gross violations. To deal squarely with these, a new outlook is called for. There must be a national commitment expressed in the Constitution and other laws: to prevent gross violations of human rights by government and its agents, to compensate and rehabilitate victims of gross violations of human rights, in which connection the state should never grant itself immunity from liability for such violations.

Lastly, in attempt to show concern about human rights issues and its protection, fundamental principles need to inform state intervention. State should reckon the desire for peace and development and the international rule of law which is essential to the security and prosperity of mankind. In this aspect, focus on security should be granted fro a human perspective. Not in isolation, states must recognize the urgency of economic and social development to satisfy the basic needs and aspirations of the vast majority and the peoples and seek the progressive removal of wide disparities in living standards among the population.

It can be seen from the presentation that Uganda has both challenges and prospects especially the state mechanism in the protection and enforcement of Economic and Social Rights. In recognition of the Bills of Rights in the national constitution though, enough is not provided for the justiciability of the ESR exception recognition face in the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. The most important thing is the state recognition of these rights and what is required is to strengthen the enforcement mechanism, improve on the existing institutions such as the courts and the judiciary, state policy and programmes should as well be responsive to the recognition of these rights. However, the positive aspects of the mechanism should be built on and strengthened. Lastly however realistic or how good the policies and instrument to enforce or protect Economic and Social Rights, it is dependent on the state will, regardless of the contribution of other non state actors.

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