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Criminalising Poverty Prejudices the Equal Dignity of all Persons


“Closing the inequalities gap to achieve social justice.”


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides in Article 1 that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity rights. This is the foundation of human interaction, and the realisation of this is the basis of social justice for all persons. On the 20th of February every year, the world unites to celebrate the World Day of Social Justice. This year, the theme is “closing the inequalities gap to achieve social justice”. It is important to note that social justice denotes equality, equal participation and access to social wellbeing and economic justice for all. This, according to Ban Ki Moon, the eighth Secretary General of the United Nations, is the foundation for national stability and global prosperity”.

Unfortunately, Uganda’s vagrancy laws have continued to foster an environment in which the poorest and most marginalized persons in Uganda continue to be treated as second class citizens by virtue of their socio-economic status. The vagrancy laws, which criminalise such conduct as “begging”, “loitering”, “wandering upon highways”, “behaving in such a way as to cause annoyance to a section of the public” and other such ill-defined conduct, have remained part of the laws of Uganda since the enactment of the Penal Code Act in 1950. These laws have exposed a wide section of the society to arbitrary arrests at the discretion of individual police officers, who are then exposed to extortion, imprisonment and prolonged trials, with the attendant long pre-trial detention periods. All this violates their basic dignity as human beings, their right to freedom from discrimination as well as their right to both movement and liberty.

In Uganda, some of the most marginalized persons are persons who are criminalised at law for reasons such as morality and public interest. Persons such as People Who Use and Inject Drugs, sex workers and LGBT persons are often victimized by both the society in which they live and by law enforcers and other state actors, whose job it is to ensure that they have access to basic health, legal and other social services. As such, marginalized persons in Uganda are locked in a self-feeding loop of poverty, lack of access to economic opportunities and resources, lack of access to health services and restricted access to justice. This continued social and economic marginalisation of sex workers, PWUIDs and LGBT persons has been made consistently worse by the legal regime, which has created classes of social misfits that are excluded on all fronts. This has made the income inequality gap a lot worse for these groups, thus placing their human dignity at the lowest ebb.

 Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum envisions a society the human rights of all persons, including marginalised persons and most at risk populations, are valued and respected. This can only be achieved when all persons have access to basic social services and resources, and the first step to achieving this is a complete overhaul of the criminal laws of the country to remove provisions that encourage discrimination against marginalized persons. Our call to the government and policy makers is to make laws that permit equal participation of every citizen without discrimination as a critical first step to achieve social justice. HRAPF therefore joins the rest of the world say unequivocally that all rights are human rights. All human beings are born free, and equal, and worthy of dignity. The state has a responsibility to ensure that the legal and policy regime that exists is conducive to the achievement of the best attainable standard of living all persons, and that the dignity of all persons is recognized and respected.

Therefore the government together with the policy makers should make laws that seek to value the dignity of a human being, include all persons and enhance equal participation in order to achieve social justice.