ROGERS WADADA: Making sense of America’s visa sanctions on Ugandan officials

Roger Wadada Musaalo, a Lawyer, human rights activist, researcher, and politician (PHOTO/File).

KAMPALA — A story is told of a not so intelligent man called Joseph who was travelling in a Jinja bound taxi from Kampala to Mukono. Next to him was a breastfeeding mother who kept encouraging her baby to feed in vain.

As is the practice of breastfeeding mothers, she threatened her baby that she would give the breast to the man seated next to her but the baby was not bothered which prompted the passenger to take the joke to another level. He sat back and waited for the threat to happen.

The breastfeeding mother made her threats so many times to the extent that the man next to her got comfortable and forgot to alight at Mukono. He was hopeful that he would be the next of kin, thanks to the adamant baby.

Of course, the man’s intention was not to suck breast milk but he was having evil ideas in his head and found himself past mabira forest. The Americans have mastered the art of playing psychological games to keep Ugandans hoping for the best even when such hope does not exist.

They play on the minds of victims of bad regimes as if they are taking some form of action against the aggressors but later go behind the curtains to pick their cheque for a job well done in the field of public relations. They make us live with hope that something good is about to happen until a term of office for the sitting President comes to an end.

They boost our hopes that even those in power can be punished by those who call themselves super powers. Restricting somebody from going to America can only be a punishment if that person has stolen money and kept it in one of the American banks and that to have access to that money one has to physically travel to the US. If this was the case, then a travel restriction would make sense and it would be a punishment.

Why am I giving you this preamble? It is not the first time America is imposing visa restrictions on Ugandan officials believed to have undermined the democratic process in the country. It is a pity that these Americans still think that a trip to America is prestigious and a preserve of a few who qualify by their standards. I’m pretty sure there are better countries for one to go for holidays, asylum, medical care, work, shopping and tourism. To imagine that being denied a visa to America is a punishment is a fallacy and a mindset that must be erased forthwith. America is a shadow of its past and should stop overrating their importance to the world.

To Henry Okello Oryem, Americans should have just believed the explanation given by Uganda Government on human rights since they are not on the ground to ascertain what exactly transpired before, during and after elections other than slapping sanctions. The minister believes those restricted are being victimized and have not been given a chance to be heard which defeats the very core principles of natural justice. Oryem believes the decision of America is not from a well informed point of view but based on propaganda in newspaper, from individuals haters, pressure groups, and lobbyists which is very unfortunate.

I do not understand why Americans have failed to learn that visa restrictions against human rights violators are not a punishment but an enticement for Government to change goal posts and replace those that have been restricted. The Ugandan Government has constantly told off these Americans that nobody is desperate to go to the US meaning that the sanctions are not a punishment and many have lived their lives without stepping foot on American soils. To make matters worse, it is the junior officers that are subjected to sanctions leaving those who give orders to go scot free.

The Secretary of State’s threats can be equated to a paper tiger, completely harmless and yet scare many for its past glory. If indeed these sanctions were serious, why did the Americans keep the names of these officials confidential? How do you sanction Government officials and you do not provide their names to enable other countries black list them as well. What is so secret about the sanctions? The culprits must be named and ashamed alongside their families and accomplices.

Previous correspondences from the US Congress and the Department of State during both the Trump and Biden Administrations had listed some Ugandan officials in the army and police among those on the hit list. Some have since been dropped and/or redeployed elsewhere like former Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura who was sanctioned in 2019 under the Global Magnitsky Act for “serious human rights. Kayihura is a free man enjoying himself, I don’t think he is bothered by the travel sanctions.

In the past, seven commanders including Lt. Gen. Peter Elwelu, the then Commander of Land Forces, Maj. Gen. James Birungi, the then Commander of the Special Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Don William Nabasa, the then Commander of the Special Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho, the then Chief of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Steven Sabiiti Muzeyi, the then Deputy Inspector of General of Police, Frank Mwesigwa, a Commissioner of Police, and Col. Chris Serunjogi Ddamulira, the Director of Crime Intelligence, were placed under American sanctions. Their sanctions followed a request forwarded to the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, by the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot Engel which cited their alleged involvement past inhuman rights abuses.

That is in the past, the new list should include the likes of Bagyenda Kaka, Lokech, Kafeero of KMP, Owiny Dollo, EC Chairman Byamukama, former commanders of Nalufenya, past and present leaders of CMI, the head of Makindye based Military barracks, Rebecca Kadaga, Michael Senoga, Jacob Oulanyah, the present Director of Immigration, Jjeje Odongo, Elly Tumwine, Okoth Ochola among and above all, the man himself who makes all orders behind the curtains..

Looking at the list of those who had been sanctioned in the past, one is able to discern that the impact is not grave. One should begin by asking the obvious question: what is a sanction and what is its purpose and why is it imposed?

Sanctions are meant to be a last resort when it comes to addressing massive human rights violations, curbing illegal smuggling or stopping extremist groups. Increasingly, sanctions are used to support peace efforts, to ensure that elections are held in a fair and lawful manner, or to demobilize armed groups. Sanctions are mainly imposed by the United Nations, European Union and even individual countries such as America.

Sometimes the threat of sanctions does not work, and it is up to the imposing organ or state to impose sanctions on individuals, entities or States who bear responsibility for the violation of human rights. This is done by identifying the individuals or entities that are subject to these ‘targeted’ sanctions measures. The international community can use sanctions to change the behaviour of a country or regime and in cases where that country or regime is violating human rights, waging war or endangering international peace and security.

Other than focusing on visa restrictions, America should have opted for freezing the assets of the culprits and their companies where they have interest. The purpose of these restrictions is for these countries to change undesirable behavior such as open violation of human rights as is the case in Uganda, to limit opportunities for undesirable behaviour and to deter other countries from doing the same. Since 9/11, there has been a pronounced shift toward targeted or so-called smart sanctions, which aim to minimize the suffering of innocent civilians if sanctions were imposed on the whole country. Sanctions take a variety of forms, including travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, capital restraints, foreign aid reductions, and trade restrictions.

National governments and international bodies such as the United Nations and European Union have imposed economic sanctions to coerce, deter, punish, or shame entities that endanger their interests or violate international norms of behavior. Sanctions have been used to advance a range of foreign policy goals, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, nonproliferation, democracy and human rights promotion, conflict resolution, and cyber security.

It was embarrassing for a whole Secretary of state to call a press conference and tell the world among others that America has imposed visa restrictions on Uganda officials over human rights abuses. It is stupid and ashaming to create an impression that these restricted people are dying to go to America and denying them a visa is a punishment. That explains why the Junior Minister for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem has come out to mock America for their threats made by Antony Blinken on behalf of the US. Speaking to NBS television on phone, Oryem said the government will not lose sleep over the threats as nobody is dying to go to America.

With Uganda’s arrogant response, Americans need to rethink the form of punishment that they would want to impose on individuals found to be guilty of human rights violations. Visa restrictions do not affect any of these individuals and I want to propose the international Criminal Court to teach them a lesson.

Roger Wadada is Lawyer and Human Rights Advocate

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