HRD Interview: Sarah Bireete, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Governance (CCG), Uganda
Sarah Bireete is an energetic human rights defender from Uganda, who is currently busy setting up a working group on civic space research in the country, while also running the Center for Constitutional Governance (CCG), a constitutional watchdog. We sat down with her to explore her views on trust between business and civil society, and how multinational companies should respond to a growingly heavy-handed response to protests in the country.
Hi Sarah! Please tell us about you and your work!
I am a lawyer, a Human rights activist, and the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Governance (CCG), a constitutional watchdog in Uganda. I also have my own social media channel, Good Morning Uganda, followed by over 20000 followers.
How are businesses in Uganda affecting civic space and human rights in general? Are they cooperating well with civil society or is there something that could be improved?
The first thing is that international companies should observe the laws of the country in which they operate and the international law and best practice. But the practice is that most international companies that come from democratic countries, where they respect people’s rights, when they come to Uganda they tend to be blind to people’s rights, especially labour rights, people’s protection, especially in risky sectors like the flower farms. We have had experiences in the country where women worked with no protection against the pesticides, and they experienced health hazards, which made them unable to fend for families.
One of the most shocking experiences was from the flower sector, where one of the embassies was protecting an irresponsible investor from their country against the labour rights of local people. It was really amazing that ambassador called the HRD directly, and threatened them to keep quiet about labour rights of ordinary women working on flower farms.
In the oil sector as well, most multinational companies are ignoring the basic human rights, the right to property, clean environment, fair and prompt compensation. Civil society believes that most of them are not helpful as they are not upholding practices that are respected in their own countries and are not following best practices established by international processes, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. We are struggling with this, because we expect multinational companies to come in with an upper hand, and improve practice in oil governance in the country. What we expect is a partnership with developed countries, in line with international protocols governing diplomacy, and with companies based in this countries – this would help us improve the welfare of the people in the least developed countries. We don’t expect big companies to come in and negatively affect people and shrink space for civil society.
Is there trust between multinational companies and civil society in Uganda? Can multinational companies help civil society protect and expand civic space in some way?
Trust between civil society and multinationals gets eroded when we see them coming in to exploit the most vulnerable of our people.
Multinational companies come into the country and give work to mainly low wage workers – they have limited knowledge, they are vulnerable, they need to make a living for their families – and then they get exploited by people that we would expect would have higher protection standards. This erodes people’s trust because it appears as though they are just trying to exploit the situation, instead of trying to improve the welfare of society they’re coming into. But in the context of the business and human rights approach, we as civil society need to work a lot with these companies to show them that they shouldn’t lower standards – they should maintain the same standards as in their countries of origin.
Multinational companies should also work with civil society actors to help us push back against the government if it is shrinking civic space and to push the government to help improve the welfare of the people, as they make profit.
We have seen more attacks on journalists and opposition figures in Uganda in the past year, and more heavy-handed response to protests – how should have the business community reacted?
When there is unrest in the country, the companies will not be able to do their business they came to do. When people are not happy and are agitated, they will not deliver at their place of work. So these businesses need to come into the country, and make human rights a condition for them doing business in a country: that would ensure human rights are observed. In their conversations, they should tell the government that if they continue to violate human rights, they might suspend business there.
We expect multinationals to say to government ‘these are not the standards we expect to work in. They cannot make profit when country is not governable, so they should help improve the situation and tell government that they cannot violate human rights because it will make situation worse for everyone.