Mental health law proposal in Uganda will breach human rights, says civil society coalition

A coalition of organisations have today called on Ugandan Members of Parliament to oppose a Government-sponsored Mental Health Bill which will breach the human rights of persons with mental disabilities in the country.

A position statement issued by the coalition in advance of a critical debate in Parliament next Tuesday says that the law “does not command the support of civil society, does not command the support of persons with disabilities or their representative organisations, and is fundamentally flawed”.

Derrick Kizza, Executive Director of Mental Health Uganda (MHU) said:

The Bill retains the old colonial thinking about people with mental health issues. Instead of investing in community mental health services, the Bill treats people with mental disabilities as criminals, allowing highly abusive practices such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), placing people in isolation cells, and subjecting them to restraint. These practices don’t help people to recover – in fact, they are abusive and should be banned.

Uganda’s current mental health legislation dates back to 1964 and has been widely criticised as being outdated and perpetuating discriminatory practices against people with mental health issues. The need for reform has become increasingly important since Uganda became the first African nation to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008.

Among key points of contention, Mental Health Uganda (MHU) and the coalition point out that the Mental Health Bill 2014 is premised on a biomedical approach and will allow for coercion and abusive practices in Uganda’s mental health institutions.

Instead of investing in the roll-out of community-based mental health and other services in the country, the Bill will enable forced detention, forced treatment, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), seclusion and restraints. The coalition, supported by Validity, have pointed out that such practices breach Uganda’s obligations under the CRPD, including the rights to liberty, freedom from torture and ill-treatment and the right to health on the basis of informed consent.

The coalition has also raised concerns that passage of the Bill will criminalise persons with mental disabilities following proposals from the Parliamentary Health Committee to increase resources to the police to apprehend people and forcibly take them to hospitals.

In 2014, MHU and Validity published two major reports highlighting widespread and systematic human rights violations faced by people with mental disabilities in psychiatric hospitals and in community settings.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee) expressed deep concern about violence and abuse against persons with disabilities, including those in institutions. Noting the concerns of organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) that the Mental Health Bill was flawed and failed to abide by key human rights standards, the CRPD Committee recommended that Uganda “ensure that the Mental Health Bill, 2014, is [brought into] compliance with the Convention”.

The Bill has not been substantially amended, despite the UN recommendations and consistent calls from persons with disabilities to bring it into line with human rights. Reports also continue to emerge of violence, abuse and degrading conditions in psychiatric hospitals in the country, including at Butabika National Mental Referral Hospital.

Validity and our partners in Uganda are now calling on Ugandan Members of Parliament to reject the Bill which must be fundamentally reformed.