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UW Law Center Helps with Human Rights Victory in Uganda

December 3, 2015

head portraits of Noah Novogrodsky and Susan PritchettThe University of Wyoming Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy recently shared in a major legal victory for human rights in Uganda.

Uganda’s Supreme Court in October handed down a landmark decision reinstating a closely watched lawsuit on preventable maternal mortality, which seeks access to justice and the fulfillment of health rights for expectant mothers.

The Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy in the UW College of Law, and the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz, in New York City, provided legal advice and technical assistance to the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) on the Supreme Court appeal.

“The decision is significant because it confirms the independence of the judiciary and the fundamental importance of social and economic rights,” says UW College of Law Professor Noah Novogrodsky, who led the Wyoming team. “In time, this case could become known as the Brown v. Board of Education of East Africa. Put simply, the decision reminds us that women’s lives matter.”

In addition to Novogrodsky, the UW team members were College of Law Assistant Professor Suzan Pritchett and Golten Fellow Tilman Jacobs; and students in the UW College of Law International Human Rights Clinic.

UW law students and faculty members made several trips to Uganda to conduct field research and to attend court hearings related to the case. The UW human rights center also provided research and drafting help on submissions related to U.S. and comparative law.

As many as 17 women die in childbirth every day in Uganda; most deaths occur due to lack of basic medicines or access to Caesarean sections. In 2011, the families of two women who died in childbirth and the CEHURD filed a lawsuit against the Ugandan attorney general in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, arguing that the government’s failure to provide basic maternal health services violates the Ugandan Constitution.

Later that year, the Constitutional Court agreed with a preliminary objection filed by the attorney general that issues relating to health rights were “political questions” that the judiciary had no authority to address, and the case was dismissed. In its ruling, the Constitutional Court relied on an interpretation of U.S. law related to the political question doctrine.

The October decision reassessed the U.S. jurisprudence and struck down the Constitutional Court’s judgment, meaning that the original case will now be heard on its merits.

“Uganda is facing an epidemic of preventable deaths of pregnant women,” says Primah Kwagala of CEHURD. “With this ruling, the judiciary has agreed that it should no longer turn a blind eye to the health rights violations women face. We are taking a step closer to health justice.”

The Supreme Court’s judgment reopens the courts to women suffering from a lack of basic maternal health services and sends a powerful message about the role of the Ugandan judiciary in safeguarding the Constitution.

According to the Supreme Court, “the Constitutional Court not only has the jurisdiction, but also the responsibility” to determine whether acts or omissions of the government contravene the constitution in cases before it. The chief justice of the court, in his concurring opinion, reaffirmed that “the Constitutional Court’s doors should remain wide open for the people of Uganda to have access to it at all times for interpretation of the Constitution and declarations and redress where appropriate” and urged that “the judiciary should be an active participant in the judicial process ready to use law in the service of social justice through a proactive goal-oriented approach.”

“We know that this judgment will not completely turn around the quality of maternal health services in Uganda, but we are very confident that it represents real progress in the fight to ensure that no pregnant woman in Uganda dies while giving life,” says Nakibuuka Noor of CEHURD.

The full opinion is available at www.cehurd.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2015/11/petition-16-Uganda-Supreme-Court.pdf.

For more information, email Pritchett at spritch1@uwyo.edu.


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Chad Baldwin

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