Clinic Highlight: International Human Rights Victory

Last month, the University of Wyoming Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy shared in a major legal victory for human rights in Uganda.  On October 30th, Uganda’s Supreme Court 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.

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 Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (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.  In 2012, 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 dismissed the case.  In so 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 the original case will now be heard on its merits.  “Uganda is facing an epidemic of preventable deaths of pregnant women,” said Ms. 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 Courts 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.”

The University of Wyoming Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy and the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz provided legal advice and technical assistance to CEHURD on the Supreme Court appeal.  Professor Noah Benjamin Novogrodsky, who led the Wyoming team, said “The decision is significant because it confirms the independence of the judiciary and the fundamental importance of social and economic rights.  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.”

“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,” observed Ms. Nakibuuka Noor of CEHURD.

In addition to Professor Novogrodsky’s work, the Wyoming team included Professor Suzan Pritche

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Pictured above: Jonathan McCoy (J.D. ’15) meeting with attorneys after a Supreme Court hearing in Uganda.

tt, Golten Fellow Tilman Jacobs, and students in the University of Wyoming College of Law International Human Rights Clinic. Law students and faculty made several trips to Uganda to conduct field research and to attend court hearings related to the case.  The Wyoming human rights center also provided research and drafting help on submissions related to U.S. and comparative law.

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

For more information please contact:  Professor Suzie Pritchett, University of Wyoming College of Law, spritch1@uwyo.edu, 1.307.766.3556.