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Ugandan digital ID on trial: high court requests expert witness while AG denies exclusion

Ugandan digital ID on trial: high court requests expert witness while AG denies exclusion

The first hearing in the human rights litigation against the government and identity agency over Uganda’s national digital ID system resulted in the justice issuing a timetable of affidavits and requests for expert witnesses to prepare for the second hearing billed for 13 December 2022.

Ugandans affected by identity exclusion who were present in court appealed in a subsequent address to the media for the whole process to be expedited as they continue to face exclusion by the ID system on a daily basis.

The case, ‘Initiative for Social and Economic Rights [ISER], the Health Equity and Policy Initiative [HEAPI], & Unwanted Witness v. Attorney General and National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA)’ was filed by the coalition of civil society organizations at the High Court in Kampala in April 2022 to allege that the government has made national digital ID mandatory which has led to exclusion from services for those without.

Further affidavits were submitted in the lead up to the first hearing and respondents requested time to submit a comparison of Uganda’s ID system with that of India’s, among other documents, Atori Elizabeth of ISER told Biometric Update in an email.

The first hearing was held before His Lordship Wamala Boniface who ordered a list of amicus curiae and counsel requirements in the lead up to the second hearing in December, effectively giving civil society more time to build their case.

The Attorney General, Kiryowa Kiwanuka, alongside NIRA asked the court for the case to be dismissed, with costs, reports the Monitor. The AG’s sworn statement dug in on the purpose of the digital ID, as quoted by the Monitor: “The rationale for this is so that ineligible beneficiaries do not access these funds to the disadvantage of those rightfully entitled to the benefits.”

Kiwanuka also cited the World Bank argument that reliable identification is needed for welfare, notes The Monitor, and denies the possibility of exclusion:

“There is no evidence that the use of the national identification register to access SAGE [Social Assistance Grant for Empowerment] benefits by older persons is exclusionary as alleged by the applicants. The NIRA identification system is all inclusive and allows all persons regardless of age to access registration services.”

The results of the alleged exclusion have been fatal, particularly among the elderly and pregnant women barred from healthcare and welfare such as the Senior Citizen Grant. One of the most high-profile reports to date was ‘Chased Away and Left to Die: How a National Security Approach to Uganda’s National Digital ID Has Led to Wholesale Exclusion of Women and Older Persons’ (full report).

Published by ISER and Unwanted Witness published in conjunction with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law in June 2021, the extensive research into the impact of Uganda’s ID, known as Ndaga Muntu, found the digital identity system to be designed as a “weapon of national security.”

NIRA is fully aware of low registration rates and recently spoke to Biometric Update’s ID16.9 Podcast about their plans to scale up enrollment to reach another 17 million Ugandans. The crux of the issue is the enforcement of checking ID for service access when a third of the population does not have it.

“We are asking the court that first of all, it is not right that they continue to have a mandatory requirement for the national ID and yet NIRA itself admits that there is a significant number of Ugandans that do not have an ID. So if you insist on that, you are going to out many people,” Salima Namusobya, executive director of ISER told the press on the day of the hearing, reports PML Daily.

Odur Anthony, executive director of HEAPI noted in a release ahead of the hearing that “Our most recent community interactions show that the problems with the national ID system continue to be a typical occurrence as evidenced by people whose attempts to obtain an ID have been unsuccessful, fundamental errors in personal data, protracted processing delays, and malfunctions of biometric equipment, to mention but a few. These flaws have formed the foundation for mass exclusion.”

Atori Elizabeth of ISER also noted how enforcement of ID is continuing to spread, as in Kenya, to education: “If enrolling learners is intended to help the Government successfully plan for them, then relying solely on data from a deficient national ID system will undoubtedly lead to deceptive results. Ultimately, some learners will be excluded from access to education.”

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