Ngetha Media Association for Peace call for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders working in rural areas of Uganda

Human Rights Defenders in Uganda are facing  severe restriction and worse attacks. Ngetha Media Association for Peace has been monitoring the increasing numbers of threats and intimidation of human rights Defenders working in the Albertine region of Uganda where Oil and natural resources have been discovered.

On 16th March , 2018, Oromo Ashraf  was arrested during a raid on his home conducted by Butiaba Sub County Internal security officer Mr Rugongeza Hanny. Oromo was  arrested purposely because of his human rights works related to land rights protection of the local community of Waaki who are currently being evicted by Butiaba sub county Internal security officer  Mr Rugongeza Hanny. Oromo was taken to Bullisa central police station where he was held for 5 days before being released without any charge. While in detention, he was not allowed to contact his family. Oromo is  a human rights activist and environmental defender based in Runga village in Kiibiro. His human rights works involved providing legal support and advises to local indigenous farmers facing persecution from government official in Bullisa  and Hoima districts among others. Recently Oromo condemned the manner in which the Butiaba sub county internal security officer Mr Rugongeza Hanny violently caned and beaten women and equally forced them to walk naked from to Waaki. The group of women from Waaki village were arrested while collecting fire woods.They were arrested, beaten and ordered to walk naked amidst heavy military deployment .

Human rights defenders advocating on issues related to Oil and gas, environmental protection, land and women rights, media freedom and culture  in Uganda, particularly Albertine region  are  facing intensifying pressure for bringing attention to human rights violations in  the region .

The Albertine region is where Oil and gas has been discovered. Albertine is an important biodiversity hotspot known for being a habitat for 39% of Africa’s mammal species, 35% of Africa’s insect species, 51% of Africa’s bird species, 19% of Africa’s amphibian species, 14% of Africa’s plant and reptile species plus 79 threatened terrestrial vertebrates according to the IUCN Red Data book and lists. The Rift also harbours approximately 70% of Uganda’s major protected areas including seven out of ten National parks, eight out of 15 forests, 12 wildlife reserves, 13 wildlife sanctuaries and five wildlife community areas according to the 2010 Uganda Environmental Sensitivity Atlas, 2nd Edition.  Unfortunately, the same ecosystems are being threatened and degraded by among others, the emerging oil exploration and exploitation activities including refinery and pipelines developments in addition to plantation activities such as sugarcane growing which require massive clearance of forests to secure land. Human Rights defenders in this region are  unprotected from frequent threats and violence from multiple sources including Uganda People Defense forces (UPDF), Oil and Gas protection police unit, agri-business, the Uganda police, Resident Districts Commissioners (RDC’s), Land grabbers and Oil cooperates drilling in Lake Albert and Murchison falls national Park among others.

Without these dedicated individuals, the protection of the incredible Albertine environment and of the rights to protect it would be impossible in Uganda. It’s against this notice that Ngetha Media Association for Peace call for the media  protection of human rights defenders working in undeserved Albertine region of Uganda .We need protections in place and at local level so that the safety  of human& environmental defenders in the Albertine region is strengthened .

The Albertine region where Oil and gas has been discovered and drilling is slated to start next year means many people will  die if they are not protected from the dangers that come as a result of exploration and drilling activities. Just like the Ogoni people of Niger Delta in Nigeria, It’s anticipated that Oil drilling in Albertine region will have very negative impacts on the environment and on people for whom 70% of their livelihood depends on agriculture and biodiversity. Already we have lands land grabs, exploratory drilling effects on fisheries and loss of critical areas of high  biodiversity due to encroachment on ecological reserves land by exploration companies .HRD’s have to be protected and equipped with skills, resources  and tools so that they can work without fear of reprisal as they confront the development .

Human rights defenders is a term used to describe individuals acting to promote or protect human rights. This broad term encompasses professional as well as non-professional human rights workers, journalists, volunteers, lawyers and any other individuals who carry out human rights activities.

The rights and the protection of human rights defenders are outlined in the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1998, marking the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In accordance with the declaration, States are responsible to implement and respect all the Declaration’s provisions, particularly the duty to protect human rights defenders from harm as a consequence of their work. However, in reality many States fail in doing so. Several steps have been taken by the United Nations to respond to this situation. In April 2000, the Commission on Human Rights requested UN Secretary-General to appoint a special representative on human rights defenders, today known as the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders”. In 2011, the Commentary to the Declaration was developed to further assist national States and other stakeholders in ensuring that the declaration is respected.

However, there is significant concern for the situation of human rights defenders in most countries, including Uganda. The Special Rapporteur has placed special emphasize on the situation in Uganda, where severe civil unrest or internal conflicts exist and legal and institutional protections and guarantees of human rights are not fully assured or do not exist. In Uganda, the situation of HRD’s particularly in Albertine region can be described as worrisome. Human Rights defenders are unjustly detained, abducted, beaten and threatened by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, militants, land grabbers and Oil cooperates as well as agribusiness, and by political parties that claim to promote democracy and the rule of law.  Adding to the gravity of the situation is the fact that the perpetrators of violence against HRD’s enjoy almost absolute impunity in the Albertine region. Very few Albertine HRD’s have support to protect them-selves.

The National Coalition of HRD’s in Uganda agrees that Albertine region of Uganda has become one of the deadliest region for HRD’s in Uganda as a result of their advocacy for oil and extractive industry transparency . The alarming increases in violence and threats against HRD’s force many of them to migrate from these danger zones; leave their professional employment and resort to self-censorship at best, particularly in the areas of Hoima, Bullisa, Nwoya and Pakwach districts which experience gross human rights violation as a result of Oil exploration activities and the activities of agribusiness like Hoima Sugar Cooperation LIMITED deforesting in areas of Rwamutonga among others. HRD’s engaged in the land-rights sector are arguably working in one of Albertine Uganda most politically volatileissues .Access to land and property is essential to livelihoods and security and is directly linked to reducing women’s financial dependency on men and their vulnerability to violence . AFIEGO a leading energy governance and & environmental resource research organisation based in the Albertine region reports that, in an investigation of 6 districts, that more than 500,000 Ugandans have been affected by state-involved land conflicts, these evictions and resettlements impacting women and girls disproportionately. Women are also at the forefront of the campaigns against forced evictions. Thus, women not only face impoverishment from forced evictions, but have also experienced threats and imprisonment.   Also WHRDs involved in labour rights and unions also face a multitude of challenges.  In a 2018 February newsletter and  policy brief  ,AFIEGO  stated that the Oil refinery and exploration activities project, over the last years, has seen a decline in terms of respecting the human rights of casual workers. When labour rights and union activists engage in protecting their rights, they are sometimes faced by violence. The Oil project is a key pillar of Uganda’s economy and is expected to generate significant income; still working conditions of the casual refinery workers show little sign of improvement in terms of; fire safety, child labor and worker safety and health. This challenging situation has resulted in high trauma levels among HRDs working to normalise the situations.

Those working on land rights and natural resource/environmental issues are the largest group of defenders at risk of being killed and threatened. The situation of HRD’s has worsened since the Oil refinery and Central processing facilities infrastructures project began in 2016 .AFIEGO and Advocate San-frontier reports that there are  extraordinary risks, including threats, harassment and physical violence, faced by those defending the rights of local communities opposing oil refinery projects that impact natural resources, land rights or the environment. HRD’s are subjected to threats that are meant to instill fear and prevent their activism. Ngetha Media Association for Peace had interviews with selected human rights defenders in Bullisa, and Hoima .It was revealed that human rights defenders are  receiving threats and/or suffering reprisals against themselves and, in many cases, against family members or communities. These included physical threats or reprisals, such as assault, death threats, sexual assault, and kidnapping, and other physical attacks, as well as non-physical threats or reprisals, such as defamation and stigmatization. Most HRD’s NMAP spoke to attributed the extreme nature of these threats and reprisals to the strong economic interests at stake coupled with a high level of corruption and lack of rule of law. For example, one HRD from Bullisa district explained to NMAP  how police had sought to disperse a peaceful protest against the destruction of a forest by opening fire with live bullets, killing one woman and injuring many others in Ngwedo village, the village that is hosting the Oil central Processing facilities (CPF). Afterwards, the leaders of the women were arrested on order of Minister for land of the Republic of Uganda, despite the fact that they had obtained official permission for the demonstration. In another case, an environmental activist was beaten and brutally harassed ,his camera and computer destroyed after  criticizing the project of General Salim Saleh the brother of president Museveni who evicted indigenous people from land in Panyimur on Lake Albert shore for his commercial fish pond project.The activist was demanding from the president’s brother  fair land compensation to the victims. The following days his home was surrounded by police who, threatened him to stop his campaign. Another HRD described how his children had been ‘visited’ at school in Hoima and questioned about their father’s activities, and how his wife had been ‘visited’ at school in Hoima and questioned about their father’s activities, and how his wife had been sexually assaulted.

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