Government, Oil companies, and business actors in the Albertine region must respect the rights of human rights defenders to carry out their work in a safe and open environment

In a new report released this week by FIDH and partners organisations, FIDH has called on the Joint Venture Partners and other business actors to respect the rights of human rights defenders to carry out their work in a safe and open environment.

“Joint Venture Partners and other economic actors operating in the framework of the oil developments in the Albertine region must halt all activities related to the project until sufficient guarantees for the free and secure work of HRDs are put in place”.

Community-Based Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Lake Albert Oil Extraction Project and Related Developments in the Albertine Graben, Uganda

The report revealed that Oil exploration and related infrastructures development in the Albertine region has been characterized by a level of tension and violence high enough to limit the capacity of action of human rights defenders, as well as to limit other Civil society organisations capacity to document violations and to mobilize communities around human rights issues. This tension has engendered a fear to speak up about the impacts that are being felt by communities on the ground, a fear that has been proved justifiable by the concrete threats, violence, and harassment against defenders who dare to exercise their freedom of expression according to the report.

The presence of armed forces and private security companies in the area − powerful and numerous economic actors with economic and political interests in the project that often conflict with those of the local populations − has nurtured the high level of fear within affected communities, who generally remain silent or very cautious when speaking about the violence and harassment they may have experienced and the impacts they have suffered from the project. Total and Tullow Oil have chosen to hire unarmed security guards and to commit to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, in contrast to other companies involved in the project.

According to the report, it is evidenced that the Total is already in an advanced stage to conclude an MoU with Ugandan authorities for the deployment of a specialized oil and gas police force. It should be noted however, since serious prospecting work began, the Lake Albert region has seen the influx of military police, and other Ugandan government security personnel. When Heritage began its exploration in the late 1990s, it was well aware of the risk and cooperated closely with UPDF; a local brigade held daily briefings and weekly meetings with drilling teams. In the past, border regions with the DRC have been the staging ground for the insurgency of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group of Islamist and local opposition forces. Heightened security may, however, have a paradoxical outcome for the oil industry.

The increased military presence has brought stricter security and decreased mobility to the Lake Albert region, stirring up social grievances towards the oil industry among the local population. There are fears that grievances over the management of oil revenues and the negative social and economic footprint of the industry in local areas will ‘unleash the genie of civil war and insurgency in Uganda.’ Already, pre-existing conflicts over land and between communities have been exacerbated by oil discoveries.

“Local HRDs, individuals and organisations, including some who participated in FIDH and FHRI’s research team, were directly and individually targeted with abusive behaviors by Government and business actors, which seemed to be aimed at punishing them for their legitimate human rights activities. Several HRDs in the region have reported arbitrary detentions, torture, confiscation of property, as well as limitations on their ability to circulate in the territory and hold meetings”. the report says

For example;

Members of the Ngetha Media Association for Peace, a local organisation working to promote and protect human rights in the region and fighting for environmental justice in favour of marginalised communities, have been also victims of arbitrary detentions, violence, torture, and surveillance since 2017.

During the past year, they have been victims of at least three arbitrary detentions of several members of the organisation. The year before, in July 2018, the Oil and Gas Protection Unit of the police, along with the Marine Division of the Panyimur Police, arrested and detained for six hours a member of the organization on allegations that he was monitoring the activities of companies and of these police forces. He was seriously beaten and tortured before being released without charges. He was relocated to Kampala to receive adequate medical attention for the resulting injuries. The torture case was brought to court. Information about these detentions and an ongoing criminal investigation against them for publishing articles that exposed the human rights impacts of the oil development – in particular those linked to Atacama’s and Total’s activities in the region – has been circulating, along with death threats against the members of the organisation and their families.

Additionally, in January 2019 the phone of one of the organization’s members was hacked and all its contents deleted.

Community-Based Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Lake Albert Oil Extraction Project and Related Developments in the Albertine Graben, Uganda

In addition to the above forms of violations, the report discovered other abuses Human Rights Defenders in the Albertine region have faced including further intimidation and threats to their physical safety and personal integrity through individual and direct attacks, threatening messages, and the spreading of false information to discredit their work.

For example;

In Kitegwa, Hoima, members of the Oil Refinery Residents Association were beaten in June 2013 by security agencies composed of the Uganda Police Force, Internal Security Organisation, Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and the Oil and Gas Protection Unit, when details of the relocation of residents in the area of the refinery were being released. The Association was trying to provide information to community members about their rights with regard to compensation, including by translating for community members the documents that Government officials had brought.

At least one of them was arrested and threatened at gunpoint by a person identified by them as a member of the Internal Security Organisation.

Community-Based Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Lake Albert Oil Extraction Project and Related Developments in the Albertine Graben, Uganda

Several verified cases of abuses suffered by Human rights defenders who participated and involved as witnesses in the legal action brought against Total in France by Friends of the Earth and Survie and several other activists in the Albertine region were documented in the report. Those abuses range from arbitrary detention and interrogation by Ugandan immigration officials based on their involvement in the legal case to direct attacks on their houses at night by unidentified people, following episodes where individuals allegedly linked to the company spread false information in their community, claiming that the witnesses lied during their court appearances in France.

“The misinformation campaign to discredit the work of these defenders, which has allegedly continued, has generated tensions and turned communities against them, putting their security at risk. It has resulted in the ostracism of the human rights defenders by some community members (including by throwing stones at them). As underlined elsewhere, dividing communities is one of the strategies frequently used by corporations to avoid accountability for human rights abuses”.

Community-Based Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Lake Albert Oil Extraction Project and Related Developments in the Albertine Graben, Uganda

According to the information received, despite the efforts of Total to raise these concerns about the fate of HRDs with the Government, some of those defenders have also been subject to an exit ban, and their photos were circulated among high-level authorities, including in the Oil and Gas Protection Unit of the police.

The European Union Delegation to Uganda alleges that they are concerned about the treatment of human rights defenders in the country, notably those working on oil and gas projects or on the right to land. The EU has established itself as a focal point for Ugandan HRDs, and its representatives examine cases of individuals in need of protection every month.

Community-Based Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Lake Albert Oil Extraction Project and Related Developments in the Albertine Graben, Uganda

The report acknowledges that those violations suffered by human rights defenders in the Albertine region is occurring in a broader national context of shrinking space for civil society. For example, several organisations and civil society involved in the Oil governance, human rights and environmental protection and those that had challenged a constitutional amendment allowing the President of Uganda to run for another term in 2021 have been subjected to different forms of harassment. The organisations faced searches and the sealing-off of their premises, the freezing of their accounts, requests for specific financial information, and threats of closure of their offices, all aimed at discouraging their work. Journalists also face limitations on their ability to access information and conduct on-site research, including through restricted access to the Murchison Falls National Park.

“The Police Force continues to interpret the requirement for notification as a request for permission to assemble, thus unfairly restricting HRD assemblies and community barazas in the Albertine Region. There must be a commitment from the Police Force to stop misapplication of the sections of POMA.”

HRD operating in the Albertine Region

Special obligations, such as requiring organizations to have a Memorandum of Understandings (MoU) with districts, are already creating negative effects, despite the fact that requiring MoUs imposes an impermissible burden on NGOs. For example, several organizations are reporting difficulties operating in Buliisa district. Ngetha Media Association for Peace, for example, has reported133 challenges in conducting public human rights education in the district because of intimidation by district authorities.

In the Albertine Region where the oil and extractives sector is taking shape, HRDs in those communities are equally facing challenges restricting their freedoms to assemble, associate, and express themselves. As HRD organisations move to sensitize people on land compensation, state agents continue to be inquisitive on who is building capacity of the locals. AFIEGO has been singled out by government and district officials for allegedly inciting the project affected persons. There has been intimidation and threats of closure of AFIEGO. Individual HRDs in the region continue to cite harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrests

Conclusively, the report called on the businesses and government to address the persistent risk of attacks against HRDs,

All business actors operating in the area must avoid stigmatization through antagonistic rhetoric, and by spreading misinformation to discredit the activities of HRDs, as this may put them at risk within their own communities;

All business actors operating in the area must refrain from requesting authorizations from PAU or any other governmental authorities before engaging in dialogue with local or international civil society actors.

Business actors operating in the area must adopt specific policies and procedures to protect HRDs, including;

Independent mechanisms to identify and sanction the use of misinformation and other forms of pressures by CLOs against community members, and in particular HRDs;

 A channel of communications whereby complaints regarding the behaviour of company representatives can be raised safely and in anonymity, and can be considered and assessed at the highest levels of decision making; and

Reinforced and adapted grievance mechanisms that are independent and accessible to HRDs.

The state to ensure that pluralistic participation of civil society and fully meet the standards of the EITI Protocol on Participation by repealing any limitations on NGOs, civil society organisations, and journalists’ activities, and allow them freely to fulfill their purpose of promoting and protecting human rights, in particular by; removing any requirements for authorizations and MoUs imposed on NGOs, journalists, and researchers when they carry out activities related to the oil project, as well as any other development projects in any part of the territory, in particular those imposed by the NGO Act of 2016 and any other unnecessary bureaucratic procedures; lifting any requirement for authorization by public authorities to engage with corporate actors, in particular the Joint Venture Partners of the Lake Albert oil project; and ; revoking the power of the National Bureau for NGOs to revoke NGOs’ operation permits

The original report can be accessed from here

Photo by FIDH

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