urgent call for the protection of land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region

Oil exploration and drilling activities are ongoing in the Albertine region of Uganda, a biologically significant and top ecological zone in Africa. Its significance has been equated to the Niger Delta of Nigeria which has been so degraded that the bounties of nature in the Delta have gradually been left to the dogs and turned into its instruments of poverty and squalor. Uganda’s Albertine Graben enjoys a formidable land covered with, forests, wild reserves, and other ecological resources of great economic and social importance. The Graben is situated in the northern section of the western arm of the East African Rift Valley System, 500 km long, averaging 45 km wide and 23,000 square km. Graben moves between Uganda and Sudan in the north to Lake Edward in the south, (including the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Oil exploration has a direct impact on the economic, social, and cultural dimensions of the community. These impacts include changes in livelihood patterns, including fishing, agriculture, livestock rearing strategies, hunting, eco-tourism, etc.

Local Communities reports that oil exploration activities had affected the way they meet the needs of their families. There is an increased restriction to fishing activities, an important source of livelihood, in their communities, inadequate compensation for compulsorily acquired land, land grabbing, forced displacement, deforestation, and other forms of environmental degradation as well as increased securitization of extractive sites which affect the ability of affected communities and on-ground civil society groups to oppose the project. 

Although people were celebrating that oil production will contribute positively to increased employment opportunities, higher incomes, improved access to roads, and improved access to social services. Nevertheless, the stories have been different than expected.

Land and environmental human rights defenders from the Albertine region face severe challenges in their efforts to protect their environment and human rights as well as dissemination of environmental information and public discussion of environmental and human rights issues. Without the protection and defense of their rights, the communities in the Albertine region will be unable to fight against the ongoing Oil and gas development activities in their region. People will die, they will lose their land and a large population will remain unaware of the environmental threats and injustices that are ongoing in their territories.

In recent months, Land and environmental human rights defenders together with their organizations have particularly been subjected to constant harassment and restrictions, along with the threat of various forms of repression being perpetrated by the government and private security agencies notably the Ugandan Peoples Defense Forces, The Oil and gas protection Police unit, the district Resident commissioners and other privates actors involved in the Oil activities.

Arrest, intimidation, office raids, killings, confiscation of equipment, suspension and deregistration of NGOs, blackmail, surveillance, and judicial harassment are examples of means being used by Ugandan authorities and Oil companies to deter against the work of Land and environmental human rights defenders in the region. There have been incidences of unlawful arrest, detention, and even arbitrary killings; forced disappearances; torture; imprisonment, violence, and intimidation against community leaders, researchers, journalists, and leaders of local civil society organizations throughout the region.

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998, recognizes the responsibility of Individuals, Groups, and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 5 of the declaration recognize the rights of everyone whether, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: (a) To meet or assemble peacefully; (b) To form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations, or groups; (c) To communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations.

According to the declaration;

Everyone has the rights ,individually and in association with other , to solicit,receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means,and for individuals,non governmental organisations,and relevant institutions to contribute to making the public more aware of questions relating to all human rights and fundamental freedoms through activities such as education,training, and research in these areas to strengthen further, inter alia, understanding, tolerance, peace and friendly relations among nations and among all racial and religious groups, bearing in mind the various backgrounds of the societies and communities in which they carry out their activities. And to complain about the policies and actions of individual officials and governmental bodies with regard to violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, by petition or other appropriate means, to competent domestic judicial, administrative, or legislative authorities or any other competent authority provided for by the legal system of the State, which should render their decision on the complaint without undue delay;

States further have a responsibility to ensure that their employees, including law enforcement officers, are properly trained to respect human rights within their public functions.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

Furthermore, several resolutions of the United Nations Declaration on Peasant Rights and other Peoples Living in Rural areas adopted in December 2018 recognize the importance of the works of Land and environmental human rights defenders and the need for their protection from dangers. The Declaration notes the need for greater protection of the human rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, and for a coherent interpretation and application of existing international human rights norms and standards in this matter and that peasants and other people working in rural areas often face difficulties in gaining access to courts, police officers, prosecutors and lawyers to the extent that they are unable to seek immediate redress or protection from violence, abuse, and exploitation. The declaration addresses key challenges faced by land and environmental human rights defenders specifically as it notes that individuals, groups, and institutions that promote and protect the human rights of those working on land and natural resources issues face a high risk of being subjected to different forms of intimidation and of violations of their physical integrity,

According to article 6 of the Declaration,

Peasants and other people working in rural areas have the right to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty, and security of person and that they shall not be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and shall not be held in slavery or servitude.

They have the right to form and join organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, or any other organization or association of their own choosing for the protection of their interests, and to bargain collectively.

States shall take appropriate measures to encourage the establishment of organizations of peasants and other people working in rural areas, including unions, cooperatives, or other organizations, particularly with a view to eliminating obstacles to their establishment, growth, and pursuit of lawful activities, including any legislative or administrative discrimination against such organizations and their members, and provide them with support to strengthen their position when negotiating contractual arrangements in order to ensure that conditions and prices are fair and stable and do not violate their rights to dignity and to a decent life.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other
People Working in Rural Areas

Despite this framework of international and regional legislation that Uganda is a member of the United Nations, there is no specific legislation protecting and safeguarding land and environmental human rights defenders. Nevertheless, The Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill has been proposed and is currently before Parliament, and if passed into law will provide for the recognition and effectiveness of the work of Land and environmental human rights defenders in Uganda.

The 1995 Constitution of Uganda recognizes that human rights are inherent and not granted by the State, which is only mandated to guarantee them (Article 20 (1)). The Constitution also proceeds to reinforce the framework of protection, which includes the rights to non-discrimination (Article 21); life (Article 22); liberty (Article 23); freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment (Article 24); freedom from slavery or servitude (Article 25); the right to property (Article 26); privacy (Article 27); a fair trial (Article 28); freedom of speech, expression, association, and assembly (Article 29); and the right to education (Article 30). The Constitution of Uganda goes yet further, in Article 38, to protect and encourage the use of civic space.

There have also been several laws passed in Uganda for example the Public Order Management Act of 2013, The NGO Act of 2016, and the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2013 which are used frequently by the Ugandan government to limit the operation of Land and environmental human rights defenders in the country. The Public Order Management Act has been strongly opposed by the Land and environmental human rights defenders group because it limits freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly and the law is not in conformity with the international human rights legislation. The specific section of it deals with the powers of police officers to stop or prevent a public meeting and this has often been used to limit freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and to justify police brutality, which was declared unconstitutional and illegal.

The Albertine Watch has documented dozens of cases of intimidation and direct attacks against Land and environmental human rights defenders opposing the Oil and gas development activities in the Albertine region of Uganda. The security situation of these categories of human rights defenders is dark and it is characterized by attacks, death threats forced evictions, and violence among others. 

Within 12 months alone there have been increased attacks and acts of violence meted on land and environmental human rights defenders. These attacks against land and environmental human rights defenders are linked to oil and gas development activities.

The followings are some of the examples of recent cases of violence and intimations suffered by Land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region of Uganda;

Between  October 6 and 7, 2021, two staff of the African Institute of Energy Governance AFIEGO in Hoima and Buliisa district field offices were arrested and detained a few days after the organization’s field offices were raided. They were released without charge. On October 14, 2021, AFIEGO’s office in Kampala was raided and staff members were arrested. The staff was released on police bond on October 14 and 15, 2021 respectively.

On October 14 and 22,2021 two Land and environmental human rights defenders namely; Mugisa Kahero and Robert Birimuye were arrested and detained in Buliisa and Kyotera districts respectively. The defenders work closely with AFIEGO as community observers.

Furthermore, on August 20, 2021, the National Bureau for non-governmental organizations (NGO Bureau) halted the operations of 54 NGOs following an allegation of non-compliance. The activities of these organizations have been suspended including Kwataniza Women Farmers Group, Witness Radio, Great Lake Institute of Strategic Studies, and AFIEGO among others that work on human rights and environmental governance in the Oil region of Uganda.

On 1st June 2021, Pakwach district local government and Resident district commissioner stopped Bullisa Initiative for Rural Development Organisation BIRUDO to reach out to the affected community and intimidated BIRUDO’s to cease their operations in the Pakwach District. An investigation was launched in regard to their support of the Paten clan. Furthermore, there were arrest and criminal charges brought against the clan members who have been falsely accused of wrongdoing because they are defending their communal land.

The Paten indigenous clan of Jonam, which resides in Pakwach district, Wadelai Sub County, Uganda, is affected by efforts to acquire the clan’s land for the Wadelai Irrigation scheme, a project funded by the African Development Bank and Nordic Development Fund. This clan engaged BIRUDO in February 2021 claiming that the government was attempting to take their land forcefully after the community refused to offer all of the requested lands for use in the project. In particular, the government is improperly using criminal proceedings in an apparent attempt to coerce the community to cede the land. As a result, nine clan leaders were arrested, and two clan members who are civil servants within the Pakwach district local government were summoned to appear before the award and sanction committee. The clan members are alleged to be sabotaging the Wadelai irrigation scheme and threatening violence based on the community’s letter to the Chief Administrative Officer of Pakwach district expressing disappointment in the way the land acquisition has been managed. BIRUDO told the Albertine Watch that the government is trying to intimidate these clan members as well as intimidating BIRUDO to cease its operations in the Pakwach District.

In May 2021, the African Institute of Energy Governance AFIEGO staff member was arrested in Buliisa District, together with an Italian journalist, as they were about to meet with local community members to discuss the impacts of the Total Energies oil project. AFIEGO is one of the CSOs engaged in litigation against Total before a French court. The arrested staff spent the night in police custody and was released 48 hours later with a holding charge of unlawful assembly.

On September 15, 2020, two staff of AFIEGO’s partners under the Save Bugoma Forest Campaign were arrested and detained in the Hoima district. They were released on police bond and charged with a holding offense of inciting violence to cause unlawful demonstration. The defenders were in Hoima district to take part in a peaceful demonstration aimed at stopping the destruction of Bugoma forest for sugarcane growing and oil activities, to discuss the risks and dangers of destroying Bugoma forest for sugarcane growing and allowing oil activities in critical biodiversity areas including rivers, lakes, national parks, forests, wetlands, and others. They had also planed radio talk shows to provide information on the planned peaceful protests.

In June 2020, the police in Kiryandongo district arrested seven lawyers supporting project-affected persons and communities forcibly evicted by an agribusiness firm to pave way for large commercial sugarcane growth. The Ugandan authorities used the Covid-19 pandemic regulations to charge them with a “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease. The lawyers were investigating circumstances surrounding the forceful eviction of over 35,000 people being disposed of by 3 multinationals (Agilis Partners, Great Season, and Kiryandongo Sugar Limited) on 30th June 2020 by anti-riot police. The lawyers arrested include Kaijuka Aaron, Christine Marunga, Joan Balyerali, Brian Tuwayenga, Eric Bajole, Muhindo Morgan, and Nafula Elizabeth.

Similarly, On the 4th of September 2020, 8 land and environmental human rights defenders were arrested and detained in Kiryandogo on the instructions of the area District Police Commander. The 8 EHRDs namely; Mwawula Fred, Ndahimana Ramu, Kusiima Samuel, Martin Munyansia, Martin Haweka, Wafula Amos, Muloni Wanjala, and one Talemwa were arrested and detained without charge. 

Between 20th and 22nd May 2020, two Land and environmental human rights defenders from Friends of Zoka, an environmental rights group based in Adjumani and with operations in Moyo district were threatened by the Resident District Commissioner  Bob William Labejja. The EHRDs have been engaged in an investigation of illegal logging taking place in the sub-region specifically in Metu Sub-county, Moyo district. The threats to the lives of Amanzuru William and John Unzima have persisted to date.

On the night of 8th September 2020, unknown assailants broke into the home of Nicholas Opiyo and stole his communication equipment including; mobile phones and laptops. Nicholas had appeared on NBS Television the previous days to offer analysis on events surrounding the NRM primaries and particularly the Ntungamo incidents that led to the arrest of former Attorney General Hon. Rukutana and his subsequent ongoing prosecution.

Nicholas Opiyo is also the Executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights organization that works with Diakonia to support feminist & climate change EHRDs in Uganda.

In addition, there are increasing numbers of military personnel, armed forces, police, and private security agencies in the region. Military generals including Salim Saleh, the young brother of President Museveni together with the former DR Congo Rebel leader  Yves Kahwa Panga Mandro have established permanent presences in the Oil region including they are operating military bases together with several military detaches in Kabale Buseruka linked to Oil and gas Police protection Unit. This situation has already created panic and fear among local communities affected by the ongoing Oil and gas activities. The region is not safe at all for Land and environmental human rights defenders as security personnel and always want to be part of communities meetings, NGO’s activities among others. In most cases, they ask activists and members of civil society organizations in the region to declare sources of fundings, sponsors of their activities among others. Similarly, communities fear to talk about ongoing intimidation, inadequate compensation, and valuation rates of their properties as well as the general violence they are experiencing as a result of the Oil development activities in the region.

Salim Saleh, the younger brother of President Museveni and retired UPDF Lieutenant General, has been contracted by Total and CNOOC to provide security to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline Project, Tilenga and Kingfishers respectively. He is also the owner of Saracen Uganda and has shares in other private security companies operating in the region together providing security to all the drilling sites and EACOP operation bases.

Dozens of Land and environmental human rights defenders and their organizations are already 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. There have been reports of arbitrary detentions, torture, confiscation of laptops and mobile phones, as well as limitations, office break-ins among others which affect the operability of land and environmental human rights defenders to operate and conduct activities in the region.

The threats and attacks against Land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region have been documented by several organizations including a condemnation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Working Group on the issues of Human Rights and transnational corporations, the Special Rapporteur on the issues of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders have previously addressed a joint letter to Patrick Pouyanné, Total’s CEO, pursuant to the Human Rights Council Resolutions 34/18, 37/8, and 34/5. The letter denounces the harassment and intimidation endured by the Ugandan human rights defenders before and after their participation in the case against Total S.A. before French jurisdiction.  

Essential to the defense of human rights and environmental protection work is the security, protection, and adequate working conditions for community leaders, on-the-ground organizations, land, environmental, and human rights defenders; a requirement for them to be able to carry out their work. The Albertine Watch is emphasizing the importance of security and protection of Land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region of Uganda with a focus on organizations and individuals involved in campaigns against land grabbing, save Bugoma Forest, East African Crude Oil Pipeline, the Tilenga, Kingfishers and those opposing largescale agribusiness expansion in the region.

Support is needed for Land and environmental human rights defenders in order to increase their ability to protect their own security and to link their organizations, and communities with national, regional, and international support networks so that they can gain more visibility, amplify their struggles and increase their influence and resilience in the face of attacks and intimidation.

As Oil production is starting, there is no sign that threats and attacks against land and environmental human rights defenders will reduce in the region. For this reason, major investments are needed in areas of legal support including having standby lawyers and legal defense funds to support legal cases against these defenders.

There is also a need for lobbying to find lawyers for land and environmental human rights defenders who are prisoned, arrested, or detained; providing direct legal representation in courts of different levels; representing land end environmental human rights defenders in complaint case submissions to the Uganda Human rights Commission, Special Rapporteur on Situation of Human rights defenders, International Court of Justice; Providing legal representation to women EHRDs or individuals belonging to vulnerable or marginalized groups in the Albertine region. Making publications and reports, documenting and analyzing various incidents and violence faced by land and environmental human rights defenders; establishing an organization for legal aid within an existing organization; making urgent appeals and public statements on behalf of land and environmental human rights defenders and organizations; holding press conferences, resulting in news coverage and articles; launching an online advocacy site with a detailed database on land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region. Providing land and environmental human rights defenders with direct services in risk mitigation; responding to threats, attacks, and restriction incidents; assisting EHRDs in safe traveling, communication, and relocation; equipping EHRDs with secure communication equipment. Holding training-of-trainers workshops; conducting legal training workshops on various international and national protection mechanisms; Printing and distributing human rights defenders security manuals in various languages spoken in the Albertine region; creating and maintaining databases on threatened and killed defenders; conducting risk and capacity assessments to organizations, security audits; workshops to mentor and advise EHRDs on facing and preventing threats; Facilitating discussions amongst EHRDs from different ethnic, religious communities and geographical areas; and cooperating with other EHRDs to hold briefings and meetings for diplomatic missions and other international organizations among others.

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