The Albertine Watch Recognises and calls for support to Land and Environmental Human Rights Defenders and Organizations in the Lake Albert region

December 9 is the International Human Rights Defenders Day. This day recognizes the important role of human rights defenders in the development of society. The Albertine Watch joins the rest of the world to acknowledge, recognize, honor, and celebrate all Land and environmental human rights defenders operating in the Albertine region of Uganda.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders aims to offer support and protection to human rights defenders (HRDs) regarding their work. The declaration addresses States and the human rights defenders community and it recognizes that everyone has a role in promoting and protecting the human rights of all.

The Albertine Watch believes that Land and Environmental Human Rights defenders are recognized and protected from hazards that they face due to their work defending the environment and human rights. It is paramount to give visibility and raise awareness of the important work of these categories of human rights defenders that we work with but are greatly threatened and exposed to violence.

In recent years the Ugandan government has embarked upon broad and brutal campaigns to shut down the space for Human rights defenders and civil society activity, in some cases going so far as to criminalize independent human rights work. These abusive measures are preventing people from participating in decisions about development, from publicly opposing development initiatives that may harm their livelihoods or violate their rights, and from complaining about development initiatives that are ineffective, harmful, or have otherwise gone wrong. 

Throughout the Albertine region of Uganda, defenders and concerned community members have been the target of threats, intimidation tactics, and baseless criminal charges. Some women have faced sexual harassment or gender-based threats, attacks, or insults when they speak out, such as women in Ngwedu, Biiso, and Rwamutonga who have been raped by private security officers hired to guard various Oil fields located in the region. In most cases, women in the districts of Buliisa, Nwoya, Pakwach, Kikube, and Hoima who are are actively engaged in land rights activism, those who oppose the East African Crude Oil Pipeline project, and those involved in the Save Bugoma Forest campaigns have been labeled as “prostitutes.” Security forces have responded violently to peaceful demonstrations, community gatherings, physically assaulting activists and community members and arbitrarily detaining them. Defenders or their family members have been threatened with the loss of their jobs or livelihoods. In the Albertine region of Uganda, these attacks on defenders often take place within a broader effort to demonize defenders, organizations, and community leaders as unpatriotic or “anti-development.

Violence and repression against Land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region take various forms, from arrest, the expulsion of journalists to more sophisticated ways . For example; there has been a weighty change in the legal regime governing civil society organizations in Uganda. Recent laws such as the Non-Governmental Organizations Act 2016, the Anti-Money Laundering Act, and the implementation of the Public Order Management Act continue to be used to unjustifiably limit the right to the freedoms of association, expression, and assembly. Civic space in Uganda continues to close as governments adopt outright repressive laws and practices and insidious approaches designed to make it difficult for groups to exercise their association freedoms. For instance, offices of numerous organizations were raided and searched by the Uganda police in recent years. Various properties were confiscated and their activities were interrupted. The bank accounts of numerous were frozen recently, affecting their operations. 

Land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region particularly are at grave risk as they continue to face risks and threats due to the nature of work they are engaged in. The patterns of Environmental and human rights violations include threats, arrests, and detention, torture, cruel and inhuman, deregistration and suspension of NGO’s operations permit as well as organizational break-ins, extrajudicial surveillance among other threats.

These developments in the legal regimes governing the Civil society operations in the country make the work of activists so risky and they prevent the formation of new organizations; stifle free communication among Civil Society groups and others; prevent organizations from carrying out legitimate activities; and restrict the ability of organizations to secure the financial resources necessary to carry out their work.

This year alone the Albertine watch has documented numerous incidences that affect the operability of land and environmental human rights defenders. They face high risks when they try to speak against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline EACOP and for raising their voices and concerns about the potential negative environmental and social-economic impacts of these Oil and gas development projects being done in the region. In numerous villages from Buliisa to Hoima, Kikube, Rakakai, Masaka, Nwoya among other districts where the Oil project activities are ongoing, people live in a climate of intimidation that prevents them from participating in public discussions about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline EACOP project that is likely to have profound and lasting impacts on their lives, biodiversity, and communities.

There is a heavy presence of armed forces in the Albertine region and multiple instances of police brutality, arbitrary detentions and surveillance has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within local communities and local organizations and hampered their ability to voice concerns. Government or company officials have intimidated or harassed critics of EACOP and Tilenga projects, threatening them with physical assault, death, and baseless criminal charges and placing them under surveillance. Some women land and environmental activists have faced gender-based threats and abuse. In other cases, government and company officials have threatened critics’ livelihoods, including by threatening to terminate employment, cutting employment benefits, or increasing workload, and even deregistering organizations they deem too critical of the Oil development activities in the region.

Often intimidation and abuse are carried out by members of the same communities that the defenders themselves belong to. Often these are community members who are sponsored by Oil companies (Total, CNOOC, and the Uganda Oil and gas Police Division ) at the same time, these community members benefit economically from the proposed project or are politically connected with the government. In some cases, government officials deliberately drive and exploit these community divisions, seeking to divide defenders and close their eyes to acts of intimidation and abuse between community members and eventually turning the communities against the defenders and their organizations painting them “anti-development or foreign agents” and sometimes even labeling land and environmental human rights defenders “gays or homosexuals” 

In 2018, the government of Uganda established in the Albertine region an “Oil and Gas police Protection Unit” with the main base in Hoima and with various sub-stations at the entrance of the various Oil facilities including the Central Processing Facilities zones in Kasinyi, Kaiso Tonya among other locations including Butiaba. There are fears among defenders and local communities in the Oil-rich region that this is being put in place with the major aim of intimidating people and preventing them from accessing their land.

Pieces of intelligence evidence obtained by the Albertine Watch recently indicate that Total has already concluded a confidential agreement with the Ugandan Police and Army forces in Uganda with the views of providing security to the Oil infrastructures. Implementation of the security agreement has started in the Albertine region.

Two Albertine region-based Land and Environmental human rights defenders who attended the first hearing of a legal action brought against Total in France on 12 December 2019 suffered a multiplicity of abuses both before their departure and on their return from France. These included arbitrary detention and interrogation by Ugandan immigration officials, attacks on their houses by unidentified people, and a campaign of false information about them. Almost two years after their trip to France, they say that they are still subject to intimidation, including physical surveillance, death threat, and repeated anonymous calls. According to the report published in September 2020, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) gives an account of severe human rights abuse committed against Land and environmental Defenders, including arbitrary detentions, violence, torture, and surveillance of members of the local organizations Ngetha Media Association for Peace and the Oil Refinery Residents Association. In May 2021, an staff of AFIEGO was arrested while he was with an Italian journalist to interview affected communities in the Buliisa district; he was detained arbitrarily and unlawfully by the police for 50 hours. In August 2021, the National Bureau of Non-Governmental Organisations in Uganda suspended 54 NGOs, including AFIEGO and Kwataniza Farmers Group, a decision considered as “part of the political harassment of citizens and NGOs”.

Women land and environmental human rights defenders working in the field of land rights, and those fighting against water source pollution and land grabbing which negatively harms their environment, social & cultural, and economic rights are particularly endangered. They are vulnerable to violations unique to their identity as women, especially those shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes. They are often perceived as challenging traditional notions of family and gender roles in society in most cases. Among these are workplace sexual harassment, violence at home and in communities, and gender-based violence online, including homophobic and transphobic harassment. 

In 2020, Global Witness recorded 227 land and environmental human rights defenders killed in a single year an average of four defenders killed per week for protecting lands from those looking to exploit their natural resources.

2020 was the most dangerous year on record for people defending their homes, land, and livelihoods, and the ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate

Global Witness

Most attacks documented since 2015 have been related to business activities that are linked to the mining, agribusiness, and renewable energy sectors. With regard to these sectors, specific groups of defenders are especially at risk, including Indigenous Peoples who comprise only 5% of the world’s population but constitute a larger percentage of the attacks. Frontline Defenders found that in 2018, 77% of all defenders killed globally had focused on protecting land rights, Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and the right to an adequate and healthy environment.

The data provided by Global Witness and Frontline Defenders on killings does not reflect the true trends of the problem. There is the possibility that many defenders are being killed around the world and recording these datasets can be difficult given the locations where these threats and attacks on defenders take place in.

Global Witness documented 18 killings across Africa in 2020, compared to 7 in 2019. Most of these took place
in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with two in South Africa and one in Uganda. In the DRC, 12 park rangers and a driver were killed in an attack by militia groups in the Virunga National Park. Verifying cases from across the continent continues to be difficult and it is possible cases are widely unreported.

Global Witness report defending tomorrow/Last Line of defence ,page 12

Land and environmental Human rights defenders work to promote transparent and accountable governments, clean and safe environments, fair working conditions, and equitable societies. They play a critical role in fostering corporate transparency and respect for human rights, such as by monitoring supply chains, exposing corruption, and protecting the environment. As a result, defenders are a driving force for advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is grounded in international human rights norms. 

For these reasons, like all other people, they are entitled to the full enjoyment of the human rights outlined in the United Nations (UN) International Bill of Human Rights, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions, and other international human rights instruments. This includes the right to life and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other human rights charters and conventions.

A 2019 report by Act Alliance on the implication of civic space for sustainable Development Goals found that; shrinking space of civil society hinders social and -economic development and hinders the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); prevents Civil Society Organizations from engaging in policy formulation, monitoring rights, raising awareness, championing the voices of vulnerable populations, and building partnerships. Furthermore, it limits development risks excluding voices and increasing social distrust,  increases inequalities, and makes development less sustainable. According to the report;

Civic space is essential to provide transparent and verifiable information.

Overemphasis on huge infrastructure projects and economic growth increasingly competes with the discourse of inclusion and thereby puts the key SDG principle of “leaving no one behind” at-risk”:

ACT Alliance in the report Development Needs Civil Society– The Implications of Civic Space for the Sustainable Development Goals.

There is an urgent need to support Land and environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region of Uganda as a precondition for achieving the SDGs specifically SDG 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. 

Defenders working to protect the environment, forests, and biodiversity are under particularly direct attacks and face hostilities that prevent them from acting to achieve their goals. For these reasons, the Albertine Watch is calling for immediate interventions and support to the defenders in the Albertine region. Specifically, these defenders need to be supported in several ways including establishing for the defenders’ legal aid within an existing organization; Engaging with international actors, including the Special Rapporteur on HRD and the Special Rapporteur on Torture, and keeping them informed in the security risk facing defenders in the Albertine region of Uganda. Further emphasis is needed on building the capacity of defenders in digital and physical security, helping them respond to threats, attacks, and restriction incidents that are anticipated in the coming years.

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