Targeted Threats and intimidation of Environmental Human Rights Defenders in the Albertine region

An increasing number of attacks are detected against defenders of lands and forests, which are sought after for mining and extractive industries, logging, agro-businesses, and conservation purposes.

In 2021, Front Line Defenders recorded the killings of 211 land, environment, and indigenous peoples‘ rights defenders. The killings of EHRDs alone accounted for 59% of the overall 358 HRDs murdered in 2021 making being an EHRD the most dangerous sector in which to be a human rights defender according to the Front Line Defenders’ annual global analysis on the killing of defenders.

Despite their struggle on the frontline, demanding that the rights of communities in the Lake Albert region are protected and respected by the government and foreign oil corporations, they are threatened with extrajudicial surveillance, physical attack, harassment, and imprisonment at the same time. The Ugandan government has used the law to restrict the activities of activists, shut down NGOs and stop peaceful demonstrations for environmental activism. Journalists, lawyers, NGO leaders, and community members have been arrested and charged without offenses when they have campaigned against the EACOP and Tilenga project, illegal sales of forest reserves, or even land grabbing for sugarcane plantations on their land.

Government forces, as well as non-State actors, such as TotalEnergies, CNOOC corporation, members of the Uganda Oil and Gas Protection Police Unit, as well as the Private Security Firms, providing security to the different exploration sites and drilling facilities, are core perpetrators of violence against EHRDs.

I was also attacked one time when I was trying to help one of the projects affected person who was being cheated on his own land, so I was kicked down and also put on a gunpoint, so we as defenders are going through a lot. I am also scared of a story of a gun versus a man.

Albertine Watch Interview with EHRD in Buseruka,Hoima district

Since the discovery of oil in Albertine in 2006, unscrupulous investors and speculators including foreigners and members of the Ugandan elite have grabbed land from local communities, dug oil wells that pollute local farms and forests, and sometimes displaced rural people to areas where they struggle to survive. In addition to robbing local communities of key sources of food, water, and livelihoods, oil exploration is also threatening Albertine’s delicate ecosystem especially as production begins and the potential for oil spills escalates.

EHRDs work to raise voices about the adverse impact of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) and larger-scale investment projects have been thwarted.

Despite their efforts defending and promoting the right to adequate food, clean water, and a healthy environment, protecting land and natural forest, and the livelihood of traditional and indigenous communities who survives on Lake Albert resources, they have continued to be blackmailed and branded anti-development and or agents of western Civilisations. This situation affects the ability of EHRDs to defend vulnerable or marginalized communities, such as traditional communities in their struggle for land rights or natural resources.

Who are Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs)?

The UN defines environmental human rights defenders as “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora, and fauna”.They are ordinary people who, individually or together with others, act peacefully to protect their homes, communities, livelihoods, lives, and the health of our planet from human rights and environmental impacts of industries and business operations. They are not necessarily only members of big, well-known environmental NGOs. They may work as journalists, activists, or lawyers who expose and oppose environmental destruction or land grabbing; or they are often ordinary people living in remote villages or forests, who may not even be aware that they are acting as environmental human rights defenders. They may be small-scale farmers with no land deeds; fisherwomen; teachers in remote rural communities; and in some cases even government officials. In many other cases, they are Indigenous leaders or community members who defend their native lands against the harms of large-scale projects by the extractive industry. Many become environmental human rights defenders by accident or necessity, taking a stand against injustice or harm to their environment.

These defenders protect the world’s land, defend water and safeguard rivers and rainforests. By protecting the planet’s natural resources, they help to decrease the chances of zoonotic diseases such as coronavirus (COVID-19) being transmitted between species. They are at the forefront of the defense against climate change, and also shine a light on gross human rights abuses committed by private interests. They keep governments in check and play a crucial role in promoting sustainable and regenerative models for economic development that put the environment and communities’ rights at the center, ahead of profit. Yet, all around the world, defenders face criminalization, harassment, and violence – including killings – driven by powerful political and economic interests seeking to profit from their land and its resources; their plight has been worsened by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Moreover, the growing demand for land and natural resources makes traditional peoples’ land a target for increased exploitation, illicit acquisitions, and land-grabbing. Traditional communities risk losing their remaining lands and territories and face forced evictions and other human rights abuses, violations, and conflicts. 

Relevancy of EHRDs and their protection needs

EHRDs are critical actors in the promotion and protection of the rights and freedoms of especially those communities that are affected by oil, gas, and mining activities and in the advocacy for proper management of Uganda’s natural resources for the benefit of all Ugandan citizens. This they have achieved through providing human rights education, holding the government and the companies involved to account for their actions and to provide timely compensation, providing legal aid to members of the affected communities, and in some instances pursuing legal remedies on behalf of these communities and promoting transparency and accountability in respect to the management of petroleum and mining revenues. They protect forests, and water sources, conserve biodiversity, and promote land-based traditions.

Because of their work, EHRDs have become a target of multiple threats, harassment, and intimidation by government agents and Multinational corporations. The defenders face impunity from the culprits who in most cases are government workers and relatives to the same. There have been continuous threats to the lives of these defenders and their organizations.

The civic space in the Albertine region and communities hosting extractives projects, in particular, have remained very volatile and are under threat. EHRDs working on human rights issues in the Oil and gas, natural resource governance, and those promoting property rights have faced physical attacks, arrests, and intimidation in the course of their work despite the existence of national and international legal frameworks that protect and guarantee their fundamental rights and allow their operation. Cases of physical attacks and threats against EHRDs have escalated and there is no indication that it will reduce as the Ugandan government with investment companies have adopted other more repressive ways of retaliating against EHRDs. Since the discovery of oil in the Albertine region until to date, EHRDs have faced a multitude of challenges including; militarization of extractive operational sites making it extremely difficult for EHRDs to access and advocate for change in the sector, intimidation, arrests, and even infliction of physical violence are common tactics being used against defenders. These acts are perpetrated by both government officials and employees of the Oil companies.

The following evidence cases put the picture of an overview of the security situation and protection needs of Environmental Defenders in the Albertine region of Uganda.

The arrest of one of EHRD who testified against TOTALEnergies in the case between the Ugandan communities and TotalEnergies over corporate misconduct and rights violations on arrival at Entebbe International Airport in 2019 is one of such many cases. 

On Tuesday 25th May 2021, an EHRD working with project-affected persons in Buliisa district in the Lake Albert region was arrested together with an International Journalist just as they were about to meet with the local community members to discuss the impacts that TOTAL’s Tilenga project has had in the community.

Militarisation of Albertine region

Oil exploration in the Albertine region has seen an influx of military police, elite forces, and other security personnel. An MoU has been concluded between Ugandan security forces and Oil companies for the deployment of a specialized oil and gas police force to protect the Oil fields and pipeline routes. There have also been accounts of security forces present at meetings on oil projects. As most of the activities of oil and gas NGOs take place in the districts and sub-counties of Albertine Graben, they are now constantly under state security monitoring as provided in the NGO Act 2016 (sections 20(2)(d) and 21(2)(d)). This creates a real potential effect of coercing the NGOs into self-censorship in regard to their freedom of assembly and expression, due to a fear of reprisal.

The “increased militarization of the oil-bearing region has provided for an insecure working environment for EHRDs. 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 a 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.

Almost everything in Uganda has become militarized and this greatly affects all organs of government including Parliament. Human rights defenders should seek legal aid in case they face problems as a result of their activism. Don’t be silent if you face serious challenges at work, the cases will be spread all over.

Albertine Watch interview with EHRD in Nwoya district

EHRDs have consistently been denied information by the government and corporate entities. This is despite the existence of section 7 of the Access to Information Act which guarantees citizens a right to certain information that lies with the state.

Oil companies hinder the free flow of information. For instance, when they organize for meetings with local communities, they only select uninformed persons who do not have real important information to attend such meetings.

Albertine Watch Interview with EHRD in Buhuka Parish,Hoima district

Human rights topic and Human rights defense today is a war because the people we are fighting are people in power. Weapons are used to engage on either sides. We fight people who are armed, with lots of money. The only weapon we have are words in doing our work.

Albertine Watch interview with Hoima based EHRD

In the early period of oil exploration around the Albertine basin, security forces working on behalf of oil exploration companies and the government were linked to killings, other incidents of violence, and harassment. The Ugandan Human Rights Commission has recognized many negative human rights impacts in the first phases of oil development. Regulation to protect local communities in the oil and mining areas is limited, and militarisation has increased particularly to secure project development sites. This is having a detrimental impact on women with increased reports of violence and threats thereof.

I was one of the victims of sexual harassment. I one time wanted to do a story and the LC 5 of my district happened to be one of the sources of information, so when I called him, he directed me to meet him in his office,  but when I went there, he first asked me to offer myself to him for sex. So in order for me to get the story that I wanted, I deceived him and made an arrangement to meet him in a certain hotel but not an office. Then he became so happy and opened up to me, but later I didn’t show up at the hotel, so we women rights defenders face a lot a lot of challenges of such kind.

Albertine Watch interview with woman environmental human rights defender and journalist in Hoima district

Sometimes when you go to gather news and you are trying to interview some men, they start harassing you sexually with some words like you have nice boobs, nice bums, you are sexy and so on.These are some of the things that I have gone through alot in my career life recently .

Albertine Watch interview with woman environmental human rights defender and journalist in Kikube district

Intimidation and harassment

The situation is particularly concerning for those mobilized against oil projects. Recent events illustrate that they are subject to increasing threats, harassment, and acts of intimidation from the government and oil companies alike for their work in promoting and protecting the rights of communities. EHRDs working in the context of the petroleum sector are often prevented from accessing and working with the affected communities on the basis that they are poisoning the minds of the people and frustrating government programs. At the height of it all, some EHRDs had their offices attacked and ransacked by unknown people and in some cases, they are being closed down by the government security agencies and authorities preventing them from operating. Some NGOs working in the Oil and gas sector also had their bank accounts frozen while others lost funds under unclear circumstances. Others are physically attacked, arrested, and threatened with death if they do not refrain from involving themselves in the sector.

I am a journalist and I have been doing a lot of stories on issues of security and politics, sometimes when you realize that you are working on a critical story, then you start receiving messages that ; please madam so and so, we know the story that you are working on but go slow, we know you and your family, so this has been a problem to us and this scares me.

Albertine Watch Interview with Masindi based EHRD and journalist

Unfortunately, speaking out can incur threats and harassment. Journalists and researchers covering these oil projects have been targeted for abuse, while community activists and human rights defenders are under mounting pressure. Other challenges include denial to reach certain villages to document human rights issues and stopping EHRDs from talking to the people whose issues they are following upon. They are 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 in the Albertine region.

We one time organized meetings with PAPs at the Kasinyi where the Central processing unit is going to be put and peoples land are taken by TOTAL without fair compensation. We wanted to meet the PAPS and hear from them their grievances, as soon as the RDC realized that, we were told to stop the meeting within 15 minutes alleging that we are inciting violence. So, this has given us fear and threat in carrying out our work as the civil society organization in Buliisa”

Albertine Watch Interview with Buliisa based EHRD

Many EHRDs are unable to disclose their locations for fear of reprisal, creating a “chilling effect” that discourages defenders from speaking up for the communities they represent in national and international forums. The creation of a specialized oil and gas police force has further complicated this repressive environment as there is targeted surveillance against defenders throughout the region.

Incidences of arbitrary detentions, torture, confiscation of property, as well as limitations on EHRD’s ability to circulate in the Albertine region and hold meetings are on increase. As they are subjected to 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, FIDH documented cases in which 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. 

One of our colleagues (NAME WITHHELD FOR SECURITY REASON ) the chairman of Buliisa NGO forum was also arrested by the police where he spent two days in Bulliisa prison with the allegation that he brought Europeans (bazungu) and traveled with them around the oil well pads, and that he was taking photos,  something which is prohibited by Total. So, the RDC ordered his arrest immediately, but he was released by the Defend Defenders. These are some of the challenges we are really going through”

Albertine Watch Interview with EHRD in Biiso,Buliisa district

On August 20, 2021 directive in which the NGO Bureau ordered AFIEGO and 53 other NGOs or non-profit companies to halt their work.

In September 2020, communities from Kakumiro District reported that the police had said that if members of an NGO came to see them assist, and inform them, they would be arrested.

In February I received a letter from the police that they wanted some information from my organization and I did not consider it serious .Yesetday, I was  surprised to see  some  police officers coming to my office and they were all in rear clothings, they  were not in uniform, they came with list of the organizations they want to collect information from, us being among them, they wanted me to share  with them the source of our funds, what we do with  the money, how many staffs etc. I refused and then immediately I had to write to National NGO forum in Kampala, they responded and said I should not reveal any information to the police without engaging them, so I didn’t tell them anything, they threatened me , but I did  not said anything. I finally told them that they should contact the national NGO forum in Kampala

Albertine Watch interview with EHRD from Hoima district

The Oil and Gas police Unit in Buliisa District regularly prevents EHRDs from holding public meetings and from going to visit affected communities to inform them of their rights. There is a widespread fear to speak up about the impacts that are being felt by communities on the ground”, and often this fear is proved justifiable by the concrete threats, violence, and harassment against defenders” who express themselves.

EHRDs who organize meetings with communities on the impacts of the EACOP project are disrupted several times by Total’s subcontractor, New plan: “In addition to causing delays to the consultations, those intrusions also affected community members’ ability to express themselves freely.”

In Buliisa, the police wants us to ask for permission in order to conduct any kind of meetings due to the public order management act , but even if we write to them, they do not respond to us. 

Albertine Watch interview with Buliisa district based NGO leader

The government thinks we are fighting with them and we cannot convene meetings in the communities within the region. Police do not allow us to interact with PAPs

Albertine Watch interview with EHRD organisation representative in Ngwedu sub county, Buliisa district

Employees of Total’s Community Liaison Officers and the authorities, are often making antagonistic remarks about EHRDs and members of communities whom they often describe as liars or ‘speculators’ seeking financial gain through compensation mechanisms.”.These escalating attacks against EHRDs are connected to their actions against Total’s Tilenga and EACOP projects.

For example, A member of Navigators of Development Association NAVODA, based in Hoima, has been subjected to threats and acts of intimidation for over a year, as well as being under regular police surveillance:

After I saw several policemen waiting for me in my office, I had to leave my village. I had to move to another district.

A member of NAVODA

In addition, when a Project Affected Persons or community leader openly criticizes the practices of TotalEnergies, Atacama, or Newplan, the police or even the RDC (Resident District Commissioner will harass and intimidate them. In the Nabigasa sub-county, in Kyotera District, a PAP said that after he complained on the local radio station about the consequences of oil operations for him and his community, he was “harassed by the RDC and people from Newplan who came” to his house.

Oxfam and FIDH documented incidences in which EACOP project subcontractors Newplan Group and Infra Consulting Services (ICS) have pressured locals into signing assessment forms they were often forced to sign documents in pencil without their consent. Many PAPs, affected by other RAPs under the Tilenga project in Buliisa as well as by the EACOP, reported that Total or its subcontractors ATACAMA put them under a lot of pressure to sign the forms.

The Albertine Watchdog documented a case in which PAPs said that they signed these documents out of fear because TotalEnergies and or its subcontractors told them that if they didn’t sign, they would have to go to court to claim compensation.

The oil company operating in the oil exploration activities has acquired our land and they have been delaying to compensate the people, they made people sign cut off date which means that we   should stop using our land,   through Ngetha media, we have tried to access some information regarding oil and gas exploration, but we still need more information about the delayed compensation because we have started experiencing food insecurity!!!.”

Albertine Watch Interview with Project Affected Person in Avogera Village,Ngwedu,Buliisa district

The same testimonies were documented by FIDH for TotalEnergies harassing local communities and harassing them to sign documents without understanding the contents. This according to FIDH was, a blatant form of intimidation that amounts to coercion, as PAPs don’t have the financial resources (or sufficient knowledge of their rights) to take legal action, and the chances of winning a case in the Ugandan courts are virtually nil, as even the authorities acknowledge.

Some PAPs have reported that even if they don’t agree with the assessment, they were told that they had to sign the forms anyway and follow a grievance procedure later.

We really had issues of language barriers during the time when the oil companies came to our villages .They were taking our land, they came with their people that when you explain the things they don’t understand and also some of us could not understand their language, you realize that if have counted over ten trees in your garden, they end up writing five, we also signed some documents that we could not understand because of language barriers.

Albertine Watch Interview with Victim of Total Land grabbs in Ngwedu,Buliisa district

The government and other actors such as Oil companies and the media as well as businesses are often using ‘criminal stigmatization and negative labeling and stigmatization of EHRDs. Constantly labeling and stigmatizing them as untrustworthy or dangerous. This already has significant effects on the operating spaces for EHRDs in the region 

There are accusations that EHRDs are carrying out activities that ‘incite the community, ‘support a certain politician’, ‘sabotage a government program’, and that the EHRDs and their organizations are ‘anti-government’, and ‘enemy of the state’. EHRDs have often been dubbed as anti-development and have been discriminated against. No wonder, even employees of the oil companies have been involved in this broader problem of delegitimizing the EHRDs work around the oil sector.

There was a time our friend Muzungu ( a white man) from Washington DC visited our organization and we were carrying out research on oil and our social setting, trying to discover the changes which have occurred in the Buliisa district. But when we went to Buliisa to meet one of our respondents,  we met the GISO (Internal security officer) of Buliisa who asked me who the  “Muzungu” was and what he wants. He intimidated us and threatened to arrest us because he has heard us talking about oil and gas. He had already informed his boss, so he forgave us just because he knew me personally. Had it not been that, we would have been arrested. So, there if you talk about Oil with a foreigner, they can easily be arrested by Police. So speaking about oil is illegal in Buliisa

Albertine Watch interview with the leader of Ngwedu based human rights organisations working with PAPs

For example, TotalEnergies employees have spread false information about EHRDs who testified against TOTAL in France for having lied in their testimonies in France. The spreading of misinformation about EHRDs who are trusted community leaders close to where the oil investment projects situate has led to a detrimental climate of confusion and fear in the community. 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 EHRDs by some community members (including by throwing stones at them). 

Sometimes we fail to execute our work due to political interference. Recently when we went to Waiga village, a person affected by the project told us that they submitted their land documents to secure letters of customary land ownership to the sub-county,   but all the documents disappeared, this has made our work very hard to make a follow up in order to help the people. Sometimes the political leaders also connive with some PAPS and they look at us like people who don’t want them to get compensation from the government

Albertine Watch Interview with leader of Buliisa based local NGO providing legal support to the project affected persons

We the grassroots organization operating in Buliisa, sometimes are intimidated and even despised by the oil companies, local people, and local government officials alike. They always tell us that we are small organizations that can do nothing and are here wasting time. They mock us that what can we do?. This really makes us feel like we are so vulnerable that we cannot now do anything to stop the Oil activities on our land.

Albertine Watch Interview with EHRD from Butiaba ,Buliisa disrrict

As is elsewhere around the world, dividing communities is one of the strategies frequently used by corporations to avoid accountability for human rights abuses.

Total has also been using our own brothers and sisters to manipulate our people. They sometimes speak on behalf of our people and propose anything for them. This is basically done by some of our leaders and the educated who are getting enough financial support from the oil companies. Others are planted in the community to report on any issues arising in the community and they get paid One hundred thousand shillings for any incidence reported against communities. They even take them to good places like Adonia Hotel and buy them good food. So the environment we are working in is full of people spying on what we do

Albertine Watch Interview with EHRD in Buliisa district

According to FHRI, despite the efforts of Total to raise these concerns about the fate of EHRDs 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. It is clear that the spread of misinformation to the local communities creates a deleterious climate of confusion and fear, and that it is a tool being used by multiple actors operating on the ground. Combined with the use of force through arbitrary detention and violence, the local environment plainly lacks sufficient guarantees for the defense of human rights.

EHRDs and NGOs, especially those that are not based in the Albertine region but come as far as the capital Kampala, have faced threats of arrests and actual unlawful arrests while trying to interact with affected communities. For example, in 2012 a group of EHRDs belonging to a local organization was unlawfully arrested and detained while attempting to conduct a questionnaire regarding land rights with the affected local communities. The groups’ cameras, recorders, and computers were confiscated upon arrest, and during the interrogation, the EHRDs were simply forbidden to carry out any further discussions related to oil.

Although there is no evidence of killings recorded among the EHRDs working on issues of oil and gas in the Albertine region of Uganda. However, the EHRDs have faced serious threats and harassment in the course of their work, extra-legal measures that are also shrinking their civic space. 

Arrest and imprisonment

On Wednesday, October 13, 2021, police raided the African Institute of Energy Governance AFIEGO’s Kampala office and arrested some staff, including two breastfeeding mothers. The staff was released on police bond on Wednesday, October 13, and Thursday, October 14, 2021. A holding charge of operating without a permit was preferred against them. Police informed the staff that the National Bureau for Non-governmental organizations (NGO Bureau) had ordered the arrest of AFIEGO staff. These arrests were part of the harassment and intimidation that AFIEGO staff and its partners have faced, more so in 2021. Evidence collected by the Albertine Watch indicates that there have been ongoing targeted threats and violence against AFIEGO and its staff or partner organizations on the ground. For example; 

On October 6, 2021, police raided AFIEGO’s office in Hoima and arrested the Hoima Field Officer. She was not detained. She was released after spending several hours at Hoima Central Police Station.

On October 7, 2021, police raided the AFIEGO office in the Buliisa district and ordered it to close. They briefly detained AFIEGO’s Buliisa Field Officer, Mr. Maxwell Atuhura. AFIEGO’s signpost was vandalized shortly thereafter.

On October 14, 2021, police in Buliisa arrested and detained Mr. Mugisa Kahero, the chairperson of ORGHA, a community-based organization (CBO) some of whose members work with AFIEGO to defend the rights of the Tilenga oil project-affected people in Buliisa.

On October 22, 2021, police in Kyotera district arrested and detained a community human rights activist, Mr. Robert Birimuye. He was released at about 5 pm afterward. Mr. Birimuye has consistently advocated for the protection of the land rights of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP)-affected people.

In June 2020, for instance, seven lawyers were arrested while investigating the circumstances surrounding the forced eviction of more than 35,000 people due to a project to plant sugar cane plantations in the Kiryandongo District

On 23 August 2020, a group of around ten people was arrested during a meeting on the EACOP project, held by the NGO Global Rights Alert in Kakumiro District. The organization’s representative was ordered to leave the premises.

On 15 and 16 September 2020, three journalists and six EHRDs were arrested in Hoima where they were denouncing the destruction of Bugoma Forest, one of the country’s largest forest reserves, and speaking out about the risks of oil development projects in the Albertine region, including those managed by Total. The police said that the arrest was “preventive”, in order to stop them from demonstrating.

Since the lawsuit was filed against Total, there have been increasing attacks in the oil region of Uganda, with the two community representatives who traveled to testify in France in December 2019 particularly affected. Community leader Jelousy Mugisha, and farmer Fred Mwesigwa, who had both been subjected to intense pressure the week before they traveled to France, were intimidated on their return to Uganda. Jelousy was arrested and interrogated by the police and unknown people attempted to break into Fred’s home two nights in a row and then locked him inside.

According to several respondents, Total employees told the communities in Buliisa that the delay in compensation payments was due to the trial in France, putting the blame on the two defenders’ witnesses. This created an enormous amount of hostility towards them, and they even had stones thrown at them. They have had to leave their homes several times and have thus been under an EU protection program. On 19 September 2020, in the middle of the night, two people in a car came to Kasinyi village looking for Fred and a member of our partner organization NAVODA, claiming that they had “lied to PAPs”.The Albertine Watch has learned that until recently, the two EHRDs are still living in fear, and have continued to receive threats from anonymous callers.

A recent analysis of the security situation of human rights defenders in the context of Uganda’s Extractive Industries by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders observed that “  human rights defenders have become a target of all forms of threats, harassment, and intimidation by government agents and those from mining and petroleum companies”. The National Coalition points out that “ in the heat of the discovery of commercial petroleum in the Albertine region, HRDs faced extreme threats and intimidation from the government and oil companies alike for their work in promoting and protecting the rights of communities. The coalition observed that “HRDs working in the context of the petroleum sector were prevented from accessing and working with the affected communities on the basis that they were poisoning the minds of the people and frustrating government programs”.

As documented by the coalition, Dickens Amanya of Bunyoro Albertine Petroleum Network on Environmental Conservation (BAPENECO), a civil society coalition, observed that “there are increasing cases of sophisticated and syndicated attacks on HRDs in the context of the petroleum sector in the Albertine region ”.

Similar views were expressed by Janepher Baitwamasa of the Navigators for  Development Association (NAVODA). She stated that “threats to the lives and personal safety of EHRDs in the Albertine is still visible even if it is not as apparent as was the case when oil had just been discovered”. She noted that “EHRDs receive suspicious calls and messages from suspected security agents from time to time”. These often inquire into the work they are doing and, in some cases, ask them to go slow. Janepher concluded that “there have also been cases where security personnel sexually harass women EHRDs”.

Similarly in the Albertine, Beatrice Rukanyanga of Kwatanize Women Farmers Group, a local Community Based Organisation (CBO) also stated that “sometime back security operatives in charge of oil and gas approached her friend and cautioned her to stop poisoning masses with negative propaganda in respect to extractives and that she was being closely monitored”. Beatrice maintained that “We are insecure, we fear they may come any time and break into our office… we have to move with our laptops and other critical information just in case.”

In February 2020 unknown persons broke into the office of the Midwestern Region Anti-Corruption Coalition (MIRAC) which was then the host of BAPANECO which is also actively involved in matters of corruption and the general mismanagement of public and petroleum revenues in the Albertine region. 

Furthermore, in 2016, the offices of Bulisa Initiative for Rural Development (BIRUDO), an NGO involved in rights promotion and protection in Buliisa where oil has been struck were broken into under unclear circumstances

According to Dickens Kamugisha, the Executive Director at the African Institute of Energy Governance (AFIEGO), the passing of the Public Order Management Act, 2013 (POMA) and the more recent Non-Governmental Organisation Act of 2016 have had devastating consequences for HRDs operating in the extractives given the strong interest of the state in the sector. This is because under the POMA, EHRDs, and NGOs in the sector always have to seek permission before convening meetings. For those considered critical of the manner in which the sector is managed and human rights violations of communities, it is often very difficult to obtain clearance, especially for meetings organized in the Albertine. This has made it very difficult for EHRDs and NGOs to conduct their activities and thus has affected their ability to promote and protect the rights of the communities.

Worse of all, the NGO Act of 2016 that among others requires NGOs to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with every district where they intend to carry out their activities. They are also required to obtain the permission and approval of the District NonGovernmental Monitoring Committee (DNMC) before they can carry out any activity in another district than the one where they are registered. These stringent requirements have made it extremely difficult for EHRDs and NGOs in the extractive industries to operate freely in the exercise of their right to freedom of association. Most regrettably, the restrictive regulations that threaten their very existence have forced NGOs to exercise self-restraint when faced with state excesses and human rights violations in the sector.

For example, Dickens commented on the Tilenga project where twenty (20) NGOs agreed to institute legal proceedings to challenge the process in which the EIA was approved and granted only for several of them to later withdraw and decline to be included in the suit out of fear of being denied permits to operate. According to Dickens, “the fear of being denied permits and consequently a source of employment has made EHRDs working in the context of the extractives to be more careful in their work. He noted that “the stringent environment in which NGOs operate in Uganda have made them like balloons, one day they exist and the other day they are gone. In order to stay operational, EHRDs working in this sector have to be extra mindful of what they say.” Similar observations were made by Beatrice Rukanyanga who observed that “when organizations are entering into MOUs with local governments, they do not indicate that they would be involved in oil activities for fear that they will be denied the MOU”.

Unpredictable legislation and legal regimes in Uganda. The government only chooses laws that favor them which are unknown to most of the EHRDs. The legal regime is so challenging to EHRDs in that they need to enroll in courses that can help them better understand and work within such regimes to close the knowledge gap that exists.

Albertine Watch interview with EHRD and community leader in Kigorobya sub county,Hoima district

A number of field interviews also show that HRDs face extreme difficulties organizing meetings, especially where the affected communities are involved. Janipher Baitwamasa for instance pointed out a situation where a meeting meant to discuss youth and women opportunities in the extractives sector organized in Kikube was hijacked by the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) who threatened to arrest participants on allegations that they were not supposed to hold a meeting. He went on to warn them “to leave issues of oil to the generals”. The RDC went on to say that “we know you are promoting western culture, but we are going to break your legs”.

The officer of Global Rights Alert (GRA) testified that “in October 2019, a meeting organized to discuss the human rights impact assessments of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline Project (EACOP) was interrupted by oil companies who claimed to have been sent by the RDC”. Similarly, Dickens Kamugisha stated that “in October 2019 during a public hearing for EACOP Project where some communities that were affected were brought to Kyangwali for their participation and comments, they ended up being arrested by security agents”. Dickens observed that “even where the meetings have been cleared by the relevant authorities, security agents dressed in plain clothes force their way into these meetings”. As a result, the communities are intimidated and forced to keep silent for fear of being arrested by these agents.

In keeping with this, Janepher Baitwamasa noted that they have severally been cautioned against discussing issues on oil with the public especially security agents. According to them, “issues of oil are not to be discussed.” She also gave an example of a recent training on terrorism and extremism that was organized by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) were one of the facilitators remarked that “if you speak in Albertine region fragile issues you may qualify as a terrorist”. This meeting was attended by only four civil society representatives and a journalist from New Vision. This appears to have been a deliberate move to caution them against speaking about oil considering that all the five civilians are among the most outspoken on the subject. By classifying oil talk as terrorism and extremism, EHRDs will most definitely be extra careful when speaking about issues that affect the resource.

As stated in the National Coalition of Human rights defenders report, Beatrice Rukanyanga reported that “HRDs are always cautioned from speaking about oil that it is a preserve for the President and Ministers” She conceded that “two years ago while a top government Minister was attending a coronation ceremony, she told the people that “oil talk should be for the state.”

To the degree that an Official with the Albertine Regional Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) stated that “information around oil is one of the most highly guarded secrets and that both the government and the oil companies were not forthcoming when asked about oil”. She further stated that even when information is shared by officials in the Ministry of Energy and those working with the oil companies, it is sometimes not very accurate. 

For SDG 15:

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

SDG 15

EHRDs working to protect the environment, forests, and biodiversity are under particularly direct attacks and face hostility that prevents them from acting to restore biodiversity and prevent land degradation. 

Global Witness states that “If we want to avert a climate disaster and deliver real climate justice, governments and businesses must protect Land and Environmental Defenders and ensure their voices are heard”. The IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020 resolution 115 observes that “ the loss of global biodiversity is linked with increasing violence toward people who put their lives at risk to defend nature and related human rights”. Global Witness also agrees that “we must support Defenders by raising awareness of the threats they face and making the case for specific laws and policies to protect them”

Climate models confirm an approaching tipping point: if trends in ecosystem conversion and emissions do not peak by 2030, it will become impossible to remain below 1.50C. Similarly, if current land conversion rates, overfishing, and other threats are not slowed/halted in 10 years, “points of no return” will manifest for ecosystems and species.Protecting/restoring at least 50% of the Earth’s land and sea areas is a prerequisite for preventing mass extinctions and is directly applicable to mitigating/adapting to climate change.

In fact, the United Nations General Assembly has also prioritized the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems as a proven measure to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply, and biodiversity.  In declaring 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, they recognize that:  “The degradation of land and marine ecosystems undermines the well-being of 3.2 billion people and costs about 10 percent of the annual global gross domestic product in loss of species and ecosystems services. Key ecosystems that deliver numerous services essential to food and agriculture, including supply of freshwater, protection against hazards and provision of habitat for species such as fish and pollinators, are declining rapidly.”

Without the protection of EHRD, biodiversity conservation and any other worthy conservation actions plans are bound to fail. There is an urgent need to ensure the security and protection of the EHRDs in the Albertine region as they work to oppose environmental harms and human rights violations linked to destructive development projects.

Albert Watch is committed to supporting the digital safety and physical protection needs of politically targeted organizations through direct consultations, and professional capacity buildings. We conduct safety risk mitigation strategies and link politically targeted activists to support networks. We work with human rights researchers, journalists, academics, activists, and targeted individuals, we conduct fact-finding, investigate, and respond to threats against activists. We investigate and expose the misconduct of Multinational corporations involved in extractive activities and large-scale land deals. Based in undisclosed locations, we help human rights defenders effectively use digital documentation of human rights violations and environmental harms to support advocacy, justice, and accountability. Through this approach, we have contributed significantly to the protection and security needs of defenders.

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