This is yet another example of the threats and harassment against human rights defenders in Uganda, which aim at deterring them from highlighting the negative impacts of oil projects.
Maxwell Atuhura, a member of the Ugandan NGO AFIEGO, was arrested on 25 May. He was accompanying an Italian journalist to meet with members of communities affected by Total’s oil projects in Buliisa district, Uganda. The journalist was released shortly afterwards, but Maxwell Atuhura, who has since been transferred to Hoima (still in the oil region), spent two nights in detention before being released on bond on the evening of May 27.
The charge of “unlawful assembly” filed against him – which has no legal basis – is yet another example of the restrictions that civil society organizations face when they wish to meet people affected by Total’s oil projects.
The arrest, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and subsequent prosecuting of Maxwell in fact constitutes intimidation and retaliation for his work as a human rights and environmental defender. Not only was he intimidated and threatened while in detention, but the authorities also asked numerous questions about his work, his connection to the lawsuit against Total in France, AFIEGO’s relationship with other international organizations, or the reasons why AFIEGO had taken legal action against the Ugandan government.
The fact that civil society and affected communities are unable to meet and speak freely about the negative impacts of oil projects is unacceptable. Moreover, this type of response by the Ugandan authorities sends a chilling message to all those who may attempt to assert their rights or defend the rights of others, thereby contributing to the destruction of civic space in Uganda 1. Four United Nations Special Rapporteurs had already alerted on this risk a year ago, concerning the harassment suffered by two members of the affected communities following their visit to France where they spoke publicly about the projects 2.
Along with Friends of the Earth France and Survie, many local and international organizations, as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the Environment, called for Maxwell’s release 3.
Friends of the Earth France, Survie and their Ugandan partners demand that the trumped up charges against Maxwell Atuhura be dropped, and that concrete actions be taken to stop the repeated attacks on human rights defenders and journalists.
For more information on the situation of rights defenders working on oil issues in Uganda, see our report “A Nightmare Called Total”, pp. 22-25. See also the FIDH report “New oil, same business? At a crossroads to avoid catastrophe in Uganda” and Oxfam’s report “Empty promises down the line“.
In June 2020, four UN Special Rapporteurs called on the French and Ugandan governments and Total to address the pressure and intimidation of two representatives of communities affected by Total’s projects (See the letters sent by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, the Special Rapporteur on the issue 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 to the French Government, the Ugandan Government, Total S.A. and Total E&P on 20 April 2020, which were made public in June 2020). In December 2020, other Rapporteurs drew attention to the arbitrary detention of 13 rights defenders who opposed environmental abuses and forced evictions in another part of the country.
See the press releases from Friends of the Earth France and Survie, AFIEGO, and the Urgent appeal of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.