Defender of the month: James Rukampena

50 year-old James Rukampena is a Ugandan human rights defender who advocates for the rights of rural local communities in Kabarole District, Western Uganda, to access their natural resources.

Until 2015, Rukampena lived off farming the land surrounding Mwitampungu Lake, one of the many crater lakes in the hilly region of Western Uganda, used by local communities for fishing and drinking water. However, that year, privately owned Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited acquired exclusive access to twenty lakes in Kabarole District. This agreement with district authorities was executed without consultation from local communities whose livelihood depends on the adjacent lakes.

The news that a company whose portfolio includes electrical engineering and eco-tourism would be restocking fish in the lakes initially created hope among local villagers that the area would be developed in their favour  – but these expectations were short-lived. Locals were barred from fishing in the lakes, and their access was limited by private security forces. Rukampena recognised the situation as an infringement on the rights of the local communities and stood up to voice his concerns. “I became active when, to my surprise, Ferdsult did not do what it had promised and started simply chasing out people from the lakes. So I mobilised the local people and exposed the eviction of the communities from the lake,” he says.

With the support of the Twerwaneho Listeners Club (TLC), a local human rights organisation, Rukampena and other community representatives challenged the agreement in Court and mobilised locals to attend the court hearings and make their voices heard. Following these legal efforts, four other TLC members were arrested for “use of poison or explosive or electrical devices,” although these spurious charges were later dropped.

In June 2017, the company’s monopoly on the lakes was rescinded by a court order, but this was only a partial victory. As Ferdsult awaited decision on its appeal, it continued to operate in the area with the aid of a private security contractor, which often intimidated and harassed villagers. Fisherman have since regained access to the lakes, but the continued uncertainty means many fear what the future might bring.

On 12 September 2017, Rukampena was attacked by three security guards and shot in both legs at close range. As a result, his left leg was amputated, leaving him unable to continue the farming activities that provided the livelihood for his large family. Rukampena decided to initiate another legal battle against Ferdsult and its security contractor to seek compensation. The court process is still ongoing, and the company has allegedly attempted to conceal their culpability through continued intimidation of the local community. Rukampena nonetheless remains hopeful: “I have no fear because I am supported by organisations like TLC and DefendDefenders, and the case is moving forward. I think it will be a success.” For the moment, Ferdsult was forced to stop operations in the area.

Despite the lifelong mark left by the attack on his body and the uncertainty brought upon his family by his disability, Rukampena does not regret his activism. “What keeps me going and motivated to be an activist is that, thanks to the fact that I spoke out against the wrongs of Ferdsult, now things are normal. Even if I was injured, I know that if I had not spoken out, the company would still be here” he says.  “Activists who are in a similar situation as myself should persist and continue to fight for the rights of others, because, even when they will be gone, their children will enjoy the fruits they have left behind.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onyango Owor

In March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified the Public Order Management Act, 2013, a law that made arbitrary restrictions on freedom of assembly possible. One of the people behind the successful petition of POMA is Onyango Owor, a Ugandan lawyer with 15 years of experience in representing human rights defenders.

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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Aluel Atem

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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Faiza Abdi Mohamed

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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Brenda Kugonza

Brenda Kugonza has fought for women’s rights in Uganda for more than 13 years, and is currently the Executive Director of Women Human Rights Defenders Network-Uganda (WHRDN-U). “As a defender, you lose friends and family members – they don’t want to be associated with someone who brings them shame. We are viewed as women with bad manners and I struggle daily with discrimination,” she affirms.

Human Rights Defender of the Month:  Gladness Hemedi Munuo 

Gladness Hemedi Munuo is a journalist and an award-winning gender activist from Tanzania, with more than 20 years of human rights and media experience. “Shrinking space and crackdown on media causes huge problems in Tanzania – to me it’s a thing that needs serious and immediate action,” she stresses.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Moses Kabaseke

Moses Kabaseke, a talented hip-hop artist and activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was forced to flee to Uganda in 2013 – at only 16 years old. Kabaseke, known by his stage name Belidor, has produced music since he was a child. “I use music as a weapon – music has power. I use music to promote human rights.”

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