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. “If you commit yourself to good things, you will make it. But if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine too, you should not be forced. Human rights work starts as an internal motivation,” Omot states.

Omot is a living testimony of the gruesome massacre that took place in the Gambella region in December 2003. The massacre, carried out by Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), killed about 400 Anuak people, destroyed over 1,000 homes, and forced thousands of Anuaks to seek safety in refugee camps in Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya. For three days, Omot was forced to hide in his house without food, water, and contact with the outside world. “They burned houses, they raped women. The town was filled with gunshots,” Omot recalls.

“If you commit yourself to good things, you will make it. But if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine too, you should not be forced. Human rights work starts as an internal motivation.”

As an Anuak himself, the massacre manifested his incentive to continue to fight for human rights. “I refused to run. I wanted to make sure that the massacre was heard in the world,” Omot says. “I started writing the names of the people who died, and I kept this document very safe – they would kill me if they found it.”

His human rights devotion made him a target. “People from the federal government kept following me. When you are looking for someone like me, it’s because you want to arrest me. But I made it clear to them: if you arrest me, if I die, you will be the one responsible.” In his fight for Anuaks’ justice, Omot was an interpreter in the World Bank Inspection Panel in 2014, which investigated a complaint submitted by the Anuak in relation to their displacement.

In March 2015, Omot was arrested by Ethiopian security agents at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, and charged under the previous Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, facing 14 years to lifetime in prison. “They said they would bring my family back – what had my family done! They said we know where they are.” His fight for human rights cost him two and a half years in prison. He was given a bail of 50,000 Birr (about 1550 USD) but was not allowed to leave the country until his charges were dropped in 2018.

“I refused to run. I wanted to make sure that the massacre was heard in the world. I started writing the names of the people who died, and I kept this document very safe – they would kill me if they found it.”

Before the massacre, Omot was elected the first President of the Church of Gambella, a position he held for four years. As the president, he initiated peace talks between the Anuak and the Nuer to end the longstanding conflict between two groups – an event which brought together more than 5,000 people for a peace conference, in addition to initiating several trainings for the two groups. “I said: guys, let’s have a meeting – we are human beings, let’s not kill each other,” he recollects. At the time of the massacre in 2003, the Nuer were not part in the killing, and Omot states that “if it was not for the trainings, the Nuer could have joined the killing of the Anuaks.”

For years, Omot has worked as a park protector in Gambella’s national park, advocating against land grabbing, deforestation, poaching, illegal logging, as well as foreign investment – which largely threaten the parks’ biodiversity and the livelihood of local people. He is committed to continuing his human rights work. “I need to train young people in human rights, because tomorrow when I am not there, they need to continue the work,” he says.    

See more HRDs of the Month

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.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month (August 2019): Alaa Satir

As an inspiring activist, illustrator, and graphic designer, Alaa Satir uses her art as a tool to promote women’s rights and justice in Sudan. “The challenges that we, women, have faced in Sudanese society have been enormous – we have been the main casualties of Omar al-Bashir’s regime,” Satir says.

Human Rights Defender of the Month (July 2019): Gladys Mmari

Gladys Mmari is a driven Tanzanian human rights defender (HRD), and the founder of MAFGE (Male Advocacy For Gender Equality) – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on women empowerment through educating both women and men. “So much of the work that I do is cultural conversation. We have grown up talking about these issues among women, but now, I have to work with men as well – making it more challenging,” Mmari stresses.

Human Rights Defender of the Month (June 2019): Beatrice Githinji

Beatrice Githinji is a Kenyan human rights defender (HRD) and peace ambassador, advocating for land rights. Her dedication to land rights is based on the historical injustices faced by many local communities, where land grabbing is a major, long-standing concern. “Many HRDs are losing their lives over land rights issues,” Githinji stresses.

Human rights defender of the Month (May 2019): Abdul Aziz Muhamat

The Sudanese refugee activist and aspiring lawyer, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, was detained by the Australian authorities at Manus Island (Papua New Guinea), under inhumane and unsafe conditions, for six years. While trapped in limbo, Aziz continued to fight for the rights of the about 600 men trapped at the island. His human rights commitment led him to win this years’ Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

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