Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onyango Owor

In March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified the Public Order Management Act, 2013 (POMA), 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 (HRDs).

For Onyangohaving POMA declared unconstitutional is more than a professional success. “The ripple effects of such a case go beyond the court room or the human rights defenders that had been affected by a draconian application of this law,” Onyango says, and is confident that “there is greater freedom of association as a result of this case.”

The ripple effects of such a case go beyond the court room or the human rights defenders that had been affected by a draconian application of this law. There is greater freedom of association as a result of this case.

Under POMA, public assemblies required police approval. The police could deny assemblies on the suspicion that they would cause disorder, harm businesses, or otherwise break the law. A power that “was selectively used against human rights defenders and members of the opposition,” according to OnyangoTo the best of my knowledge, there have been over 15 prosecutions of opposition leaders under this law, but the number could be a lot higher.”

In 2013, a group of civil society organisations and individuals, legally represented by Onyango, decided to petition against the Act and its undue restrictions to freedom of peaceful assembly. Since the start, Onyango continuously updated and consulted with numerous HRDs and civil society organisations to ensure that a variety of interests and concerns were represented before the Court. Considering the length of the judicial process – seven years – it was difficult to keep stakeholders engaged and to remain relevant to public interest, but his perseverance ultimately paid off.

On 26 March 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Onyango and the petitioners and declared POMA unconstitutional and nullified. Pending cases that were filed under this law were withdrawn. The ruling is a great achievement for human rights defenders and opposition leaders that faced legal charges under POMA, and it is a solid fundament for freedom of peaceful assembly in Uganda. Onyango thinks it can also be used to expand this right, and he hopes that “organisations can use it as a tool to educate people about what freedom of association means. It is an advocacy tool as well.”

Indeed, Onyango’s work goes beyond legal representation, he also advocates for human rights and HRDs, making Onyango himself vulnerable to the same risks and reprisals. But Onyango is more worried about reprisals against his clients. One of the biggest challenges in his work is gathering evidence, Onyango explains: “some human rights defenders and stakeholders hear that they may be victimized if they come up to provide evidence. So as a result, many lawyers, including myself, know that a violation has taken place, but gathering the proper evidence to prove it is a great challenge.”

All our dignity is affected, we all suffer when anyone’s right is abused. I would like to make a contribution to ensure that there are policy and judicial systems to ensure protection of everyone’s rights.

Yet, these challenges do not discourage Onyango. His motivation to defend human rights is intrinsic, and highlights that any human rights violation is an attack on us all. According to Onyango, “all our dignity is affected, we all suffer when anyone’s right is abused. I would like to make a contribution to ensure that there are policy and judicial systems to ensure protection of everyone’s rights.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Agather Atuhaire

In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

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