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 Pending cases that were filed under this law were withdrawn.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: 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.

“I grew up in a society where ageism and sexism were so entrenched. As a young person, you weren’t supposed to give your opinion on public issues, especially if you were a woman. Women who dared to speak up were caricatured and branded as frustrated, unmarriageable prostitutes, all designed to shut them up,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Alex Njenga John

Alex Njenga has always believed in egalitarianism both as a principle and as a tool for justice. As a result, he has always been suspicious of, and at times hostile to social prejudices that treat some people as “more equal than others,” – to use a line from George Orwell’s famed political fable, Animal Farm.

Some of the experiences that have shaped his social and political outlook have been personal. As an adolescent in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County, Alex was stigmatised and denied healthcare after he identified himself as belonging to Kenya’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim

Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim is one of his country’s leading advocates for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

Born 34 years ago into a family of Eight, in Kajokeji County, East of Juba, the Capital of South Sudan, Abacha ’s passion for human rights was born out of grim personal experience. At birth, he was immediately neglected by his father on discovering that the little infant was visually impaired.

“My own father denied me access to education because he considered my disability a kind of misfortune brought to him by my mother,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Fadia Khalaf

Fadia Khalaf was not meant to be an activist. By her own admission, she was born into a conservative Muslim family – the first of six siblings. In Saudi Arabia where she was born and raised, the ruling ideology in the Kingdom was wahabbism – a puritanical version of Islam in which women are strictly expected to stay in the background and not play any public role. Yet even in that conservative setting, she managed to nurture a political consciousness:

“I think reading at young age helped build my awareness on concepts like justice and rights in general. I was exposed to concepts around human freedom, and that nurtured the rebel in me,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mugisha Jelousy

As the rest of Uganda readies itself to finally get its oil out of the ground with the conclusion of the Final Investment Decision (FID), Mugisha Jealousy, 50, is one of those following the events with a mournful resignation.

A resident of Kasenyi village, Nile Parish in Buliisa district, Mugisha is one of those affected by the Tilenga project, a multipronged project by Total E&P. The project involves reservation and development of land in districts of Buliisa and Nwoya for oil exploration, setting up of a crude oil processing plant and related infrastructure to support Uganda’s oil production activities.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Anny Kapenga

As a young student, Anny Kapenga used to cringe at the cult-like worship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the then Zaire’s President. By then, in the early 1990s, Zaire was still under one party rule, and calls were increasing for Mobutu to open political space to allow other parties to operate. In the meantime, however, all Zairians were expected to show affection for Mobutu wherever they gathered in public.

Students across Zaire’s schools were required to sing and dance adoringly before his (Mobutu)’s portrait every morning before they went to class, and all school scholastic materials were emblemed with his portrait. A young Anny never really appreciated the obsession:

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Fadwo Hassan Jimale

Women in Somalia are not supposed to be ‘loud.’ Historically, conservative religious traditions combined with a resilient patriarchal system ensured that women in the coastal nation remain veiled and meek, always in the shadow of their husbands.

Not so for Fadwo Hassan Jimale, Somalia’s crusading human rights defender. As a ranking member of Somalia’s Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Fadwo and her colleagues host regular capacity building sessions for current and emerging women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Oliver Rubama

As a lone girl in a traditionally patriarchal & heteronormative Muslim family in Tanzania, Oliver Rubama grew up with so much pressure to conform. She was expected to conform to socially expected patterns of female behavior and dress, and to aspire to get married to a man approved by her family.