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 Pending cases that were filed under this law were withdrawn.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

Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Chantal Mutamuriza

Chantal Mutamuriza does not wait for problems to be solved. When the Burundian woman human rights defender (WHRD) encounters a problem, she will seek a solution there and then. When hundreds of thousands Burundians had to flee from political unrest in 2015, many of them were stranded in refugee camps with little economic opportunity or access to education. In her problem-solving spirit, Chantal felt compelled to act: she quit her job to put her skills and network to use and founded the NGO Light For All.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Foni Joyce

Foni Joyce has engaged in humanitarian work since the age of 20, when she joined a refugee student organisation to amplify the voices of refugees. Originally from South Sudan, Foni grew up as a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, but she makes it clear that ‘refugee’ is merely a legal definition: “I firstly define myself as a human being who has been uprooted.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Meskerem  Geset Techane

Meskerem Geset Techane has fought injustice since she can remember: as a child she was known to stand up for herself and others, whether against bullies, teachers, her parents or church. Fighting injustice and promoting human rights is a common theme in the lawyer’s life. “It’s a passion, promoting human rights is not something you choose to do for a living or as a career opportunity. It’s more of a calling for me.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Andrew Gole

Andrew Gole’s journey to become a human rights defender (HRD) was sparked by a small request: in 2015, a human rights organisation reached out to the trained software engineer about a digital security training. “I didn’t know much about the HRD eco-system or about digital security as an environment on its own,” Andrew says. “So, I did some research, and realised digital security support is just the basic support I used to provide in an internet café.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onesmo Olengurumwa

Protecting human rights is Onesmo Olengurumwa’s passion. When his secondary school lacked access to water and was threatened with closure, Onesmo successfully rallied his fellow students together and protested for their right to education. While at university, he was the human rights association’s president. Becoming a human rights defender was not really a conscious choice, but just the natural course of Onesmo’s life.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Malab Alneel

Malab Alneel was only 20 when Sudan’s revolution started in December 2018, but she knew it was the moment to get involved: “I grew up in a house that was very political. All of my sisters are activists, my parents are very involved. Activism has always been there. But for me it started with the revolution. It just felt like a time for change.”

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