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 Pending cases that were filed under this law were withdrawn.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

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.
His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district. But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo

In personality, Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo could not be more different. Where the former is loud, if free-spirited, and mischievous, the latter is quiet, reticent, and predominantly solitary. Together though, they are the quiet champions behind DefendDefenders’ digital skilling programs, equipping (women) human rights defenders with critically transformative – and sometimes, life-saving digital tools and skills.
“You’ll be surprised how many people out there, including the literate are not exposed to the idea of digital safety. And as technology gets more advanced, it is getting ever more lucrative for hackers and other malign actors, which means that the urgency of the need for digital security skills for everyone cannot be over-stated,” says Daphne.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland, Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries. It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.
Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Jane Naini Meriwas

Like many African societies, The Samburu community in Northern Kenya is a gerontocracy – a very hierarchical community in which elders hold sway over almost all private and public matters. Among these predominantly pastoral nomads, very little importance is attached to the young – especially young girls, who are barely given a chance at education and often married off before their first menstrual cycle, but not before they undergo mandatory Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It is in this community that Jane Naini Meriwas was born 46 years ago, in Kipsing village, Oldonyiro Subcounty, Isiolo County. When she was 16, her mother passed on, and she watched with great trepidation as her father planned to marry another wife, not sure what that would mean for her or her ambitions for school. As it turned out, fate was on her side. When her father uncharacteristically asked what she thought of his plans, Jane seized the opportunity to stand up for herself and interests: