Protests Against Uganda’s Oil Pipeline Suppressed

Anti-fossil fuel activists and environmental defenders in Uganda face repeated harassment, including arbitrary arrests, for protesting a planned oil pipeline.

The project has devastated thousands of people’s livelihoods in Uganda and risks locking in decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the global climate crisis. The Ugandan government should respect the rights of all activists and drop criminal charges against people for exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression.

Environmental defenders and anti-fossil fuel activists in Uganda routinely face arbitrary arrests, harassment, and threats for raising concerns over a planned oil pipeline in East Africa, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 22-page report, “‘Working On Oil is Forbidden’: Crackdown Against Environmental Defenders in Uganda” documents the Ugandan government’s restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly related to oil development, including the planned East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). Civil society organizations and environmental defenders regularly report being harassed and intimidated, unlawfully detained, or arbitrarily arrested.

“This crackdown has created a chilling environment that stifles free expression about one of the most controversial fossil fuel projects in the world,” said Felix Horne, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government of Uganda should immediately end arbitrary arrests of anti-oil pipeline activists and protect their right to exercise freedom of expression, in accordance with international human rights norms.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 31 people in Uganda between March and October 2023, including 21 environmental defenders.

The oil pipeline is one of the most significant fossil fuel infrastructure projects under development globally. It will include hundreds of wells, hundreds of kilometers of roads, camps and other infrastructures, and a 1,443-kilometer pipeline, the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world, connecting oilfields in western Uganda with the port of Tanga in eastern Tanzania.

The French fossil-fuel giant TotalEnergies is the operator and majority shareholder, alongside China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), and the state-run Ugandan and Tanzanian oil companies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science, and others have warned that no new fossil fuel projects can be built if the world is to reach Paris Agreement goals and limit the worst impacts of climate change.

The activists are protesting both construction of the pipeline and the treatment of people in its path. Over 100,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania will lose their land for the oil developments. Many activists told Human Rights Watch that the constant threats from local government and security officials make it more difficult to provide support to those who have lost land.

The Ugandan authorities have routinely detained and arrested activists and human rights defenders on politically motivated charges. An environmental defender, Maxwell Atahura, described his 2021 arrest in Bullisa: “[The police] were asking me questions about oil … at a certain point they were calling me a terrorist, saboteur of government programs…. At the end they wrote on the police bond unlawful assembly.” Atahura also said that he has received threats and that he eventually relocated to Kampala for safety.

President Yoweri Museveni, a staunch backer of the EACOP pipeline, has warned he will not “allow anybody to play around … [with his] oil.”

Since October 2021, at least 30 people protesting or trying to address the impacts of the oil projects have experienced politically motivated arrests in Kampala and other parts of Uganda. In 2021, the government suspended 54 organizations on the basis of vague language in the country’s Non-Governmental Organisations Act of 2016, including several working on the oil sector and other environmental issues. Local organizations that continue to work on the oil issue do so under intense pressure from government and security officials who press them via phone and in person to halt their oil sector activities.

With limited options to influence government policy, some Ugandan nongovernmental groups alongside their international partners have filed suit in France against TotalEnergies. Two people who travelled to France for a court hearing in December 2019 have experienced continuous harassment by security and government officials since their return.

Activists in Uganda have heavily criticized the project because of the risks it poses to the environment, local communities, and its contribution to climate change. Activists have criticized the government for approving the project, as well as Ugandan and international companies potentially involved in its finance, insurance, construction, or operation.

Local civil society groups have become invaluable in assisting people whose land has been acquired for the oil developments to understand the compensation process and the various avenues open to them to secure fair compensation, Human Rights Watch said. In July Human Rights Watch reported human rights violations associated with the pipeline’s land acquisition project including inadequate compensation, and constant pressure from officials; threats of court action and threats from local government and security officials for those who have rejected compensation offers.

In an October 23 letter to Human Rights Watch, TotalEnergies stated they recognize “the importance of protecting Human Rights Defenders and do not tolerate any attacks or threats against those who peacefully and lawfully promote Human Rights in relations to their activities.”

Human Rights Watch has also written to Uganda’s National Bureau for Nongovernmental Organisations, a semi-autonomous office under the Internal Affairs Ministry, the Internal Security Organisation, and the Uganda Police Force, but none responded.

Due to the opposition of the pipeline from civil society organizations and climate activists in Uganda and around the world, many financial institutions and insurance companies have made a public commitment to not support the pipeline. Financing for the pipeline is yet to be finalized, although in March, a TotalEnergies official stated that the company anticipates that funding should be in place by the end of 2023.

“The construction and operation of EACOP poses grave environmental risks, human rights risks, and contributes to the global climate crisis.” Horne said. “Financial institutions and insurance companies should avoid supporting the Ugandan oil pipeline due to the devastating impacts of fossil fuels on climate change as well as future risks of serious human rights impacts.”

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