May 22, 2024

Environmental Defenders Face Harassment and Arrests in Uganda Over Oil Pipeline Protests

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

Environmental activists and anti-fossil fuel defenders in Uganda are enduring arbitrary arrests, harassment, and threats as they protest against a planned oil pipeline in East Africa, according to a report released today by Human Rights Watch.

The 22-page report, titled “‘Working On Oil is Forbidden’: Crackdown Against Environmental Defenders in Uganda,” highlights the Ugandan government’s restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly concerning oil development, including the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project. Civil society organizations and environmental defenders have reported being subjected to harassment, intimidation, unlawful detention, and arbitrary arrests.

Felix Horne, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch, expressed concern about the chilling environment created by this crackdown, stating that it stifles free expression about one of the most controversial fossil fuel projects globally. He urged the Ugandan government to immediately cease arbitrary arrests of anti-oil pipeline activists and protect their right to freedom of expression, in accordance with international human rights norms.

The EACOP is one of the world’s largest fossil fuel infrastructure projects under development, featuring hundreds of wells, extensive road networks, camps, and a 1,443-kilometer heated crude oil pipeline connecting oilfields in western Uganda to the port of Tanga in eastern Tanzania. TotalEnergies, a French fossil fuel giant, is the operator and majority shareholder, along with China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) and state-run Ugandan and Tanzanian oil companies.

Leading climate scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have warned against building new fossil fuel projects to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit the impacts of climate change.

Activists are protesting both the construction of the pipeline and the treatment of people in its path. Over 100,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania are expected to lose their land for the oil developments. The constant threats from local government and security officials have made it more challenging for activists to support those affected by land loss.

Ugandan authorities have detained and arrested activists and human rights defenders on politically motivated charges. President Yoweri Museveni, a supporter of the EACOP pipeline, has issued stern warnings against interfering with the project.

Since October 2021, at least 30 people involved in protests or addressing the oil projects’ impacts have faced politically motivated arrests in Uganda. In 2021, the government suspended 54 organizations, including those working on the oil sector and environmental issues, under the country’s Non-Governmental Organizations Act of 2016. Local organizations persisting in oil-related work do so under intense pressure from government and security officials.

Despite limited influence on government policy, some Ugandan non-governmental groups and their international partners have filed a lawsuit in France against TotalEnergies. However, individuals who attended a court hearing in France in December 2019 have since faced continuous harassment from security and government officials.

Activists in Uganda have criticized the project for its environmental risks, its impact on local communities, and its contribution to climate change. They have also criticized the Ugandan government for approving the project and the potential involvement of Ugandan and international companies in its financing, insurance, construction, or operation.

Financial institutions and insurance companies have made public commitments to not support the pipeline due to opposition from civil society organizations and climate activists worldwide. Although funding for the pipeline has not been finalized, TotalEnergies anticipates that it will be in place by the end of 2023.

Felix Horne emphasized the grave environmental and human rights risks posed by the EACOP project, urging financial institutions and insurance companies to avoid supporting the Ugandan oil pipeline due to its devastating impact on climate change and the risk of severe human rights violations in the future.

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