The Tale of a Karimojong human rights defender
Imprisonment, starvation, humiliation, torture, and sometimes death are some of the challenges Human Rights defenders like Charles Donaldson Ogira must face in their line of work defending and protecting the human rights of the Karimojong people.
However, in this north-eastern Ugandan region where time seems to have stood still and its pastoralist people still live as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, the work of human rights defenders is not without challenges. Nonetheless, Origa is not about to give up.
“I remember a poem we worked on titled The Ogre,” reminisces Ogira about his school days. He continues, “It condemned teenage pregnancies, HIV infections amongst young girls, and the actions of those responsible.”
This poem and Ogira’s involvement in school clubs including the music, dance and drama club, the school Peace Club and the Debate club played a big role in his career choice as a grassroots human rights defender in his home region.
Today Ogira is not just a human rights defender but also the founder of Youth Forum for Social Justice (Y4SJ), a grassroots human rights defender organisation in Abim District in Karamoja set up in 2016.
Human rights defenders are people who, either individually or as a group, act to promote or protect human rights in some of the most dangerous and insecure conditions. They advocate for the basic human dignity of individuals in the communities in which they work, through the advancement of civil, political, economic, and social rights.
The international community recognised the importance of human rights defenders for over two decades with the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Y4SJ offers grassroots mechanisms for human rights defenders’ protection, digital security support and trainings, and Tech4Peace Advocacy campaigns to promote pacification to end the wanton killings in Karamoja arising from the disarmament exercise in the region subjecting the region to total insecurity.
Karamoja sub–region, commonly known as Karamoja, covers an area of 27,528km and is made up of nine districts: Kotido, Kaabong, Karenga, Nailatuk, Abim, Moroto, Napak, Amudat, and Nakapiripirit. According to statistics from the Uganda Bureau of Standards, in 2022 the region had a population of 1.4 million.
Since colonial times, Karamoja has been one of the most embattled regions in Uganda. Despite being rich in minerals, it remains one of the poorest in the country. The reckless killing of the locals by the fierce cattle rustlers as well as by the government forces during routine security operations also means Karamoja is one of the least safe regions in the country.
“I grew up surrounded by injustices and condemning them,” recalls Ogira about his childhood. And this played a major role in his work and in his setting up Y4SJ the umbrella organisation which seeks to unify different activists, bloggers, journalists and human rights defenders in Karamoja.Y4SJ works to protect those who speak out against human rights abuse, exposing graft and human rights violations in the region.
They also train human rights defenders through their partners on human rights advocacy, social justice activism, non-violent movement building, digital security, human rights monitoring, documenting and reporting, as well as human rights case handling and referral pathways.“To achieve this, Y4SJ offers support to embattled grassroots human rights defenders in Karamoja through a locally designed mechanism of protecting human rights defenders,” explains Ogira.
Since its inception, the organisation has supported more than 12 grassroots human rights defenders facing threats; trained over 20 grassroots human rights defenders, and supported over 30 grassroots human rights defenders with digital security products. These include Windows and Kasper’s Internet security activation keys so they can safely use their devices and tools of work.
To date, Y4SJ boasts of reporting three allegations of human rights violations to the Uganda Human Rights Commission, one involving torture allegations from a victim who attained justice and compensation. However even considering success stories, challenges remain for Ogira and other human rights defenders in the region.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Ogira was arrested while working on a case that would finally expose a top police officer in Abim District who had allegedly tortured a pregnant woman leading to the loss of her unborn child.
“The very officer I was investigating arrested me. I was held in custody for over 48 hours without water, food, or bedding. I was physically assaulted and was not allowed to see my lawyer which goes against the Constitution of Uganda,” recounts Ogira.
In 2022, he found himself on the “unwanted list” of duty bearers in the region while working on exposing them for engaging in illicit charcoal business.
“The police could not help me as they had been rendered powerless by the political arm of the district which was earning huge sums of money from the illicit charcoal business. As a result, I had to go into hiding and live like a fugitive for weeks.”
“Duty bearers do not understand our contributions towards the development of this country. We are always targeted by both state and non-state actors because we expose issues that are controversial to the fundamental standards of human rights,” States Ogira.
He adds; “the working environment for human rights defenders in Karamoja is very poor. We work in an outdated setting where victims of human rights violations or abuses themselves do not know how to and cannot report cases of violations against them.
Owing to the stringent process, they tend to shy away from the process and refuse to provide sufficient evidence to qualify their cases as either crime, abuse, or violation, and yet this evidence is a basic for every human rights defender that needs to be ticked off before proceeding with the case.”
Ogira says the legitimacy of human rights defenders should be made known to both local and state actors so that they can complement each other. “Human rights defenders are the eyes and voices of the people they represent. We need protection because of our fragility and commitment to shedding light on injustices that we come across,” he says.
To this end, Y4SJ has established a grassroots human rights defenders protection mechanism that uses a web network to record and report allegations of violations against human rights defenders. This mechanism has a rapid response support team trained in human rights case handling and reporting. According to Ogira, there is a need for the government to ensure its officials, who are potential violators of the rights of grassroots human rights defenders are trained to respect and defend human rights.
“Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) also need to continue pushing through the bottlenecks of the shrinking civic space to respond to these challenges and create more awareness amongst those people who are ignorant about their rights and obligations,” says Ogira. He also emphasises the importance of human rights defenders in practicing impartiality and transparency, acquiring knowledge on ethical reporting and case handling, and ensuring credibility through accurate reporting.
“As human rights defenders, our line of work is so life threatening. We can only be saved by the quality of our work,” emphasises Ogira.