Human rights updates from the East and Horn of Africa (December 2019)

This post first appeared on DefendDefender’s website

Dear friends and colleagues,

Happy new year! As we leave 2019 behind us, I wish to reflect on our activities and events that had an impact on the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region in December 2019. December was an eventful month, as we celebrated the International Human Rights Defenders Day, International Human Rights Day, and 16 Days of Activism, and the vital role played by HRDs.

Throughout 2019, Ethiopia was one of DefendDefenders’ focus countries, and host of our annual flagship event Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders – bringing together vital human rights voices from all over the country. The forum provided a platform for Ethiopian HRDs to meet, network, celebrate their achievements in the last two years, and build their capacity to conduct their work and protect themselves. It was inspiring to discuss human rights issues openly and without fear of reprisals.

On 13 December 2019, together with Ethiopian HRDs and partner organisations, we launched  the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition to create a safe and enabling working environment for HRDs in the country, protect HRDs at risk, and actively engage with national, regional, and international human mechanisms.  Our focus for 2020 will be to operationalise the coalition, as we continue to advance human rights and widen civic space in Ethiopia.

Additionally, throughout December we engaged in several progressive initiatives. We released our latest report Navigating Justice: Lawyers as Human Rights Defenders in Ethiopia and Somalia/Somaliland, which highlights the essential role played by lawyers in the Horn of Africa – an often overlooked group of HRDs. Further, we presented our Stand-Up! Security Manual in four Ugandan local languages, which enables HRDs at the local level to access information about their right to protection and available protection mechanisms. With our campaign The Three Women, we joined the world in celebrating the global campaign 16 Days of Activism by conveying stories of women HRDs, and their manifold, intersectional, and complex realities.

While many of us were fortunate to take the opportunity to rest and respite over the holidays, Tanzanian human rights activist Tito Magoti spent his holidays behind bars following his arbitrary arrest and detention. While calling for his immediate release, we reiterate our commitment to continue safeguarding HRDs so that independent voices can continue their crucial work.

I look forward to work with you in 2020 to ensure that human rights are respected and upheld.

Yours in Solidarity,

Hassan Shire

Executive Director, DefendDefenders

Human Rights Defender of the Month (December 2019): Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars. “If you commit yourself to good things, you will make it. But if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine too, you should not be forced. Human rights work starts as an internal motivation,” Omot states.

Omot is a living testimony of the gruesome massacre that took place in the Gambella region in December 2003. The massacre, carried out by Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), killed about 400 Anuak people, destroyed over 1,000 homes, and forced thousands of Anuaks to seek safety in refugee camps in Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya. For three days, Omot was forced to hide in his house without food, water, and contact with the outside world. “They burned houses, they raped women. The town was filled with gunshots,” Omot recalls.

Did you know?

That DefendDefenders launched a three-episode podcast series in December 2019? Check out The Three Women – a campaign about women HRDs and courage.

Check out:

  • Call for applications: DefendDefenders is hiring a competent, creative, and motivated Communications Officer. Please share a letter of motivation, a CV, and two references, as well as unedited writing sample between 1000-1500 words on the human rights situation in one of our mandate countries, to [email protected]Deadline: 19 January 2019. See more information.

Recommended reading:

Updates from DefendDefenders:

  • DefendDefenders launched the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, with support from the Association of Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CERO), Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), and other partners. Based on the Resolution on the Establishment of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, the coalition will act as a platform to protect and promote HRDs in Ethiopia. Read more about national HRD coalitions here;
  • From 9 to 13 December 2019, DefendDefenders organised our annual flagship event Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The event welcomed about 70 Ethiopian HRDs for a week-long training to equip them with tactical tools to enhance their human rights work and their well-bring. Check out the press release and communique. The 2018 edition of Claiming Spaces took place in Nairobi, Kenya;
  • DefendDefenders launched our latest report Navigating justice: Lawyers as Human Rights Defenders in Ethiopia and Somalia/Somaliland, which examines the role of  lawyers as HRDs in the Horn of Africa;
  • On 6 December 2019, DefendDefenders launched the Stand Up! in four Ugandan local languages: AcholiAtesoLuganda, and Runyakitara. Stand-Up! is a security manual to support HRDs do their work in a safe and effective manner. The security manual was first launched in May 2017.
  • Together with AfricanDefenders, DefendDefenders launched the final part of The Three Women, a campaign about women HRDs and courage in relation to 16 Days of Activism;
  • Together with AfricanDefenders, DefendDefenders held a meeting with PAX and Amnesty International Netherlands to discuss possibilities for future collaboration;
  • From 9 to 11 December 2019, DefendDefenders participated in a 3-day festival, Feminist Republik, in Naivasha, Kenya, organised by the Urgent Action Fund. Feminist Republik is a space where African feminist activists can freely engage to build the movement further, and focus on research into healing justice from the African feminist perspective, documentation of violations faced by women HRDs on the African continent, and to establish a healing farm which will be a restoration center for women HRDs;
  • On 12 December 2019, DefendDefenders participated in a round table meeting organised by the World Bank, discussing avenues to ensure engagement and participation under the new environmental and social framework in Uganda;
  • From 2 to 5 December 2019, DefendDefenders organised a follow-up of the third Safe Sister cycle in Entebbe, Uganda. For the first time, we included a data session to help improve the participants’ understanding of their data and documentation practices;
  • Throughout December 2019, DefendDefenders conducted a series of trainings for HRDs in the sub-region. This included a follow-up training on protection strategies for HRDs, in Arusha, Tanzania, from the 15 to 20 December 2019, and a follow-up training to the digital and physical security conducted in March, was carried out in Arusha, Tanzania, between from 16 to 19 December; and
  • In December 2019, DefendDefenders received a total of 18 protection requests, of which four cases were approved, three cases were referred to like-minded organisations, four cases were rejected, and seven cases are pending.

Updates from AfricanDefenders:

  • Together with DefendDefenders, AfricanDefenders attended a human rights seminar on developments regarding civil and political rights hosted by the German Federal Foreign office in Nairobi, Kenya. The seminar aimed to share AfricanDefenders’ and DefendDefenders’ best practices to ensure that HRD voices continue to be heard; and
  • AfricanDefenders attended a high-level dialogue organised by the African Union (AU) in Kampala, Uganda, to discuss durable solutions in relation to forced displacement in Africa.

Updates from the East and Horn of Africa sub-region: 


  • Burundi seeks a 15-year jail term for four journalists of the independent media Iwacu Press Group and their driver, after they were arrested on 22 October 2019 for covering an incursion of rebels from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and charged with endangering state security. They appeared before the High Court in Bubanza, western Burundi, on 30 December 2019.
  • Ahead of its 2020 election, President Pierre Nkurunziza has again indicated that he will not run for another term, and reported that he plans to hold another press conference “before handing power to our successor.”


  • An Eritrean official accused Al Jazeera TV of being biased in reporting about Eritrea after the peace deal with Ethiopia. “Al Jazeera TV has gone berserk to ramp up its vitriol against Eritrea in past 3 days,” tweeted Yemane G. Meskel, Information Minister of Eritrea. The report is based on the recent escape of Eritrean footballers in Uganda.
  • In Sweden, a judge refused to deport two Eritrean migrants convicted of aggravated rape due to concerns over human rights abuses if they return to Eritrea. The migrants are military deserters.


  • On 2 January 2019, Ethiopia’s Parliament passed a new anti-terrorism law, which introduces less restrictions on political gatherings and broadened the reforms introduced under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. However, the new legislation has received criticism from human rights actors, stating that the new version still holds elements which can be used against government critics.
  • Ethiopia recently donated land to Eritrea to support the construction of a new embassy in Addis Ababa. The act is, according to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, aimed at cementing the restored relationship between the two nations.
  • The Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation is currently before the Ethiopian Parliament. Human rights actors have advised to modify the draft law as it could significantly curtail freedom of expression.
  • A prominent activist for Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group, Jawar Mohammed, has announced that he has joined  Oromo Federalist Congress party, an opposition party. The announcement comes five months before general elections.


  • In 2019, the Kenyan police killed 91 people, according to The Independent Medical Legal Unit (IMLU), a Kenyan human rights body. According to IMLU, 976 people were killed by police bullets from 2013 to 2019.
  • Defenders Coalition (National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders – Kenya) led a hike to Mount Kenya to raise awareness about human rights violations in the country. A total of 30 people participated in the hike on International Human Rights Day. The aim of the hike was to raise funds to establish a Human Rights Centre in Nairobi to house victims of rights violations, and offer legal aid. According to Kamau Ngugi, the Executive Director, they had raised 3.6 million Kenyan Shillings (about 35,500 USD) by 10 December.
  • Kenyan human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Defenders Coalition, condemned the Kenyan National Assembly for blocking justice and reparations for victims of human rights abuses in a joint statement.
  • Protection International launched its regional hub for HRDs in Nairobi. The hub is the first of four they plan to launch globally.
  • Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) recorded 30 cases of disappearance in the country only in 2019. Muhuri Rapid Response Officer, Francis Ouma, revealed this following an incident where a 20-year-old man disappeared after he was arrested in his home for allegedly being a member of a terrorist group.


  • On 19 December 2019, a Brussels court found a former Rwandan official, Fabien Neretse, guilty of genocide. Neretse is the first person to be convicted in Belgium on such a charge and now faces a possible life sentence.
  • Recently, Rwanda removed tax on sanitary pads. Due to the high tax, sanitary pads have been out of reach for many, largely impacting their lives.
  • On 27 November, Jackie Umuhoza, daughter of exiled pastor Deo Nyirigira, was detained by security forces on charges of treason and espionage – an offense that carries a sentences of up to 25 years imprisonment. She is one of many who have been arbitrarily detained recently, for being critical of President Paul Kagame’s government. Human rights actors called for her immediate release.

South Sudan:

  • President Salva Kiir pardoned dozens of political prisoners, including prominent economist Peter Biar Ajak, to “rejuvenate the country’s stalled peace process.” In June 2019, Ajak was sentenced to two years in jail for disturbing the peace for being critical during his interviews with foreign media.
  • The United States (US)  sanctioned five South Sudanese officials who they say are responsible for the killing of human rights lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and opposition politician Aggrey Idri in January 2017. The US Treasury named Abud Stephen Thiongkol, Malual Dhal Muorwel, Michael Kuajien, John Top Lam, and Angelo Kuot Garang as responsible for the disappearance and alleged killing.


  • 2020 has been described as a pivotal year for Somalis, as their third one-person, one-vote election is scheduled to take place this year. The last election was held in March 1969. Prior to the election, a delegation of AU, EU, IGAD and UN representatives held consultations with stakeholders in Kismayo.
  • On 28 December, a car bomb, detonated in a busy intersection in Mogadishu, killing at least 78 people and wounding more than 100. No one has claimed responsibility.
  • Recently, the UN senior envoy in Somalia called on the country’s youth to build on progress made to date in enshrining human rights as a vital foundation of their society.
  • Somali Journalists Syndicate acknowledge that the number of journalists killed in Somalia in 2019 was considerably less than previous years, but stress that the level of arbitrary arrests, attacks, and suspensions remained very high across Somalia.


  • Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, was sentenced to two years in detention for money laundering and corruption. Due to his age (75 years) Bashir was sentenced to a correctional centre for older prisoners. A number of other cases await him in relation to premeditated murder, crime against humanity, and for undermining the constitutional system.
  • Sudan will investigate Darfur atrocities under the ousted leader, a conflict starting in 2003 where about 300 000 people lost their lives and around 2.7 million people displaced. The investigation aims at ending years of impunity in Darfur, and to bring perpetrators to justice amid a fragile political transition.
  • At an event to mark Human Rights Day on 10 December in Khartoum, the UN reaffirmed their “readiness to stand together with the people of Sudan and in support of the Transitional Government.”


  • The crackdown on critical voices continues in Tanzania, as Tito Magoti, a human rights advocate, was arrested and detained in late December. The arrest signals a growing crackdown on free expression in Tanzania.
  • The Tanzanian government continues to pressure 163,000 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers out of the country. Tanzanian authorities have also made it very difficult for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to properly check whether the hundreds of refugees’ recent decision to return to Burundi was voluntary.
  • Human rights actors have raised concern over the move by the Tanzanian government to block individuals and NGOs from filing cases against the country at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In an official notice, the government said it was withdrawing from a protocol allowing this, adding it had been implemented “contrary to the reservations” submitted by Tanzania.


  • Ugandan Judge Lydia Mugambe-Ssali won the prestigious Vera Chirwa Human Rights Award for her contribution towards advancing socio-economic rights of the vulnerable and ensuring gender-based justice in Africa, through her courageous and impactful judicial career. The award was given out by the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
  • To mark the global climate strike on 29 November, the 15-year-old Ugandan climate activist Leah Namugerwa, who co-runs Africa’s most prominent chapter of Fridays for Future, led the climate protest along the shores of Lake Victoria. She is being compared to Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.