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HRW Accuses Ugandan Authorities of Harassing Activists Against TotalEnergies Oil Project

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on Thursday, accusing Ugandan authorities of engaging in the harassment, arrest, and physical abuse of activists and demonstrators protesting against a significant East African oil project led by the French company TotalEnergies.

The $10-billion project, a joint effort by TotalEnergies and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, aimed at developing oilfields in Uganda, has been touted by President Yoweri Museveni as a potential economic boost. However, it has encountered opposition from human rights activists and environmental groups.

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This project, facing legal action in France, has raised concerns from the European Parliament regarding the wrongful imprisonment of environmental activists and the eviction of individuals from their land without adequate compensation.

Central to the controversy is the drilling of approximately 400 oil wells in the Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest protected area, and the transportation of crude oil via a 1,445-kilometer pipeline to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.

TotalEnergies maintains that fair compensation has been provided to those displaced by the project, coupled with measures taken to safeguard the environment.

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HRW conducted interviews with 31 individuals in Uganda and Tanzania between March and September 2023, including 21 activists, many of whom shared instances of threats, harassment, and arbitrary arrests without charges.

Former head of the Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association, John Kaheero Mugisa, revealed multiple arrests and health deterioration following a prolonged seven-month imprisonment.

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Activists in Kampala, Buliisa, and Hoima—localities in close proximity to the oilfields—reported office raids in 2021. Fear of arrest and economic loss has significantly impacted their work, with limited freedom of expression.

Alarming accounts surfaced from individuals displaced by the project, with incidents of detention, interrogation, and ominous warnings upon their return to Uganda after testifying in France.

HRW’s senior environment researcher, Felix Horne, characterized the government’s actions as a “chilling crackdown,” stifling open discussion on this controversial fossil fuel project. He urged Ugandan authorities to cease arbitrary arrests of anti-oil pipeline activists and safeguard their right to freedom of expression, aligning with international human rights standards.

While TotalEnergies emphasized the importance of defending human rights advocates, Uganda’s government has not responded to the report’s allegations, as stated by HRW.

In July, HRW urged a halt to the project, citing potential grave environmental and communal consequences. Despite this, President Museveni remains committed to continuing the initiative.

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