On 8th February 2013, the Batwa of Uganda submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court of Uganda seeking recognition of their status as indigenous peoples under international law and redress for the historic marginalisation and continuous human rights violations they have experienced as a result of being dispossessed of their ancestral forest lands by the government.
Before their eviction, the Batwa had lived in the forest since immemorial times. The measures taken to remove the Batwa, to create ‘environmentally protected’ areas, and to limit access and use of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Echuya Central Forest Reserve, resulted in the violation of the Batwa’s property rights over their ancestral lands. While colonial protection of the forest started in the 1920s, most Batwa continued to live in the forest and to use its resources until the 1990s; when they were evicted, without consultation, adequate compensation or offer of alternative land.
As a result the Batwa have seen the heart of their culture, traditions, beliefs and wealth swept away. They have become squatters on other peoples’ land and now experience severe poverty, malnutrition and health problems. They are subjected to high levels of discrimination in Ugandan society and are not treated or perceived as equal citizens. The list of human rights violations they face is long: forced labour, lack of political representation and participation, lack of access to education, housing, healthcare, social security and benefits, and more. The central issue for the Batwa is their land. To date, the revenues and employment opportunities arising from governmental exploitation of protected areas have not benefited the Batwa. Revenues generated from activities now taking place on the Batwa’s ancestral lands are considered in the public interest. However, these revenues have not been redistributed to address the negative impacts suffered by the Batwa following their eviction from their ancestral lands without their free prior and informed consent and without adequate compensation. Land restitution, resettlement, compensation, and positive measures to redress the violations of the Batwa’s human rights should be a governmental priority, but these issues are simply not on the agenda. The United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU) has been supporting the Batwa to unite and engage communities in informed advocacy for their human and land rights since its creation in 2000. Through years of consultations, the Batwa’s voice has become stronger: communities pursued compensation from the government through numerous exchanges and discussions with local councils, various government departments as well as the Parliament of Uganda. They also sought support from international and regional human rights mechanisms, which led to the issuance of clear guidance on how Uganda should address the human rights situation of the Batwa. However, the hope of achieving remedies outside the courts faded as no concrete reparation measures were put in place by national authorities. The Batwa spoke to the government but have not been heard. They were instead offered empty promises that remain unfulfilled.Consequently, Batwa representatives and UOBDU have petitioned the Constitutional Court of Uganda in a claim involving the Attorney General, the National Forest Authority and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). As of June 2014, the case has yet to be listed as a cause to be heard in court but the Batwa are closely monitoring the process so that their claim receives the attention it deserves. As well as reaching a decision on the issue of land restitution and compensation for human rights violations, the Constitutional Court is being requested to provide an interpretation of international law and the application of international and regional principles and standards pertaining to indigenous peoples’ rights. Harmonisation of national and international law is required for full consideration of the Batwa’s land rights claims. While the Batwa wait for their case to be listed and heard in the courts, communities continue to suffer violence and discrimination from neighbouring ethnic groups. On Sunday 8th June 2013, Batwa communities in Ryabitukuru, Kisoro District, were burned out of their homes in an example of the discrimination and worsening marginalisation that the Batwa face in Uganda. Out of the 14 households in the community, 13 were targeted, leaving many families destitute and homeless. Despite the Batwa households being scattered over a large area of land, it only took the violent mob two hours moving from house to house ensuring that almost all properties were completely destroyed. Fearing for their lives and having had their community destroyed, the Batwa fled to the nearest police station for security and were later transferred to the care of a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) and well-wishers who have tried to provide them with food, water, utensils, blankets, and clothes. Batwa were transferred to a building normally referred to as CARE house that was constructed by CARE and left in the hands of the local government and is within Rubugiri centre. No NGO was specifically asked to care for them during that time but well-wishers would find them there and assist them from that building where they were camped.UOBDU is closely monitoring the criminal investigation now being conducted by the police. Both UOBDU and local leaders are working hard to ensure that the Batwa community can return to their land without fear of violence and discrimination at the hands of their neighbours. Currently the Batwa are returning back to their land.For more information on the Batwa Petition please contact:Penninah Zaninka - UOBDU programme coordinatorUnited Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU)P.O. Box 169Plot 3 Bazanyamaso RoadKisoro, UgandaTel/Fax: +256(0) 486 4 30 140Email: email@example.com