Weblogs

Nominee for Human Rights Tulip: human rights activist and lawyer in Uganda

As a child, he grew up in the epicentre of a brutal war between the Lord Resistance Army and government forces. Today, working as a human rights lawyer, he is being threatened, spied on and shadowed. Nicholas Opiyo is one of the three finalists nominated for the 2021 Human Rights Tulip. This is his story.

Nicholas Opiyo
Nicholas Opiyo.

As a human rights lawyer, Ugandan Nicholas Opiyo is not afraid to take on sensitive cases. He challenged the law that gave the police the right to ban public gatherings. He led the campaign for the enactment of a law criminalizing torture and drafted the initial bill that was enacted by parliament in 2012. He, alongside other brave Ugandan activists, successfully challenged Uganda’s anti-gay law in 2014. He has provided legal representation to the gay community in Uganda.

Nicholas is executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, an NGO that works to protect civil liberties and improve universal observance of human rights. He defends human rights activists who are being persecuted in Uganda. He also stands up for people who are in trouble with the government and lack the resources to defend themselves.

Surviving war

Nicholas grew up on the outskirts of the northern Ugandan city of Gulu. His village was repeatedly attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that used child soldiers. Unlike many young people abducted into the ranks of the rebels, he survived abductions.  The rebels kidnapped his father and sister, who managed to return after several months in captivity. To avoid being kidnapped, Nicholas walked several kilometersevery day so he could sleep in the city. It was safer in a church compound or on the pavement in front of shops than in his village.

Advocate for change

Government soldiers detained Nicholas’ father as part of an operation to eliminate traitors. The soldiers took all men 18 and older to a stadium where they were held for days without food. Looking through a crack in the stadium wall, Nicholas could see his father being beaten. Nicholas’ father was released after three days because he was innocent. Unable to forget these events, Nicholas decided to become a lawyer. ‘First I wanted to be a journalist so I could speak about [mistreatment],’ he said in an interview met Buzzfeed News. ‘But I thought … I can go to court and change things.’ 

Imprisoned

Nicholas’ work often gets him in trouble with the state. He is being threatened, spied on and shadowed. In December 2020, in the run-up to the elections, he was arrested and imprisoned. Although he was charged with money laundering, the government presented no evidence. He spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in jail. Human rights activists see the charges against Nicholas as a way to hinder his work as a human rights lawyer. Even in jail, he used his time to talk to prisoners who sought advice. In fact, he says, his arrests give him the energy to do even more.

Human Rights Tulip award ceremony

The winner of the 2021 Human Rights Tulip will be announced early December. The award supports courageous human rights defenders in their important work: elucidating, protecting, and improving the observance of human rights worldwide. The winner receives €100,000 in prize money and a bronze sculpture in the shape of a tulip. If Nicholas wins, he will gain international visibility and recognition and be able to further develop and expand the scale of his work.