We were deeply saddened to learn that James Otto, a passionate, committed advocate for human rights and justice in northern Uganda and a great friend and ally of Human Rights Watch, passed away on September 23. James was 71 years old and died of kidney failure. 

In very dark times, James was a fearless defender of the rights of civilians impacted by the violence in Northern Uganda.

Ugandan Activist James Otto. 

© Action Aid

James founded Human Rights Focus, based in Gulu, Uganda, in 1994, as the conflict between the Ugandan government and rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) took a terrible toll on his community. He worked closely with the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict and sought to shine a bright light on their suffering. James’s commitment to speak up about abuses by all sides, including by the Ugandan army in the North – when others feared reprisals – was especially admirable and inspiring. 

James was also a lovely host and guide to generations of Human Rights Watch researchers and advocates working in Uganda since the mid-1990s. He had a great, warm sense of humor that helped ease the pain of the many abuses we all sought to document. James had an acute sense for justice, but was modest and caring – not aspiring to be a hero. He had gravitas, a calmness and confidence that was profoundly reassuring to us all. James was also one of Human Rights Watch’s first advocacy fellows under a program that brought leaders of nongovernmental organizations to New York City for a few months to do long-term joint advocacy with us.

We convey our deepest sympathies to James’s family, friends, and community. We will miss his passion and leadership and hope we can all live up to his commitment to speaking the truth on behalf of those suffering.