/ When a hospital in Uganda fell behind on electricity bills, hundreds of patients paid — with their lives.

Making the case for a right to energy ● Podcast

What happens when a public hospital can’t pay its electricity bill? In Uganda, when the electricity company cut power the Jinja Referral Hospital, a huge number of patients – including new-born infants – quickly died. Human rights lawyer David Kabanda is leading a case to argue that the right to life, which is enshrined in the constitution, must be supported by the right to energy.

“This is a public interest case suing on behalf of all Ugandans, of all people who access public health services,” says Kabanda, Director of the Center for Food and Adequate Living Rights. “Because we know that as any private person under the laws of Uganda, you have the obligation to respect human rights.”

Strategically, the case names three entities as holding responsibility for the deaths: the electricity company that cut power; the regulatory authority, because it has the mandate to license electricity companies; and the attorney general, as the legal representative of Uganda and all ministries concerned.

In a first trial, the judge sided with the defendants’ argument that the relationship between an energy company and its client is strictly contractual and unrelated to human rights law. Kabanda appealed and is waiting for a new trial date before three judges at the Court of Appeal. To build the case, he is actively researching ‘how’ to initiate the desired change.

“We are doing policy analysis, legal reviews and policy formulation; as advocates of a right to energy, we must also be able to suggest schemes that government can use,” says Kabanda. “But also we shall be doing surveys to see how deep this problem is and how we can use a human rights-based approach to make sure that people don’t continue to die, to live in abject poverty and keep injuring the environment.”

Across the African continent, the vast majority of people do still live in abject energy poverty. Indeed, Kabanda himself grew up without electricity and spent many days fetching firewood.

In a second half of the podcast, he explores the need to – within the context of a clean energy transition – build energy literacy and create new cultural norms. That challenge is daunting in that ‘flicking a switch’ is so much less tangible than holding a stick.

Ultimately, Kabanda connects the right to energy to the right to education, which is increasingly digital, and the right to benefit from science and innovation. He also insists on the need to shift blame for lack of access to energy to where it is due.

“We need to tell people that it’s not your fault that you don’t have electricity,” says Kabanda. “It is everyone’s fault … it is upon government, under human rights obligation, to make sure that you also benefit in the scientific progress [linked to energy].”

Finally, Kabanda sees the need to build public awareness, community engagement and legal empowerment to realise the right to energy in practice. People must be informed about their right to energy, he says; otherwise, they won’t know they can claim it.

This podcast is the first in a series of four arising from a conference entitled ‘Co-creating the Right to Energy in Theory and Practice’, organised by the ENGAGER network, at which more than 50 participants shared ideas about meaning and purposes, as well as rights, duties and responsibilities linked to this end goal.

ENGAGER stands for European Energy Poverty: Agenda Co-Creation and Knowledge Innovation, reflecting the network’s aim to bring about transformational change in the investigation and amelioration of household-level energy poverty in Europe. It is supported by COST – European Cooperation in Science & Technology – a funding agency for research and innovation networks that aims to enable scientists to grow their ideas by sharing them with peers.

This podcast series was financed by ENGAGER, through its COST funding.

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EnAct is a project of ACT 4, a non-profit association registered in France (No. de Siret: 805 036 936 00013) that supports cultural initiatives that raise awareness of and engagement in social issues.

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