Seeking peace with justice in Uganda

International charges filed against northern rebel leaders
From Africa Renewal: 
page 20

For nearly two decades, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda has committed massacres, torture, child abductions, rapes and countless other atrocities beyond the reach of justice and far from the attention of the world media. But in October that impunity began to erode, as the new International Criminal Court (ICC) charged five top LRA commanders with crimes against humanity.

A Ugandan soldier with displaced children A Ugandan soldier with displaced children. More than 1.6 million villagers have fled the terror-stricken northern countryside.
Getty Images / Per-Anders Pettersson

The arrest warrants, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted, “should send a powerful signal around the world that those responsible for such crimes will be held accountable for their actions.”

The indictments — the result of a year-long investigation — were the first issued by the ICC, established in 2003 following negotiations sponsored by the UN. Headquartered in the Hague, the Netherlands, it is the world’s first permanent war-crimes tribunal. So far, 139 countries have signed the international statute creating the court and 100 have ratified it. The court’s chief prosecutor is also investigating widespread killings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly on 8 November, Judge Philippe Kirsch, president of the ICC, said that the court offers an opportunity “to ensure that the perpetrators of the worst atrocities no longer benefit from impunity, to deter future perpetrators and to build a culture of accountability.” Noting that the court does not have a police force of its own, he urged all countries to cooperate in ensuring the arrest of the indicted LRA commanders so that the first trials could begin in 2006.

A long nightmare

The LRA began its insurgency in northern Uganda in 1986, claiming that it was fighting for a political system based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments. In practice, its brutal methods have been directed largely against the region’s civilian population. Its fighters have pillaged and burned entire villages, carried out massacres, mutilated people and, most notoriously, abducted children.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 25,000 children have been kidnapped by the LRA since the conflict began, nearly half of them since 2002. Abducted boys and girls have been forced to fight and serve as porters, while many girls have also been pressed into sexual slavery. The war has displaced an estimated 1.6 million people in northern Uganda, obliging them to seek refuge in 135 overcrowded and unsanitary camps.

At the outset, the government of Uganda sought to end the insurgency primarily through military means. But the LRA was able to operate from bases in war-torn southern Sudan, beyond the Ugandan army’s immediate reach. In recent months, some LRA forces have also moved into eastern DRC.

One of many overcrowded camps for displaced people in Northern Uganda One of many overcrowded camps for displaced people in Northern Uganda.
Photograph: Panos / Chris de Bode

Beginning in 1994, the Ugandan authorities, acting through mediators, sought negotiations with the LRA, but with little effect. In 2000, the parliament approved an offer of full amnesty to all rebels, provided that they gave up armed activities and handed in their weapons. Some 15,000 former fighters, many from the LRA, have taken advantage of the amnesty, which encouraged many children originally kidnapped by the LRA to escape and return home.

Impact on amnesty?

But with the top LRA leadership rejecting all offers to end the conflict, the Ugandan government asked the ICC prosecutor in December 2003 to open an investigation. The evidence he uncovered has now led to the charging of Joseph Kony, the top LRA leader, with 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual enslavement, pillaging, ordering attacks against civilians and forcibly conscripting children. Four of his commanders were also charged: Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya and Dominic Ongwen (the last has since been killed in battle).

The indictments were originally drafted in June. But Ugandan mediators were openly skeptical of the ICC’s moves to prosecute, warning that indictments could hamper their peace initiatives. So the indictments were kept sealed for several months to give more time to the ongoing amnesty and reconciliation efforts.

After the indictments were unsealed, Ms. Betty Bigombe, a key mediator, argued that there was “now no hope” of convincing the LRA leaders to surrender. Justice Peter Onega, chairman of the Amnesty Commission, worried that the ranks of the LRA might also fear prosecution. He said that his commission would now shift gears, to “sensitize” the LRA fighters “that the warrant is only for a few people and the rest are free to come back home.” ICC officials have pledged to work with local community leaders and the Ugandan government to ensure that the judicial process does not undercut the amnesty programme.

Overall, said Uganda’s UN Ambassador Francis Butagira in November, “It is of utmost importance to the people of northern Uganda, as well as the healing of the whole nation, that the leadership of the LRA be tried by the ICC.”