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Linking disarmament with justice

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Linking disarmament with justice

chieving peace should not mean ignoring past atrocities
From Africa Renewal: 
UN peacekeepers disarm militia fighters in the Congo’s Ituri region UN peacekeepers disarm militia fighters in the Congo’s Ituri region: Communities welcome peace, but find that justice remains elusive.
Photograph: UNDP

After years of war, hundreds of former militia fighters are coming out of the forests of Ituri, in the far northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “The time of war is over,” declared Col. Mathieu Ngujolo, a militia commander, as members of his group disarmed in the village of Kobu. “Now is the time to rebuild our country.”

In this latest phase of the DRC’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programme, a total of 4,500 members of three Ituri militia groups that signed an accord with the government in late 2006 are set to demobilize. They will join more than 100,000 combatants from other factions who, under earlier peace agreements, either returned to civilian life or joined the new national army.       

Meanwhile, about a dozen trials are under way nationally of accused Congolese war criminals. One prominent militia commander from Ituri, Thomas Lubanga, is currently facing trial before the UN-backed International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. But so far the total number of accused is relatively low, in a country where 3–4 million people, the vast majority of them civilians, are estimated to have perished during the decade-long conflict. And like their demobilized predecessors, very few of the Ituri fighters will likely appear in court for crimes they may have committed during the war.

For many residents of Ituri, peace is enough, for now. “We lived through the war. We lost our parents, our brothers and sisters. We suffered the worst atrocities,” commented John Tibamwenda, a district chief in Bunia, the provincial capital, during a demobilization and arms-destruction ceremony. “It’s now time to turn the page.”

Yet in the DRC, as in other African countries emerging from war, many people are also wondering whether peace must come at the expense of justice. Do disarmament and demobilization necessarily mean impunity for those who pillaged, raped, killed and terrorized? Are communities that were victimized expected to welcome back those who victimized them?

In contrast, might prosecuting the worst perpetrators more vigorously jeopardize peace efforts, as some mediators and analysts fear? Would combatants hesitate to hand in their arms?

Villagers at a grassroots “gacaca” court in Rwanda Villagers at a grassroots “gacaca” court in Rwanda: Justice in local communities is especially important for building reconciliation.
Photograph: Reuters / Antony Njuguna

Seeking ways to resolve such dilemmas was one of the challenges facing participants in the Second International Conference on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Stability in Africa, held in Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital, 12–14 June (see box). Organized by the Congolese government and the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, the meeting drew DDR experts and practitioners from across Africa and from various UN and other international agencies.

Hoping to improve the effectiveness of DDR in the continent, the participants focused on several shortcomings in existing programmes, including the relationship of DDR with post-war justice initiatives.

While many peace processes in Africa now include some form of DDR operation, efforts to bring perpetrators of war crimes and human rights violations to justice have tended to lag, reports Alpha Fall, a senior associate of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a non-governmental organization based in New York.

In part, Mr. Fall notes, this lag has come about because disarmament and demobilization are considered immediate security priorities — and peacekeeping missions thus seek to quickly implement them — while mechanisms for “transitional justice” take some time to get off the ground, especially in war-ravaged countries with weak court systems and many other pressing needs. (The term “transitional justice,” as used by many human rights advocates, refers to efforts to address the legacies of massive human rights abuses, most often in the transitional period after a war has ended or a dictatorship has been ousted.)

The gap also results from the different aims of DDR and transitional justice undertakings. “DDR programmes benefit ex-combatants,” observes Mr. Fall, “while transitional justice initiatives focus on victims. In addition, these constituencies themselves have different objectives: Victims seek accountability. Ex-combatants for the most part seek to minimize or reduce accountability.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Fall adds, DDR and transitional justice efforts have common long-term goals: reestablishing the rule of law, rebuilding trust, preventing renewed violence and reconciling communities. Greater coordination between the two processes should help to advance those goals, while also minimizing possible trade-offs and tensions that may arise.

Amnesty or prosecution?

The greatest controversy has revolved around the granting of amnesty. Amnesties have been common in peace pacts in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, often intended as inducements to warring factions to join a peace process. In South Africa, following the end of apartheid in 1994, amnesties were offered to those who publicly confessed their crimes, as a means of uncovering the truth and fostering national reconciliation.

During the latter years of Algeria’s civil war, the government’s offer of amnesty to individual rebels succeeded in getting thousands to lay down their arms. Similarly, some form of amnesty featured in peace talks in Sierra Leone, Liberia, the DRC and other countries.

In 2000, Uganda adopted an Amnesty Act, guaranteeing those who renounced violence a resettlement package and a promise to not bring charges against them. By December 2006, about 21,000 members of a half dozen rebel groups had agreed to accept the offer, including some 15,000 from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which for years has caused widespread destruction and displacement in northern Uganda. In communities where violence has subsided, many people have regarded the amnesty as an important tool for peace and for recovering children who had been kidnapped by the rebels.

Human rights activists, however, argue that failing to prosecute those who committed the worst atrocities ignores the suffering of their victims, hinders long-term reconciliation and perpetuates a culture of impunity that can contribute to future abuses. They also point out that under international law there can be no amnesty for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

During an initial peace accord in Sierra Leone in 1999, the negotiators agreed to a sweeping, general amnesty for all factions and combatants. But citing international law, the UN specifically disavowed the amnesty provision. A later — and more successful — peace agreement included a limited amnesty, but also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to gather information about atrocities, and a Special Court for Sierra Leone to try a number of those most responsible.

There is some evidence that the threat of prosecutions may complicate demobilization efforts, however. A study of Sierra Leone by the ICTJ cited an instance in which representatives of the Special Court were barred from a demobilization camp because peacekeepers feared that ex-combatants would abandon DDR. In neighbouring Liberia, some fighters hesitated to join the DDR process there because they thought the Sierra Leone court’s jurisdiction might extend to them. (Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is in fact currently facing trial before the Special Court for his role in the Sierra Leone war.)

Striking a balance

In practice, peace negotiators and DDR practitioners have sought to strike a balance. In the DRC, explained Daniel Kawata, national coordinator of the DDR commission, any commanders suspected of “heavy criminal business” were subject to arrest. But such arrests were limited in number, he told Africa Renewal in 2005, so as not to “lose the possibility of demobilizing a whole bunch.”

When the ICC first announced several years ago that it was opening investigations into war crimes by the LRA in northern Uganda, a sharp public debate erupted. Some local communities sent a delegation to The Hague to warn that indictments could hamper peace efforts. Justice Peter Onega, chairman of the Amnesty Commission, says he told the ICC “that those warrants, once issued, may not help in the amnesty process.” Indictments, he explained to Africa Renewal during the DDR conference in Kinshasa, could lead LRA combatants to “fear that if they came out [of the forests], they would be tried.”

For a time, the ICC delayed publicly issuing warrants, so as to give the talks a bit more of a chance. But in October 2005 the ICC unveiled international warrants for the arrest of Mr. Kony and several other LRA commanders. Despite initial fears, peace talks between the LRA and Ugandan intermediaries in the southern Sudanese city of Juba did not collapse.

One option now under consideration is to empower the Ugandan courts to try Mr. Kony and his colleagues on charges similar to those they face before the ICC, to avoid an international trial, Mr. Onega explains. “It is the duty of the government of Uganda to put in place the necessary laws that would enable a trial along the lines that the ICC would find acceptable.” Whether the LRA leaders would agree to face a Ugandan court remains to be seen, but for the moment the idea remains on the negotiating table in Juba.

Communities at the centre

Aiming to reconcile Africans’ desires both for peace and for some measure of justice, a “break out” session on transitional justice during the Kinshasa DDR conference proposed that peace negotiators avoid blanket amnesties. It also recommended carrying out trials and other judicial proceedings in a balanced fashion, so as not to give an impression that justice is being dispensed solely in the interests of “victors.”

Formal trials in national or international courts are not the only means of ensuring accountability, conference participants noted. They recommended that in countries with truth and reconciliation commissions, ex-combatants be encouraged to participate.

They also cited the example of Rwanda, which is in the midst of hearing several hundred thousand cases stemming from the 1994 genocide in that country. Modeled on traditional village assemblies, Rwanda’s local gacaca courts enable villagers to directly confront those accused of atrocities. Sometimes suspects confess and apologize for their actions. They may be forgiven or sentenced, including to community service. The most serious cases are referred to the regular courts. So far, notes Mr. Fall of the ICTJ, the Rwandan government’s commitment to prosecution does not seem to have hampered its efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants, some 54,000 of whom have given up arms since 1995.

In Uganda, many of those who were granted amnesty have also participated in traditional rituals known as timo-kica or mato oput (forgiving, reconciling), in which they publicly acknowledge some responsibility for their past actions. “Once this is done,” Mr. Onega explains, “it is understood that this person is once again accepted back into the community and all animosity toward this person must stop.”

Overall, participants in the Kinshasa conference proposed, DDR programmes should pay more attention to the needs of the communities that are receiving ex-combatants, in order to facilitate their reintegration. In Ituri, the former militia fighters will each receive $100 plus a kit with saucepans, shoes, a radio, fabric and other supplies. If poor villagers do not also get some support for rebuilding, then the imbalance in assistance can breed resentment and convey an impression that the ex-fighters are being “rewarded” for their past violent behavior.

Providing reparations for the victims of past atrocities can also help improve attitudes towards ex-combatants, argues Mr. Fall. Unfortunately, he notes, while 22 countries have had some form of DDR programme, with benefits to demobilized soldiers, none has implemented a reparations programme for victims.

Ultimately, prosecutions can also aid long-term community reconciliation, Mr. Fall adds. “Even in situations of massive human rights crimes, prosecution of militia leaders can help draw a distinction between those who have most responsibility for crimes, and lower-level offenders.” This in turn may “increase the prospects for trust between ex-combatants and the communities where they choose to reintegrate.”  

‘African ways and voices’ on DDR

Returning former combatants to civilian life is one of the most complex and important factors in consolidating peace in countries just emerging from war, and requires greater commitment and collaboration by African stakeholders and their international partners, declared participants in a 12–14 June conference in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Organized by the government of the DRC and the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, the Second International Conference on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Stability in Africa drew nearly 200 participants from some 20 African nations and a number of donor countries, international and regional organizations and non-governmental groups to share ideas about how to better implement disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes.

Africans must be at the forefront of DDR efforts in their continent, the participants agreed. The conference provided an occasion for “African ways and African voices” to be better incorporated, observed Mr. William Lacy Swing, special representative of the UN Secretary-General in the DRC. Mr. Swing, who co-chaired the event, stressed that the process of networking stimulated by the conference would help build the capacity of African DDR experts and partners, following the first such conference held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in June 2005.

Despite wide differences in national experiences, virtually all participants agreed that the greatest challenges revolve around the final “R” — reintegration. By their nature, DDR programmes generally focus on ex-combatants’ disarmament and demobilization and provide them with some short-term assistance. Sustainable reintegration, however, requires much more, including support for community recovery initiatives. Reviving national economies was the focus of a special plenary session that highlighted ways in which national businesses, both large and small, can help create jobs for former combatants and other citizens.

In addition, the conference participants concentrated their discussion on several “critical issues” confronting DDR programmes in Africa. Four thematic topics were highlighted: children and women associated with fighting forces; combatants operating on foreign soil; DDR and security sector reform; and transitional justice.

The participants emphasized a number of broad recommendations, including:

  • The national ownership of DDR programmes should be enhanced by supporting the efforts of all national stakeholders, including governments, civil societies, warring factions and others.
  • Africa’s international partners should assist community rehabilitation, poverty reduction and other development priorities so that society as a whole benefits and ex-combatants are successfully reintegrated.
  • Regional perspectives should be included in the design and implementation of DDR programmes, with particular attention to disarming and repatriating combatants from other countries and combating illicit flows of small arms.
  • The special needs of children, women, the disabled and other groups associated with warring factions should be adequately included in the planning and implementation stages of any DDR effort.
  • DDR programmes should take greater account of community interests and concerns, to help create a more welcoming environment for returning fighters.

Ernest Harsch, Kinshasa

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