Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
As a Ugandan law extending amnesty to former rebel fighters is renewed for a further two years, people in the war-torn north of the country say the conflict resolution process should be broadened to ensure compensation for victims.
Rights groups, meanwhile, are calling for changes to the law itself, to stop major war crimes perpetrators claiming amnesty and evading justice.
The Amnesty Act is designed to encourage members of rebel groups to lay down their arms, above all the feared Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which used child soldiers to wage a brutal 20-year war.
On April 16, the Amnesty Act was extended in unchanged form for two more years.
Since it came into force in 2000, more than 26,000 former combatants, mainly from the LRA, have benefited from the law, which enabled them to return to their communities without fear of prosecution.
Approximately 10,000 people were killed during the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda, and 60,000 children were abducted and forced into servitude, often as child soldiers who had to perpetrate atrocities against their own communities.
ENSURING JUST TREATMENT FOR VICTIMS
While amnesty legislation provides a mechanism to reintegrate former combatants, the civilian victims of LRA violence and the relatives of those killed have received little in the way of state support.
The extension of the Amnesty Act has stirred a debate about the need for more all-encompassing mechanisms that serve these victims as well as former LRA members.
“When it is renewed, other issues should be included –issues like dealing with victims, because the issue of amnesty only favours the combatants,” Ketty Akol, a widow from Amuria in Teso District who lost her husband to the LRA in 2003, told IWPR.
So far, she said, politicians had “left out the issue of victims, those people who suffered”.
The question of the Ugandan state providing reparations or compensation has not been addressed since the conflict ended in 2006, when the government signed a ceasefire agreement with the LRA. The rebels have never agreed to a final peace deal, but decamped to the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and have stayed out of Uganda since then.
The 2006 provisional agreement signed in the South Sudanese capital Juba stipulated that the Ugandan government would provide adequate compensation and reparations for victims of the conflict.
“There was an understanding in Juba that the LRA conflict would come to an end and [there would be] a process that would acknowledge the suffering of victims – a process that would result in comprehensive reparation of victims,” Stephen Oola of the Refugee Law project which monitors the post-conflict situation in the region, said. “In that sense, the victims got a raw deal.”
Oola does not see the Amnesty Act as central to the compensation issue.
“What we lack in northern Uganda is a clear law on reparations, and the Amnesty Act does not stop that,” he said. “If victims want justice and compensation, let them cry out loudly to the government and push government to fulfil its obligation to pay reparations.”
To date, the only cases in which the government has paid compensation is in out-of-court settlements following legal action by a number of victims’ groups in northern Uganda.
Stephen Kagoda, permanent secretary at the Ugandan interior ministry, acknowledged that more needed to be done to assist the victims of conflict.
“The most serious thing that I am now hearing, which must be seriously taken into account if we decide to amend this law, is that there are victims, the children [and] women. We must put in place measures and mechanisms to address the concerns that are being aired,” Kagoda told IWPR at a recent conference on the future of the Amnesty Act held in the northern town of Kitgum. “Whether it’s the Amnesty Commission or whether it’s a new statutory body [that should do this] – that is a matter yet to be discussed, but the bottom line is we definitely need a body to do this.”
As Kagoda indicated, one of the issues now being widely discussed is whether a new institution is needed to oversee victim compensation, perhaps in conjunction with the ongoing amnesty process.
“I think… we need to establish a statutory body that will oversee the question of peace, compensating victims, rehabilitation, reparation, resettlement and early warning conflict signals,” Bishop Baker Ochola, a member of the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, said.
Kenneth Oketa, head of the ethnic Acholi cultural institution, Ker Kwaro Acholi, agreed that an overarching body was needed.
“We need to get a new institution which considers reconciliation and truth-telling, and also amnesty. So we cannot talk about just amending the amnesty act. We need a new institution to address the current needs of both the victims and the combatants,” he said. “It should be an independent commission with independent commissioners – [an] office approved by an act of parliament.”
Whatever arrangements are made, some commentators question whether the government has the political will to make such an institution effective. They note that although the amnesty commission was established by an act of parliament, it has not received the funding it needs to enable it to do its work.
Reagan Okumu, who chairs the Acholi Parliamentary Group, an association of members of parliament from the Acholi region of northern Uganda, is among the sceptics.
“As I speak now, there is no political will,” he said. “You can see what happened in Juba [with the pledge of compensation].”
Kagoda acknowledged that the reintegration process had fallen short.
“It’s not sufficient to just reinsert somebody into the community and forget about him. There is the follow-up; you visit regularly, see how well he or she is getting on in the community where he or she went back to,” he said.
NEED TO PREVENT ABUSE OF AMNESTY
Legal experts say the renewal of the Amnesty Act provides an opportunity to revisit and amend it, so that it does not prevent alleged perpetrators of major crimes being brought to justice.
“The amendments should encompass all these eventualities now being raised which were not envisaged at the time the Amnesty Act was formed,” Ochaya Acellam of the Uganda Law Society told IWPR.
When it was conceived during the LRA war, the act was intended to create a soft landing for any rebels prepared to renounce violence.
However, a number of cases like that of former LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo have suggested that the option of applying for amnesty provides impunity from justice.
Kwoyelo was detained in DRC, in 2009, and last year went on trial for war crimes at the International Crimes Division of the High Court in Uganda. The case against him was thrown out in September last year when Uganda’s constitutional court ruled that he qualified for amnesty. (For more on this case, see Uganda: Future of War Crimes Trials in Question.)
Several other senior LRA commanders have avoided the possibility of prosecution by taking advantage of the amnesty arrangement.
Some commentators argue that criminal proceedings are counter-productive as they will deter combatants from surrendering. Others, however, insist that Uganda must abide by its commitments as a member state of the International Criminal Court, ICC, and signatory to treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which affords victims of crimes the legal right to justice.
“To be in conformity with international law, the [Amnesty] Act should make clear that those accused of serious international crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity can’t benefit from the act,” Elizabeth Evenson of Human Rights Watch’s international justice programme told IWPR. “This is because there is really a clear obligation under international law to prosecute serious international crimes.”
LRA leader Joseph Kony and fellow-commanders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague. Kony faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including attacking civilians, murder, abducting children and using them in combat, sexual enslavement and rape. The Ugandan amnesty law does not affect the ICC indictments.
While the LRA left Uganda in 2006. it continues to commit atrocities in the border regions of north-eastern DRC and the Central African Republic.
International lawyer David Donat Cattin, of the group Parliamentarians for Global Action, says the issue of prosecutions in Uganda itself does not have to be an all or nothing deal. He argues that suspects could go to trial – thus satisfying international legal requirements – but that Uganda could enact legislation freeing such individuals, if convicted, from punitive sentences. The purpose would be to establish the truth of what happened, establish responsibility and show that justice had been served.
“You can pardon, you can commute, you can say because we have special legislation on reconciliation… you accept him [a convicted person] back into society,” Donat Cattin said. “You can still propose an amnesty on the consequences of the trial, but really the trial cannot be amnestied, the crimes cannot be amnestied under international law.”
Apart from being a binding international requirement, Donat Cattin sees the need for criminal trials in northern Uganda as essential to long-term stability in the region.
“It is not a matter of punishing those people; it’s a matter of bringing them to justice, making the truth known through a proper process, having it officially acknowledged in the records, in the history books,” he said.
Moses Odokonyero is head of the Northern Uganda Media Club in Gulu and Simon Jennings is IWPR’s Africa Editor. IWPR reporter Bill Oketch also contributed to this report.
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