Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kampala May Demand Annulment of LRA Warrants

Lawyers for government say demand likely if talks on ending insurgency in north succeed.
By Henry Wasswa
As the Ugandan government makes headway in peace talks with the Lord's Resistance Army, it’s emerged that it may ask the International Criminal Court to scrap indictments for the LRA's top five leaders as part of a final agreement with the rebels.

Any attempt by the government to have the indictments against LRA leader Joseph Kony and his top four lieutenants nullified will cause international controversy since it was Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni who himself triggered international statutes in the first place to compel The Hague-based ICC to act.

The warrants against Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen were historic, since they were the first issued by the fledgling ICC, which began work in 2002. Lukwiya was killed in August 2006 during a fight between the LRA and Ugandan military forces.

The war in northern Uganda has been raging since 1986, when the LRA under Kony, a self-declared mystic, began its attacks across the north, mainly in ethnic Acholi areas, ostensibly in an attempt to overthrow the Museveni government so that Uganda could be ruled in accordance with the Bible’s Ten Commandments.

With great fanfare, in January 2003, Museveni invited the ICC to indict the LRA's leaders for crimes against humanity and war crimes, arguing that his country's own justice system was unable to deal with cases of such legal magnitude.

Under the ICC's founding 1998 Statute of Rome, the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was obliged to begin an investigation into the situation in northern Uganda. This resulted in arrest warrants being issued in October 2005 for Kony, Otti, Luwiya, Odhiambo and Ongwen on 33 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, enslavement, rape and forcible recruitment of children, some as young as seven years, as guerrilla soldiers.

The ICC is the first-ever permanent, treaty-based international criminal tribunal. Tribunals like those for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone were set up on a case-by-case ad hoc basis by the United Nations.

At the end of June this year representatives of the Ugandan government and the LRA engaged in talks to end Uganda’s civil war put ink on a crucial draft protocol that allows suspected war criminals to be tried under traditional tribal justice systems. The protocol on "Accountability and Reconciliation", the third of five items on the peace negotiators' agenda, allows LRA suspects to be tried under tribal procedures while suspects from the government army would be tried under the formal justice system.

Both sides in the negotiations - taking place in Juba, the capital of South Sudan - have taken leave until the end of July to consult their constituents on the implementation mechanisms of their agreement, which directly sidelines the ICC indictments.

Museveni infuriated ICC officials in July last year with a policy flip-flop when, without consulting the ICC, he offered a blanket amnesty to Joseph Kony and his top aides.

The two points remaining on the Juba peace agenda items on the peace agenda are item number four, a final ceasefire agreement, and number five, comprising disarmament, demobilisation and the re-integration of tens of thousands of rebel fighters.

"When we left Juba at the end of last month, it was clear that we were to go and consult to find common ground on the implementation mechanism of the reconciliation and accountability process," Ugandan government lawyer Alphonse Owiny-Dollo told IWPR.

He said the agreement on demobilisation and re-integration was "a big leap forward, and if the final peace agreement is signed the government will be in a stronger position to go to the ICC and say 'We came to you [in 2003] because we did not have these people [the LRA] with us. They will now submit themselves to our jurisdiction, so why don’t you leave it to us?'"

The LRA has said it will not sign a final peace agreement unless the government persuades the ICC to drop the indictments against its leaders

"We are still committed to the peace talks until we get to the final peace agreement," said Martin Ojur, head of the LRA delegation at the Juba talks. "At that point, the government is supposed to go to The Hague and say, 'We are the ones who brought these people to the ICC, so can you please drop the indictments?'

"We will not sign the final agreement until we get a final solution on the ICC."

Owiny-Dollo said it was not simple, in terms of international law, to eliminate the ICC from the peace process. First, he said, the remaining items on the peace agenda have to be accomplished. "We will go to the ICC when the process is irreversible," he said.

"The consultations [with the LRA] have also involved how to talk to the ICC. It was a big leap forward.

"The law [the ICC's founding statute] says that the final jurisdiction lies with the Ugandan government. At some point, the LRA would be on trial under Uganda's traditional tribal system. In my opinion, if the ICC becomes stubborn [insisting on arresting and prosecuting the LRA], you raise the [possibility] of double jeopardy.”

Henry Wasswa is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
With the checkpoint closed, some residents of Abkhazia are risking their lives to access services.
Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
Trapped in Eastern Ukraine