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

Local Justice Process Agreed at Peace Talks

Government and rebel negotiators decide local courts and traditional reconciliation efforts are the best way to secure peace and justice.
By Bill Oketch

In a crucial deal reached at peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, the two sides have agreed a formula for a domestic judicial process to cover crimes committed during the 21-year civil war in the north of the country.



While not stated explicitly in the accord agreed on June 29, the implication is that if adequate legal measures are agreed, attempts by the International Criminal Court, ICC, to prosecute leaders of the Lords Resistance Army, LRA, would become irrelevant and unnecessary.



The document, signed in Juba, the capital of South Sudan where the talks are taking place, said Uganda had "national laws capable of addressing the human rights violations during the conflict".



The 11-page agreement centred on the third of five items in the peace talks - “reconciliation and accountability”.



Captain Barigye Ba-Hoku, spokesman for the Ugandan delegation at the talks, said this agenda item was a make-or-break issue in the negotiations.



“I’m happy we have come out on the positive side,” he said. "We discovered that neither the usual legal system nor the traditional system were sufficient to achieve accountability for crimes on such a large scale.”



While the document stops short of promising to shelter LRA chief Joseph Kony and three other leaders from indictments issued by the ICC, it does represent a step towards ensuring they are not arrested and delivered to the Hague-based tribunal.



The ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes court, has warrants outstanding for the arrest of Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen for crimes against humanity and war crimes.



Kony and his lieutenants have said there can be no final peace deal until the ICC drops the charges.



The wording of the accord, however, only goes as far as committing the government to "address conscientiously the question of the ICC arrest warrants relating to the leaders of the LRA".



The rebels have consistently argued that Uganda’s own justice system would be a more appropriate mechanism for ending the conflict than sending LRA leaders to face trial in Europe.



Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, Uganda’s home affairs minister and head of the government delegation at the Juba peace talks, said the issue of ensuring there is no impunity for crimes committed during the conflict remains a sticking-point.



“The government has always stated its readiness and willingness to work with both the LRA and the victims on this matter,” he said. “The LRA needs to understand that the [ICC] warrants cannot be lifted, suspended or set aside if the question of impunity is not addressed.”



To ensure there is both accountability and reconciliation with regard to crimes committed by both sides during the civil war, the latest agreement, if incorporated in a final peace settlement, would employ both the formal legal system and traditional tribal mechanisms



In terms of the judicial process, the document hints that punishments for grave crimes, many of which carry the death sentence under Ugandan law, will be softened or suspended for the sake of national reconciliation.



"Formal courts and tribunals established by law shall introduce a regime of alternative penalties to replace existing penalties," said the accord.



International human rights organisations reject this, saying that any credible process must hand down harsher penalties for crimes such as murder, rape and the abduction of children.



The document also outlined possible "alternative justice mechanisms" as a way of promoting reconciliation.



Community leaders from the Acholi ethnic group, to which Kony belongs and which has borne the brunt of the conflict, want LRA members to go through the "mato oput” ritual, in which victims effectively forgive murderers who admit their guilt and pay compensation.



Other ethnic communities affected by the conflict have their own reconciliation ceremonies, and all these processes are to be incorporated into the accountability and reconciliation agreement.



The agreement also provides for reparations, including wording on rehabilitation, restitution, compensation, “guarantees of non-recurrence”, the issuing of apologies, and memorials and commemorations. It also takes into account the “special needs” of women, girls and children who have suffered in the conflict.



In order to conclude talks on the accountability issue, the government and the LRA have to reach agreement on the mechanisms for implementing what they have agreed. The two sides agreed to return to their respective leaders for consultations, and will turn up again in Juba on July 29 to finalise the discussions.



Captain Ba-Hoku suggested that once the details had been nailed down, the government might approach the ICC and try to persuade it that justice could be well served by a national justice process.



"We know the ICC's main problem is the issue of impunity; we hope that once all agenda items are signed we will be able to go to them and present an argument that our agreement ensures that the commission of crimes in the conflict does not go unpunished,” he said.



“Each person who committed a crime will be held individually accountable and will be punished accordingly."



Bill Oketch is a Ugandan radio and newspaper reporter.