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

Museveni Faces LRA Dilemma

Will he seek a compromise peace deal with the rebel group, or keep to his original demand to see its leaders prosecuted in The Hague?
Faced with resolving a 20-year-long revolt in his northern provinces, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is trying to decide between supporting an international court case against rebel leaders or reaching a gentleman's agreement with them in the hope that this might hasten peace.

In 2003, Museveni invited the fledgling International Criminal Court, ICC, the world's first permanent international war crimes tribunal, to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA.

But he then infuriated officials at the ICC headquarters, thousands of kilometres away in The Hague, with a policy flip-flop last July in which he offered an amnesty to the LRA leaders, including the rebel chief Joseph Kony, in return for a peace deal.

The LRA and government forces have been engaged since 1986 in a war that has taken an estimated 100,000 lives. As many as 1.6 million people - mainly from the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda - live in displacement, or internal refugee camps, where nearly a thousand die each week from disease or violence.

The LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children. Boys have been used as guerrilla fighters, whilegirls have become sex slaves as well as combatants. The economic, social and political development of northern Uganda has been severely set back, but there has also been a knock-on effect throughout the country, where budgets have been affected, urban migration has increased and slums have grown.

With the bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, scheduled to be held in Uganda in late November this year, President Museveni faces a severe dilemma as he seeks to cast his country in the best possible light to the international community and to the hordes of foreign journalists who will descend on his country.

Will he seek to bury the past by pursuing a compromise peace deal with Kony and the LRA? Or will he renew his original request - still on the books at the ICC - to have the LRA leaders prosecuted at The Hague?

The continued unrest caused by the northern conflict has raised fears that the government will be unable to provide security for Queen Elizabeth - Head of the Commonwealth since ascending to the throne of Britain in 1952 - and Commonwealth heads of state when they arrive in Kampala, Uganda's capital, to attend the summit.

Reports in the British media suggest that CHOGM could be shifted to Canada or South Africa because of insecurity in northern Uganda and other parts of the country.

ICC prosecutors have conducted investigations into atrocities alleged to have been committed by the LRA, and in October 2005 ICC judges issued warrants for the arrests of the top leaders of the rebel group - Kony; his deputy Vincent Otti; Okot Odhiambo; Dominic Ongwen; and Raska Lukwiya, subsequently shot dead, in August last year, in a battle between Ugandan soldiers and LRA guerrillas.

The ICC has no police force of its own that it can use to apprehend suspects, but under the court's founding 1998 Statute of Rome - which sets out the institution's strict rules and guidelines - it is beholden upon states that have ratified the Rome treaty to make arrests. Neighbouring states that are signatories are also obliged to assist.

By entering into peace talks and offering amnesties from domestic prosecution, Museveni is in direct breach of Uganda's treaty obligations. "Museveni is acting in contravention of international law," Justice Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, told IWPR. "His government signed the Rome Statute, and offers of amnesty violate the letter of the law."

But the dilemma confronting Museveni is a tough one when the northern citizens of his country, especially the Acholi, are desperate for peace by any means after having been persecuted by a rebel militia for more than two decades.

Northerners are crying out loud for peace and for the chance to return to their homes. They simply and desperately want to move on with their lives without surrounding warfare that has now gone on for four times as long as the Second World War.

However, the enthusiasm for peace talks is not universal: a significant minority are sceptical about the possibility of success for the peace talks - being held in Juba, south Sudan - because they have so far gone on for many months and seem to have no clear strategic direction.

Although the negotiations have brought an interim relative peace to the northern people, residents continue to live in fear of a return to the barbarity of the recent past if the peace deal is not sealed. The LRA rebels cut off ears and noses of its victims as punishments, and the Ugandan army has also been widely accused of atrocities by northerners and human rights organisations, although none of its members have been indicted by the ICC.

One alternative for Museveni to the ICC and the peace talks is to use local traditional methods of justice to bring an end to the northern war. These ceremonies involve a series of symbolic acts to restore unity between the injured and offending parties.

Prodigal sons and daughters can receive forgiveness and be welcomed back into their communities.

If Museveni were to give local justice his full support, he would need to approach the United Nations Security Council and request that they pass a resolution commanding the ICC to suspend dealings with Uganda in order to give peace a chance.

Conversely, if he were to support the ICC, he would need to retract amnesty offers and concentrate efforts on arresting LRA leaders.

Since the war started, there have been several peace talks in a bid to end the war, including attempts by Ugandan politician Betty Bigombe, who is an Acholi, to act as a mediator between the government and the LRA. All these have failed, but so also have the Ugandan army's military offensives against the LRA.

Evelyn Kiapi, Dennis Muhumuza and Gawaya Tegulle are IWPR reporters in Uganda. Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.