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

No Consensus in North on War Crimes Justice

Northerners divided over ICC warrants for LRA and calls for the army to be investigated.
By Patrick Okino
Some victims of the 21-year war by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, in northern Uganda have urged the New York-based Human Rights Watch, HRW, to moderate its remarks on the conflict, alleging that harsh critiques could undermine the Ugandan government’s struggle to bring peace to the region.

People interviewed by IWPR were reacting to a recent commentary by HRW which said, "The conflict has been characterised by serious crimes under international law and other human rights abuses committed by the LRA and to a lesser extent government forces."

HRW welcomed warrants issued by the fledgling International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague for the arrests of the LRA's five top leaders "as an important step to ensuring justice for some of the most serious crimes committed during the course of the conflict".

But the human rights organisation's May 30 memorandum also said, "Prosecutions of members of the Ugandan armed forces responsible for the most serious human rights violations must also take place, along with efforts aimed at more comprehensive accountability."

Only partially reported or understood in northern Uganda, it is this latter part of the HRW document that seems to have stirred feelings among a local population that has seen some 100,000 people killed since the LRA uprising began 21 years ago. In addition, some 1.7 million people have been displaced from their homes and more than 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the LRA to become child soldiers, sex slaves and porters.

“The idea of investigating the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, who have fought the LRA and saved our lives, should be dispelled completely," David Oyena, head of the Omoro IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Lira district, told IWPR.

"Our aim is to reconcile with everybody who committed the atrocities in the north. We are tired of war. Our children were abducted. Relatives and friends were massacred in cold blood. Why should the international bodies waste time demanding for investigations and prosecutions of our national army just as we are moving to bring peace through peace talks?”

In July 2005, the ICC issued warrants for the arrest of the LRA's leaders – Joseph Kony, the overall leader; Vincent Otti, Kony's number two; the third-in-command Raska Lukwiya; and Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen – for crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, Lukwiya was killed in August 2006 during a fight between the LRA and Ugandan military forces.

HRW urged the prosecution of the LRA leaders' "most serious crimes in accordance with international standards" as the best means of "achieving a meaningful, durable peace in northern Uganda".

The 11-page memorandum continued, "The men are charged with crimes of the utmost gravity: crimes against humanity including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, and rape; and war crimes, including murder, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape, and forced enlisting of children.

"Failure to hold perpetrators of the most serious international crimes to account helps to fuel future abuses.

"In other countries, communities have experienced how measures conferring immunity from prosecution for serious offences have had devastating consequences. In Sierra Leone in 1999, the rebel leader Foday Sankoh, who had been implicated with his Revolutionary United

Front in many war crimes, received an amnesty in exchange for signing the Lomé Peace Accord.

“Only months later, Sankoh’s RUF went on to attack government forces and UN peacekeepers, and continued to commit war crimes by taking hundreds hostage and committing rampant sexual assault. The collapse of the accord also brought about a marked increase in human rights abuses by government forces."

But these arguments did not wash with Salim Oryem, a senior official at Aloi IDP camp, also in Lira District, which has been home at various times to between 30,000 and 60,000 internal refugees.

“Our views as the victims are of more importance than the ideas the international bodies like the HRW and the ICC are demanding," Oryem told IWPR. “We want the HRW and other international agencies to come and support the peace talks in Juba [the capital of South Sudan where negotiations are taking place between the Ugandan government and the LRA] but not to preach the gospel of investigation, which never benefited a single Ugandan.”

It is impossible, in the final analysis, to say what proportion of people in the north want the ICC to press on with its warrants and bring Kony and his men to justice in The Hague, and how many want the LRA to be forgiven after going through traditional reconciliation rituals.

A poll carried out among the Acholi people of northern Uganda by the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York highlighted the problem. Some 76 per cent of people questioned wanted wrongdoers "held accountable", yet 65 per cent supported amnesty for ex-LRA members, while 22 per cent said they would forgive even Kony and his top aides. Only five per cent of those interviewed unequivocally said peace could be achieved "through justice".

While men such as Oyena and Oryem support the Uganda army, and reject criticisms of its conduct of the war, Professor Morris Ogenga-Latigo, a member of parliament for the northern Acholi district of Agago, on the Sudan border, and leader of opposition in the Ugandan parliament, is critical of the government, led by a southerner, President Yoweri Museveni, and of the Ugandan army.

"As the opposition, our aim is that the government should talk to the LRA," said Professor Ogenga-Latigo in a recent interview with the United Nations-funded IRIN news agency. "All along we have been telling the government, look, this is a political issue, you can best resolve it through dialogue."

Ogenga-Latigo, who has an observer role at the peace talks, went on, "We had a government [Museveni's] in Uganda that was so embraced when it came into power [in 1986] by the West that the conflict in the north was a blemish that many people didn't want to talk about. In that silence, the conflict escalated and became a real humanitarian disaster that should have been addressed much earlier.

"When President Museveni turned to the ICC, when they came into Uganda to do the preliminary investigations, we told them, you are entering a trap from which you will not emerge unscathed.

"The indicted leaders, particularly Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti, are central to delivering peace in northern Uganda. The demand for peace is so strong that the communities affected - particularly ours, the Acholi - are prepared to forgive through the traditional process for the sake of sustainable peace. And this runs counter to the ICC demand for these people to pay through the justice system.

"We are in a situation where the ICC will have to somehow find a common way of backing out of where they are."

Patrick Okino is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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