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

Taylor Judge Says International Justice Must Apply in Uganda

Ugandan judge Julia Sebutinde insists that Lord Resistance Army leaders must go before an international tribunal rather than informal local courts.
By Samuel Okiror
A senior Ugandan judge working for the Sierra Leone tribunal has delivered a strong call for international justice principles to be upheld in her own country.



Julia Sebutinde, who is sitting in the case of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, accused of war crimes at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, talked to IWPR about the prospect that leaders of the Ugandan rebel Lord Resistance Army, LRA, will one day be put on trial.



In an exclusive interview on August 20, Judge Sebutinde insisted that the serious nature of the allegations against LRA leader Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, and commanders Okot Odiambo and Domenic Ongwen means they should be tried by a formal international court rather than simply going through informal tribal ceremonies designed to achieve reconciliation.



The four LRA leaders are indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court, ICC, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity which include, abductions, sexual enslavement, mutilation, the killing of innocent civilians, rape and forcibly using children as guerrilla fighters.



“War crimes and crimes against humanity [charges] which LRA top commanders are facing cannot be tried using the local traditional justice system like the Acholi Mato Oput,” said Sebutinde. “The perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda, in all fairness, must appear before an impartial and independent tribunal to answer the charges.



Only a tribunal of this kind, she said, would “adequately address” the kind of crimes that Kony and his commanders are charged with.



Sebutinde speaks on Ugandan and international justice matters with some authority, both as a judge at the Sierra Leone tribunal and from her past experience chairing judicial commissions of enquiry in Uganda, one into the police and the other into the government’s revenue authority.



Her remarks come as the Ugandan authorities appear to be shifting ground on the ICC indictments. Although it was the Kampala government which in 2003 asked the ICC to investigate the situation in northern Uganda, it has subsequently indicated that it might ask the tribunal to drop the charges if the LRA concludes a peace deal in the ongoing negotiating process conducted in neighbouring Sudan.



On June 29, government and LRA delegations at the peace talks signed a crucial draft protocol that would allow rebels to be tried under traditional tribal justice systems, such as the “Mato Oput” ritual mentioned by Sebutinde.



Mato Oput is a process used in traditional Acholi society by which offenders are reintegrated into the community after confessing their guilt and begging forgiveness. While it might provide some closure to people involved in the long-running conflict, this method – and analogous rites practiced by other ethnic groups in northern Uganda – does not impose formal sanctions. For that reason, its detractors say, it is ill-suited as a mechanism for addressing crimes of the magnitude seen in this bloody guerrilla war.



The government delegation to the peace talks, led by Ruhakana Rugunda, who is also Ugandan interior minister, are currently visiting the north of the country to consult with victims of the conflict and others on how to implement the protocol agreement, titled “accountability and reconciliation”.



The LRA has taken the position that there can be no lasting peace unless the ICC indictments are dropped. Otti, the rebel’s second-in-command and a frequent spokesman, recently told IWPR that even if a final peace deal is agreed in Juba, where the talks are taking place, LRA combatants will remain in the bush unless the ICC indictments are scrapped.



Speaking by satellite phone from the rebels' main base in the Garamba National Park, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Otti said, “The ICC remains a big stumbling block to peace in Uganda. If ICC indictments are not lifted, we shall not come out. It’s simple. No.”



In a previous interview with IWPR, Otti said he would surrender to the ICC only if the court charged the Ugandan army on similar counts of war crimes.



"If the UPDF [Ugandan People's Defence Force] are included on the list of indicted commanders, I will definitely go to The Hague. Short of that, I will never go,” he said.



In that interview, Otti described as "very one-sided" the ICC's decision to indict only members of the LRA. “It’s not only the LRA who committed atrocities in northern Uganda," he said. "It’s both the LRA and the UPDF. Why did ICC indict us alone?” asked Otti.



Sebutinde counters such arguments, saying the decision to indict the LRA was based entirely on investigations carried out by ICC prosecutors.



“Let him [Otti] come and defend himself. They [the rebels] must come and defend their innocence,” she said. “The decision to indict LRA commanders is entirely of the prosecutor, depending and based on his investigations. The indictee can’t tell the prosecutor who to be indicted or tell the prosecutor what to do.”



Sebutinde takes the view that people in northern Uganda will not truly have peace until justice is properly served.



“You can’t have peace without justice. The victims who were maimed, mutilated and raped must have justice. Nobody has asked them for their views. The perpetrators must have their day in court,” she said.



The LRA rebellion has driven more than 1.7 million people into internal refugee camps in northern Uganda. Some 100,000 people have died and as many as 38,000 children have been abducted and forced to join the insurgents.



ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has consistently said that the arrest warrants will not be lifted unless either the Ugandan government or the LRA brings a legal challenge to ICC judges, or to the United Nations Security Council.



Although the Special Court for Sierra Leone sits in that country’s capital Freetown, Judge Sebutinde and her colleagues in the Taylor trial are in The Hague, where they use the premises of the ICC. The trial is being held here because of fears that if it took place in the region, Taylor’s residual support-base could generate instability in Sierra Leone, over the border in Liberia and even beyond.



Taylor is charged with 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including mass murder, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers.



On August 20, Judge Sebutinde ruled that the start date for Taylor’s trial should be adjourne until January 7 next year, to allow a new defence team time to prepare its case. The trial had been scheduled to begin in June, but was delayed when Taylor fired his then legal team, saying they had not had the time or resources to mount a proper defence.



Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR contributor in Uganda currently reporting on international justice issues in The Hague.