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Uganda: Amnesty Offer Blow for Rebel Chief Arrest Plans

With the offer of amnesty for rebel leader Joseph Kony, peace talks suddenly look realistic - but the move worries those who want to see him arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court.
The much-advertised peace talks between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, are now set to begin following a dramatic offer of amnesty to rebel leader Joseph Kony.

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni made the offer on July 4, conditional on the negotiations being successful.

The peace talks have been brokered by Riek Machar, deputy president of the autonomous government of southern Sudan, and are due to begin in the third week of July in the south Sudanese capital Juba.

Museveni’s offer has been received by many in the international community as a breach of his commitment to the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague. Last October, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo issued warrants for the arrest of Kony and four other LRA leaders.

Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, and commanders Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen and Raska Lukwiya are charged with 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It was Museveni himself who asked the ICC to take action against the LRA. Having ratified the ICC's founding charter, Uganda is obliged under international law to arrest Kony and deliver him to The Hague. The ICC has also referred Kony to Interpol, which has issued an international "red notice" requesting the LRA leader's arrest and extradition to The Hague.

Uganda's proposed negotiations with the LRA have been on and off since early June.

Hopes that peace talks to end northern Uganda's 20-year civil war would take off arose following a meeting between Kony and Machar in a remote area of southern Sudan on June 12.

Following those talks, President Museveni said he had consented to a proposal by Salva Kiir, the vice-president of Sudan and president of the devolved province of South Sudan, to hold talks with the LRA rebels.

Kony's attacks, which almost exclusively targeted his own Acholi ethnic group, have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and left thousands of men, women and children mutilated, often by having ears and lips chopped off. Thousands of children have been abducted to become fighters, porters and sex slaves for LRA commanders.

The LRA chief says he is motivated by opposition to what he regards as Museveni's oppression and neglect of the people of Uganda. His mystique is built on his claim to be driven by the Biblical Ten Commandants and by contact with a range of spirits. Among other bizarre gifts, Kony has said he has the power to turn stones into bombs.

Some two million Acholis have become internal refugees living in more than 200 camps in the north.

While comparing Kony's record to the atrocities Hitler wreaked on the peoples of Europe more than half a century ago, Museveni insisted he would grant total amnesty to the LRA leader if he “responds positively” during the Juba talks and "abandons terrorism".

In a stinging attack on the United Nations, Museveni said he had been betrayed by the world body, which initiated the establishment of the ICC through the 1998 Treaty of Rome, because UN peacekeeping forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC - Uganda's eastern neighbour - had either failed or declined to arrest Kony. They had also denied permission to Ugandan forces to cross the border to kill or detain Kony and his followers.

The LRA is believed to have bases in the Garamba National Park in northeastern DRC, as well as in southern Sudan, from where the rebel force launches raids into northern Uganda.

The Ugandan president said the UN, and by implication the ICC, would have no moral authority to demand that Kony be brought to trial, since they had failed to arrest him in the nine months since he moved to his new main base in the DRC.

"I am sending my people to talk to Kony because I have no partners [to arrest him]," said Museveni. "The UN don't have the capacity to hunt for Kony. They don't allow us to hunt for him."

In an apparent nod towards northern Ugandan religious and community leaders who have said ancient and traditional methods of reconciliation should be used to make peace with the LRA, Museveni said, "They [the UN and ICC] can't make us violate our culture."

He warned that if international pressure was applied on him to withdraw from the Juba talks, he would take his case to the African Union.

In his recent state of the nation address to parliament, Museveni claimed that the Ugandan army had defeated Kony in both northern Uganda and southern Sudan. He said that because Kony moved between bases in the DRC and Sudan he was more of a problem for those countries than for Uganda.

“Therefore, it is rational that we follow the leadership of the government of southern Sudan [in brokering talks],” he concluded.

Reacting to Museveni's criticisms of the ICC and the UN and his offer of forgiveness to Kony, Christian Palme, spokesman for the ICC's chief prosecutor, said, "Right now we can only repeat what we said a few months ago. We expect the three countries which are involved [Uganda, Sudan and DRC] to arrest the leaders who are wanted."

Uganda and the DRC have ratified the treaty that enabled the ICC to begin work four years ago, but Sudan has not done so.

Museveni's suggestion that an official pardon for Kony might be on the cards comes at a time when a debate is raging about what should come first - peace or justice.

Some argue that the overriding concern should be to end the 20-year conflict, and that prosecuting Kony and his associates will make a swift peace impossible. Key players in the northern Ugandan peace process, such as negotiator Betty Bigombe and Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama, have said the ICC should back off to avoid undermining efforts to win the rebels' confidence.

But others insist the LRA’s top commanders must be brought to account because of the extent and gravity of the crimes ascribed to them.

The ICC arrest warrants describe the LRA as an armed group that "has established a pattern of brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements; that abducted civilians, including children, are said to have been forcibly recruited as fighters, porters and sex slaves and to take part in attacks against the Ugandan army (UPDF) and civilian communities".

Until his sudden flip-flop, Museveni himself was insistent that Kony and other LRA leaders must face the full force of international law.

“Our own view is that these criminals should be hunted to their bitter end in order to provide a lesson for the people who may be inclined to behave in a similar way in future,” he said prior to his change of heart.

In the days running up to the announcement that talks were to take place, the Ugandan government expressed scepticism about negotiations in view of the rebels' history of rejecting peace efforts in the past. Museveni's spokesman Onapito Ekomoloit told IWPR that the reports of plans to negotiate with the LRA were just “newspaper talk”.

Security Minister Amama Mbabazi ruled out a deal, insisting, “There is no amnesty for Kony and we cannot speak to Kony.”

It is unclear why Museveni scrapped his previous strategy towards the LRA. But one view, as expressed in Kampala's Monitor newspaper, is that the president "doesn't want Kony in The Hague because he will have a right to put his side of the story”.

According to the Monitor, Kony “could tell some ugly truths that the government wants hidden. For example, did the LRA kill all the people in the northern war? What role did the UPDF [Ugandan army], either through cynical policy to break the back of the northern rebellion or by the actions of rogue elements inside it, contribute in the killings and amputations? What evidence does Kony have?"

This is a view expressed with even more force in an article in the latest edition of the influential US journal Foreign Policy written by the international diplomat Olara Otunnu, who is of Acholi origin and was until recently the UN's under-secretary and special representative for children and armed conflict.

Under the headline "The Secret Genocide", Otunnu wrote, "The truth is that reports of indisputable atrocities of the LRA are being employed to mask more serious crimes by the government itself. To keep the eyes of the world averted, the government has carefully scripted a narrative in which the catastrophe in northern Uganda begins with the LRA and will only end with its demise.

"But under the cover of the war against these outlaws, an entire society, the Acholi people, has been moved to concentration camps and is being systematically destroyed - physically, culturally, and economically. Everything Acholi is dying."

Otunnu, who is now a board member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which publishes Foreign Policy, concluded, "The Acholis' plight is well known to embassies, UN agencies, NGOs and human rights organisations. Yet those in a position to raise their voices have chosen to remain silent or, worse, speak out in favour of Museveni's regime.

"The LRA is frightening, but northern Uganda's people have more to fear from their own government."

Colin Thomas-Jensen, senior researcher on East Africa with the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, said in a radio interview that it was unclear why Museveni had changed tack at this time. The new peace effort is in its early stages and little is known about the real intent of Kony or Museveni to end the conflict, he said, so it made sense for the ICC to continue seeking the arrest of the LRA leaders.

Thomas-Jensen said one of the biggest problems for the Hague court is that its arrest warrants were issued in a vacuum, "There was very little groundwork put into exactly how those warrants were going to be executed. Now that is not the fault of the court: the court is a mechanism for dispensing justice. It does not have a special forces unit that can nab its indictees…. As we saw in Uganda, the warrants were issued and yet there was very little response or plan from the international community on how those warrants were be executed."

Whatever led to Museveni’s change of heart, it has suddenly transformed the forthcoming talks in Juba from speculation into a reality. The question remains, though, whether the LRA members present at the negotiations - who will not include Kony or the other four wanted by the ICC - can deliver anything meaningful.

Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic missionary priest based in northern Uganda, said in a radio interview he was unsure Kony and Otti, his deputy, were sincere about seeking peace in the talks. “I doubt that the 16-member negotiating team that Kony named has any power to negotiate anything on behalf of the LRA, because these are ordinary people that have not been in the bush with the LRA,” he said.

Apolo Kakaire is a Uganda-based human rights worker and journalist.

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