Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The scene in Juba, South Sudan, on February 23 was downright giddy. Backs were slapped, according to reports, tables pounded with finality, and whoops of joy filled the air.
And no wonder. A permanent ceasefire had just been signed ending 21 years of brutal fighting between the Ugandan military and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.
The war has been one of the world’s worst conflicts, and one of the least reported. An estimated 100,000 people have died, most of them from war-related causes. Approximately 50,000 people have been kidnapped, most of them children, and nearly two million people have been permanently displaced.
The signing of the ceasefire was nothing short of a minor miracle for the two parties that have been engaged in turbulent, on-again, off-again peace talks since July 2006.
As I watched the shaky beginning of the talks some 18 months ago, such an eventually seemed unlikely.
I had just returned from a disappointing meeting on the jungle border of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the late LRA deputy commander Vincent Otti and the talks’ mediator, Riek Machar, the vice-president of South Sudan.
While Otti eagerly promised a peace deal eventually would be signed, that reality was in doubt due to the quixotic and unpredictable nature of rebel leader Joseph Kony.
Kony had promised to show up for the meeting, then had to back out at the last minute, fearing arrest or worse, and then refused to let Otti or any other high ranking commander participate in the talks.
He was afraid that these men, all of whom have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, on war crimes and crimes against humanity would be arrested in Juba and whisked away to jail cells in The Hague.
Then, at the opening day press conference, the LRA launched into a tirade against the government, accusing it of atrocities against the Acholi people of northern Uganda, and threatened to resume the war if it didn’t get its way.
The Ugandan negotiator, Ruhukana Rugunda, almost scrapped the talks because of it.
Now finally, what had begun with as a flickering flame of peace amid the winds of war, has become a beacon of hope for Uganda. Only the final segment of the peace deal – demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration – remains to be settled.
The true benefactors of this deal are the long-suffering people of northern Uganda, which has been a war zone for more than two decades.
During the past several years, I’ve visited many of the north’s refugee camps and talked with many dozens of refugees. The pain and suffering they’ve endured was unmistakable. The look in their eyes and the tone of their voices told me that they were as confused as the rest of the world as to why the senseless agony had continued for so long.
On my most recent visit this past December, the dividends of the past year and a half of peace were already evident. Cash crops such as cotton were being grown all over the north – something that had been unthinkable for decades – and new homes were being built.
But as a final peace deal appears within reach, a number of questions still swirl about the talks.
Unresolved is the issue of the ICC indictments against Kony and his top commanders, two of whom have died since the indictments were unsealed in October 2005.
Uganda has agreed to set up a special court that will hear the cases against the LRA commanders, and it has also agreed to investigate the atrocities the LRA says were committed by the Ugandan army in mid-1980s which supposedly ignited the war.
Kony has apparently agreed to face such a court in Uganda, but has repeatedly said he won’t sign a final peace deal until the ICC lifts the indictments.
Late last week, ICC chief prosecutor Louis Moreno-Ocampo said the ICC fully intends to stand behind its warrants and seek the trial, regardless of what the parties have agreed to in a peace deal.
Despite numerous reports that Uganda may ask the ICC to drop the indictments, it has not yet been done, and Moreno-Ocampo noted that such a move was problematic.
But, in a recent report, the human rights group Refugees International said that articles within the Rome Statute, the international document that created the court, provide methods by which the charges can be postponed or removed.
One is for the UN Security Council to order the charges be deferred in one-year increments, allowing for alternative justice options. Another is for the court to decide the case is not worth pursuing if Uganda is doing what it considers to be sufficient for the case.
But both of these options seem unlikely.
The ICC indictments spurred the peace talks in the first place by raising the visibility of this tragic war and the need for peace. Dropping the case would remove the necessary pressure on both Uganda and the LRA to not only end the war, but bring about a lasting peace.
The LRA indictments were the fledgling court’s first, and dropping them would be an admission of its own failures – the most glaring of which is its inability to secure Kony’s arrest.
The Security Council is unlikely to order a deferment, even for a year, because it has been heavily criticised for not doing enough to protect human rights, first in Rwanda, then the eastern Congo, and most recently, Darfur.
The issue in northern Uganda has been the need for the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to be brought to justice - not only local justice, but international justice. This is why Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni asked the ICC for help in the first place.
Only in the context of international justice will the people of northern Uganda be able to find a lasting peace. But the effects will go far beyond Uganda.
As a human rights attorney once told me, the underlying issue here is: what kind of world do we want to live in? Insuring accountability for war crimes will be one step toward that world.
Peter Eichstaedt is IWPR Africa Editor.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR as a whole.
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