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Uganda Distances Itself From Lubanga

Although militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was seen as a proxy for Kampala’s interests in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda says it is not responsible for his actions.
By Henry Wasswa
The Ugandan government is keen to distance itself from indicted war crimes suspect Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader whom it backed in the 1996-2003 civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lubanga was arrested by the Congolese authorities and placed in custody in the capital Kinshasa following the killing in February 2005 of nine United Nations peacekeepers in the northeastern Ituri region. The International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against him in February 2006, accusing him of conscripting children under the age of 15 to fight as guerrilla soldiers with the UPC.

He was transferred to The Hague in March 2006, and is currently awaiting trial on these charges, which constitute war crimes.

Human rights groups have campaigned for the charges to be widened to encompass crimes of sexual violence, for which they say there is evidence.

Uganda supported a number of militia groups during the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, including Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, in an attempt to establish a foothold in its neighbour.

Officially, Uganda sent its armed forces into Ituri to flush out Ugandan dissidents fighting the government from bases in the dense jungle there. In the process, the Ugandan military armed one local faction group after another, including the UPC – contributing to a prolonged bloodbath, which continues intermittently today.

But while the authorities in Kampala admit supporting Lubanga during the bewilderingly complex inter-ethnic conflict in the Ituri region, they insist they did so in an attempt to restore order in DRC and are not culpable for any wrongdoing on his part.

The UPC, a Hema tribal armed force, received cash, arms and personnel from Kampala to wage a war against the rival Lendu ethnic group in the conflict that left more than 60,000 civilians in Ituri dead and another half a million displaced.

Uganda stands accused of using its presence to plunder resources from Ituri's rainforests and rich mineral reserves, including gold, silver and diamonds.

The international watchdog Human Rights Watch, HRW, estimates that the Ugandan military stole more than nine million dollars’ worth of Ituri gold between 1999 and 2003, with the help of Lubanga's UPC.

As a result of international pressure, Uganda withdrew its soldiers from DRC, and a UN peacekeeping force was deployed there.

In December 2005, in a case at the International Court of Justice, ICJ, the Ugandan state was found guilty of killing and torturing civilians, destroying villages and plundering resources during its five-year occupation of northeastern DRC. The government of DRC claimed reparations of ten billion US dollars, but the compensation issue is yet to be worked out through negotiations between the two states.

The ICJ resolves legal disputes between sovereign states, while the ICC, which began work in The Hague only in 2002, focuses on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by individuals.

Uganda has been keen to distance itself from Kinshasa to The Hague.

Officials in Kampala insist Uganda’s image has not been negatively affected by Lubanga's impending trial.

"There is no way we supported him to rape and loot," Uganda's regional affairs minister Isaac Musumba told IWPR. "Those were his actions, for which we are not accountable. We were supporting this man to restore order in the Congo, but not to loot, rape or recruit child soldiers."

But reports from human rights groups suggest otherwise. Amnesty International said in a June 2000 commentary that, "Ugandan troops are reported to be involved in killings and other abuses against members of the Lendu ethnic group in Kibali-Ituri province. Tens of thousands of Lendu have fled their homes into the forests."

A 2003 report from HRW said that Uganda worked directly with Lubanga and accused the Ugandan military of participating in the massacres of civilians.

But the HRW report made no connection between Kampala and Lubanga’s recruitment of child soldiers.

While Uganda accepts that it supported Lubanga during the conflict in Ituri, it insists that it had no connection with the crimes of which he now stands accused.

"We flatly deny that we have any connections to his [Lubanga’s] activities," said Musumba. "What he did cannot be our actions, and our international image is not therefore affected. That is why he is in the dock alone. We are not affected."

Alphonse Owiny-Dollo, a Kampala-based lawyer specialising in international law, told IWPR he expects Uganda to be able to dissociate itself from Lubanga with ease, because the dictates of international law are on its side.

He said Kampala is legally distanced from Lubanga’s activities because the ICC only deals with individuals, and therefore "the trial of Lubanga cannot affect any country”.

“The ICC tries individuals who commit crimes in the process of war and, more than that, the people who committed the crimes as individuals," said Owiny-Dollo.

The ICC is the world’s first permanent war crimes court, and states which sign up to it can ask for help in investigating and prosecuting war crimes suspects on their territories.

A preliminary hearing in the Lubanga case will be held in The Hague on September 4.

Henry Wasswa is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.