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Uganda: Even-Handed ICC Approach Urged

International Criminal Court under pressure to investigate crimes committed by Uganda’s army.
By Apolo Kakaire

Reports that the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army come amid debate in Uganda on whether it should widen its enquiry to include the armed forces.


If the reports are confirmed, it may indicate that ICC investigators are focusing on atrocities committed by the rebels, rather than alleged abuses by the Uganda People’s Defence Force, UPDF.


Some analysts insist, however, that the ICC must take a balanced approach if justice is to be done.


“In Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia they looked at both sides and we would expect the same even-handed approach from the ICC,” said Mike Moyes, Christian Aid’s regional manager for Eastern Africa and the Horn.


Bryn Higgs, Uganda programme development officer for the non-government group Conciliation Resources, “What you see is UPDF crimes consistently going unpunished. Questions should be asked about this at the very highest level.”


The war in northern Uganda has been raging since 1986, when the LRA under Joseph Koni, a self-declared mystic, began its attacks across the north, mainly in ethnic Acholi areas, ostensibly in an attempt to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni so that Uganda could be ruled in accordance with the Bible’s Ten Commandments.


Koni and his deputy Vincent Otti are said to be named in the warrants, along with three other senior LRA members.


The LRA’s brutal campaign has been well documented, including repeated massacres of civilians and the abduction of some 20,000 children in a conflict that has cost 100,000 lives.


Boys have been forced to fight with the LRA, and are often ordered to kill other children by way of induction. Those who resist have been mutilated, while kidnapped girls have been forced to become sex slaves of LRA commanders.


Despite such abuses, many Uganda-watchers believe that if the ICC moves only against the LRA, it could be highly detrimental to the country’s already faltering peace process.


“By indicting the leadership of the LRA, the ICC closes down the possibility of a negotiated settlement in northern Uganda, sealing the LRA into the bush,” said Higgs.


Moyes is also concerned that the move towards prosecuting LRA rebels could make the situation worse. “This is not the right time to issue arrest warrants,” he said. “It could prolong the conflict and suffering of people who’ve already suffered for 18 years.”


Some in Uganda question whether a legitimate peace process now even exists, rather than fearing that it could fail. The government and the LRA met late last year for landmark talks, but discussions have since stalled and the LRA has continued to target civilians. Reports circulated earlier this week of four people killed in an ambush in northeastern Uganda.


The Ugandan government invited the ICC in with great fanfare last year, the first time a state had asked the court to take up an investigation.


At the time, there was speculation that Museveni asked the ICC in so as to draw attention away from other matters, such as his controversial third term in office. Analysts say it may not have occurred to him that the arrival of the ICC would prompt calls from human rights activists for a similar probe into the Ugandan military.


“The Ugandan army itself has carried out serious crimes that demand prosecution,” said Jemera Rone, East Africa coordinator for the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a press release to mark the September 20 publication of a report on abuses in northern Uganda.


“Justice in northern Uganda requires that the International Criminal Court thoroughly examine government forces’ crimes against the civilian population as well as those committed by the rebels.”


The Human Rights Watch report says government troops are undisciplined and commit crimes against the very civilians they are meant to be protecting against the depredations of the LRA.


While violence by government forces is nowhere on the same scale as that of the LRA, the UPDF and government-supported militias in northern Uganda are accused of summary killings of civilians, arbitrary detention and rape.


Livingstone Sewanyana, director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, FHRI, an independent human rights organisation based in Kampala, has called on the government to investigate the alleged abuses by the security forces.


"Torture persists in Uganda because no one is investigated or punished for it," said Sewanyana. "If the government were serious about stopping torture, it would end this state of impunity."


However, Tania Kaiser, a lecturer in refugee studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, questions how keen the government would be to conduct its own enquiries or allow the ICC to carry out a similar probe of the army.


“We shouldn’t be surprised - in the event that the ICC attempts to conduct investigations into the UPDF and other government security institutions - if the government of Uganda employs blocking or delaying tactics to make this task more difficult,” she said.


When asked if the ICC would consider widening its investigation, the spokesman for the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC, Yves Sorokobi, told IWPR that prosecuting the military is “not ruled out or in”.


“What we are researching is crimes,” he said. “As long as the investigation is ongoing … we cannot say who the suspects are.”


Ugandan military spokesman Colonel Shaban Bantariza has responded to calls for an investigation by admitting that some crimes have been committed by individual soldiers, who had been punished.


But in remarks to the media, he added that Human Rights Watch was exaggerating the levels of abuse by soldiers. “They are trying to equate us with the rural LRA terrorists. We have executed some of our officers and soldiers, following court martials for any offence they commit. So for us there is no such a thing as crime with impunity,” he said.


Those who have faced the harshest treatment from government troops have been suspected LRA collaborators. And sometimes the net cast by the military is very wide – hundreds of people detained over the years on suspicion of helping the rebels say they have been ill-treated in detention.


In one case, Monsignor Matthew Ojara, the senior Catholic priest in Kitgum on Uganda’s northern border, found himself arrested by military security officers nine months ago. His computer, cell phone and files were confiscated, and the officers accused him of advising Joseph Kony to avoid using satellite phones as these could be used to trace and kill him.


The priest was held at a police station but was later cleared of any wrongdoing when his archbishop, John Baptist Odama, intervened, saying he was a leading figure in the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, an inter-faith group advocating dialogue to end the conflict in northern Uganda.


But those who support the military’s counter-insurgency efforts argue that targeting collaborators is key to destroying the LRA’s support network, and that without such help the rebels would have lost the war by now.


“The most dangerous people are collaborators because they direct rebels to civilian positions so that they can attack them, and yet security agencies face problems arresting them, due to insufficient incriminating evidence linking the suspects to these activities,” said Lieutenant Fred Otuka, deputy internal security officer for Gulu.


It is generally agreed that the insurgency has largely been thwarted in the Lira district – to the southeast of Gulu – because there are few, if any, collaborators.


But the issue of LRA support remains deeply controversial, with the army, members of parliament and local politicians trading accusations over the handling of suspects. While the politicians accuse the army of unlawful arrests and failing to follow due process, the military have repeatedly accused its critics of interfering and of politicising cases of detention.


Early this year, member of parliament Santa Okot accused her colleague Ronald Reagan Okumu of being a Kony sympathiser. "Okumu has been a rebel collaborator for a long time,” Okot told journalists. “He has misled many people to the bush and connived with many rebels.”


Okot was responding to Okumu's testimony to a parliamentary committee probing the beating of four parliamentarians by soldiers in late 2004. The four – Okumu, Odonga Otto, Michael Ocula and Ogenga Latigo - are all opposition politicians from the north.


Apolo Kakaire is an IWPR contributor. Additional reporting by IWPR staff in London.


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