Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Ugandan government is planning to establish a special war crimes court to try the top leaders of the northern Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Amy, LRA.
The court would function as an alternative to the International Criminal Court, ICC, which has indicted and issued arrest warrants against LRA leader Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and three other senior commanders - Raska Lukwiya, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo. Lukwiya, however, died in combat in 2006.
Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, Uganda’s home affairs minister, who is the lead government negotiator at peace talks in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, told IWPR that a final decision on the formation of a special court will be taken after consultations with victims of the 21-year civil war in northern Uganda.
“We have discussed this issue with legal experts - local and international - and there is a possibility of government forming a unique legal system designed to achieve lasting peace and accountability,” Dr Rugunda said at the end of a two-day meeting in the northern town of Lira on the accountability and reconciliation proposals in the provisional peace agreement.
Peace talks between the Ugandan government the LRA began in August 2006. At the end of June this year, government and LRA representatives put ink on a crucial draft protocol that would allow suspected war criminals to be tried under traditional tribal justice systems. While the protocol on Accountability and Reconciliation, the third of five items on the peace negotiators' agenda, proposed allowing LRA suspects to be tried under tribal procedures, it suggested that Ugandan army suspects could be tried under the formal justice system.
Both sides in the negotiations have taken leave until mid to late September to consult their constituents on the implementation mechanisms of their draft Accountability and Reconciliation agreement, which seems to sideline the ICC indictments. But Dr Rugunda said, "Those who think the ICC is a stumbling block are missing the point. We want the LRA to sign the peace agreement, be disarmed, come out of the bush and then the government will engage the ICC on the way forward."
The LRA leaders have been indicted by the ICC, based in The Hague, on 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, the killing of civilians and forcibly using children as guerrilla fighters.
The LRA rebellion drove more than 1.7 million people into internal refugee camps throughout northern Uganda. Some 100,000 people have died and as many as 38,000 children have been abducted and forced to join the insurgents.
“We have decided to come up with a special court for certain individuals if the victims wish,” Dr Rugunda told IWPR. His team met several groups of war victims from Lira and also from the three other northern Ugandan districts, Gulu, Pader and Kitgum. The meeting was part of a two-week long consultative tour undertaken by the minister and his team to war-ravaged areas.
Teso and West Nile Districts are next on their itinerary. “While there we will be asking affected communities how best we can deal with the issue of accountability and reconciliation, including which laws we need to change,” said Dr Rugunda. “We’ll also ask what processes the LRA people must undergo to reconcile with those they harmed, and how we should manage victims and offenders.”
Richard Dicker, the international justice programme director at Human Rights Watch, has warned that “if [Uganda’s] national courts hand down a slap-on-the-wrist sentence in the event of convictions for the most serious crimes, it would simply not pass muster. Such trials would be tainted even if they were otherwise fair and credible”.
Dr Rugunda also said he had invited the LRA to join him in his programme of consultations in the north, but none from the rebel side had joined in. He added that ICC representatives were also closely monitoring the LRA-government peace negotiations.
The LRA, however, is carrying out parallel consultations in Ri– Kwangba, an interim base in southern Sudan, with hundreds of Ugandans who have been flown there.
The government has invited observers from the African Union, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to witness the remainder of its consultations with victims of the northern war.
After these consultations have concluded, the parties are scheduled to return to Juba to conclude their work on accountability and reconciliation.
They will then debate agenda item four on establishing a permanent ceasefire to replace the current provisional ceasefire.
The last item on the five-point agenda is disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration of LRA guerrilla fighters.
Bill Oketch is an IWPR reporter in Uganda.
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