Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uganda's Need for Justice Far Exceeds ICC's Mandate

Locals say Ugandan army forces as well as the rebels have a long history of violence which is likely never to go to court.
By Rockie Menya
There is a frustration amongst community groups in northern Uganda that the International Criminal Court is unable to look into allegations of human rights abuses committed before 2002, either by the army or by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army.

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni referred Uganda's 20-year civil war in the north, to the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague in December 2003.

In July 2005, the court issued arrest warrants for five senior figures in the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA - its leader Joseph Kony and top commanders Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. Lukwiya died last year so the list is now down to four.

In inviting the ICC to start work, Museveni's government wanted it to specifically investigate the LRA's part in the conflict.

In October 2006, ICC prosecutors insisted they were trying to be impartial, telling journalists in The Hague that when Uganda referred the situation in 2003, prosecutors informed it that they "would interpret the referral to include all crimes committed in northern Uganda".

However, the ICC is unable to investigate actions committed before July 2002, when it came into being, and this rules out crimes committed prior to that, whether they are attributed to the LRA or the Ugandan army.

Members of the Acholi, Teso, Langi and other northern ethnic groups affected by the years of war are frustrated that this cut-off date means the court will not be looking into injustices attributed to the Ugandan army in previous years.

Among these communities, there is a danger that the justice process will be seen as one-sided if the military is treated as if it were beyond suspicion by both the Ugandan authorities and the international justice system.

Many of the people to whom IWPR spoke in camps for internally displaced persons in the north of the country were critical both of the ICC's approach and of the Museveni government's involvement with the court.

They allege that as far back as the Eighties, Museveni's then rebel group, the National Resistance Army, NRA, was responsible for human rights abuses during the war against the government of the then president Milton Obote. In the 1981-86 guerrilla war, tens of thousands of people were killed in the Luwero Triangle, an area to the northwest of Kampala where NRA rebels were deeply entrenched.

The rebellion was matched by brutal counter-insurgency tactics, and Museveni and the NRA claimed that the main culprits in the killings were Acholi soldiers loyal to Obote, and that the NRA's actions were only payback for this.

Apart from the justice issue, such claims highlight the north-south divide that has been a feature of Uganda's recent history. Museveni's southern faction has governed the country since deposing Obote, who like his predecessor Idi Amin was a northerner. Until Museveni came to power in 1986, Uganda had been ruled by northerners throughout the 24 years of independence.

Museveni, from Uganda's far south near the border with Rwanda, is deeply unpopular among the people of the north, who say that for many years the Acholi were not represented in national government.

According to one interviewee in the north, who preferred to remain anonymous, "the barrel of the gun has been the [Acholis'] only voice", until 2006 when Museveni was re-elected and brought in Hilary Onek, an Acholi, as Minister of Agriculture.

When Museveni and the NRA took power, they were unwelcome in the north, and the Acholi and other groups refused to cooperate with the new government.

Northerners say this prompted the NRA to engage in violence against civilians in a bid to bludgeon them into line. People interviewed by IWPR said during this period, civilians were tied together and hacked to death by government soldiers, women were raped, girls abducted, huts burnt, crops burned, property looted and livelihoods disrupted.

Many victims of the early NRA campaign against the north question what justice they will get when several of the key commanders they hold responsible for the violence are now highly decorated generals in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, UPDF, the regular army that grew out of the NRA.

"The important question is whose justice are we seeking here?" said one Acholi, noting that both the Ugandan government and the ICC claim that they are out to make sure victims receive justice. This man said Acholis have watched their loved ones killed by both LRA and UPDF combatants, and the "only way they will feel satisfied is if both parties get their share of punishment".

Museveni's government has now entered into peace talks with the LRA, hosted by the government of South Sudan, and one of the main issues is justice and accountability for crimes committed during the two decades-long insurgency.

The LRA is insisting that the indictments the ICC has issued against Kony and his aides should be withdrawn as a condition for further progress on the peace process. Museveni has made offers of a blanket amnesty in return for peace, although he is not able to make the ICC withdraw its indictments.

The sense of grievance in the north was a major contributory factor to shaping the LRA. In 1986-87, the Holy Spirit Movement, a mystical rebel force led by Alice Lakwena, attempted to overthrow Museveni's young regime. After Lakwena's forces were defeated, Joseph Kony - variously described as her cousin or nephew - recruited some of her followers and formed the Acholi-based LRA, which has waged war on the Museveni government ever since.

Like the Holy Spirit Movement, the LRA combines traditional beliefs in the spirit world with aspects of Christian doctrine. Kony says the Old Testament's Ten Commandments form the core of the LRA's code, although this has not stopped his fighters from kidnapping some 20,000 Acholi children to serve as child fighters, porters and sex slaves. Many people in the north believe Kony was given supernatural support to fight the government.

Northerners interviewed by IWPR said that LRA consciously mimicked the NRA first by adopting a similar acronym, and then by copying its practice of tying people together, forcing them to dig their own graves, and recruiting child soldiers.

For most of his 20-year insurgency, Kony did not speak to outsiders, and for a long time it was unclear what exactly the LRA wanted. In recent interviews, one way Kony has sought to justify his baffling history of brutality towards his own Acholi people is to claim that he is fighting for greater representation in central government, which he says has neglected the north.

Some members of the Langi and Teso communities, neighbours of the Acholi in northern Uganda, told IWPR they are also frustrated that the LRA will not be held accountable for crimes committed before 2002.

One case in point is the "Atiak massacre" of April 1995, when more than 250 people were killed in an LRA attack on a technical college north of Gulu. The raiders burned down dormitories with students still inside them, while other students and local civilians were hacked to death on the school premises.

On April 20 this year – the 12 anniversary - members of the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative gathered with victims' relatives, local leaders and people from across the Acholi region for a memorial service.

Alex Odongo Okoya, a reporter for Uganda's New Vision newspaper, told IWPR that participants reasserted their commitment to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Victim's relatives appealed to the LRA to remain committed to the peace talks in southern Sudan. Some participants also urged the ICC to drop charges against the LRA "the people are ready to forgive and reconcile with the LRA".

Many northerners feel that if the ICC cannot deal with crimes committed before 2002, it may as well ignore crimes committed since then, and should allow alternative, traditional justice mechanisms to be used instead. They argue that justice cannot be seen to be done only for a fraction of the whole time in question, and only charging some of the perpetrators.

However, the ICC's founding statute cannot be changed to allow it to investigate and prosecute cases relating to crimes committed before 2002. It will therefore be up to the Ugandan legal system to deal with all such cases. This is likely to prove problematic, since the reason the government gave for referring the situation in the north to the ICC in late 2003 was that because it believed its own justice system was unable to handle cases of this gravity.

Rockie Menya Oyoo is a radio broadcaster for Mega FM in Gulu. Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Additional reporting by Elizabeth Lakwonyero and Alex Odongo Okoya in Gulu