Netting Uganda’s Rebels

Image: Flickr, AMISOM Public Information
Image: Flickr, AMISOM Public Information

The International Criminal Court, ICC, made legal history last October when it issued arrest warrants for key rebel leaders in northern Uganda.

But reeling in the suspects is likely to prove extremely difficult, and will only be possible if neighbouring states are forced to cooperate with the detention order. Five top figures in the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, were listed in the warrants and if apprehended, they would stand trial at the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity. They include the group’s leader Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet, his deputy Vincent Otti, LRA commander-in-chief Raska Lukwiya, and brigade commanders Okot Odhiambo and Dominique Ongwen.

Their capture would help bring an end to the nearly forgotten civil war that has ravaged northern Uganda for almost two decades. Over that time the LRA’s peculiar messianic vision has played out to brutal effect, with some 20,000 children abducted and forced to serve the LRA as guerrillas, sex slaves and porters.

Those children who escape the brutalising effects of LRA “conscription” still bear the brunt of the impact which the conflict has had in this part of Uganda. An average of 131 people die in the north of the country every day as a result of either direct violence or the poor conditions in camps for displaced people.

More than 1.6 million people live in camps for the internally displaced, where extreme poverty is compounded by malaria and HIV/AIDS. Every evening, thousands of children must walk many miles to safe houses and churches in the nearest towns, for fear of abduction by the LRA.

The ICC must rely on the Ugandan army to execute the arrest warrants. But even though the military outnumbers the LRA 20 to one in the region, it has been unable to carry out any of the arrests since they were ordered.

This failure has reinforced a perception among northern Ugandans that President Yoweri Museveni’s government cares little about their fate, prompting many to vote against him in the multi-party elections held in February.

Hot on the heels of Museveni’s third-term victory, the ICC – whose 600 prosecutors, investigators, judges and other international staff are based in The Hague – announced it was ready to receive suspects if any were arrested.

“We have 12 cells for Ugandan suspects in Scheveningen…,” said ICC Registrar Bruno Cathala. “We need the help of states to arrest these people.”

Cathala’s use of the plural “states” is revealing since it emphasises what is likely to be an essential ingredient of ICC success in the case – cooperation by Uganda’s neighbours.

In recent months, Otti has been leading LRA forces operating out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. In January he launched an ambush that killed several United Nations peacekeepers inside DRC. The government in Kampala has also alleged that Rwanda has supported the LRA in western Uganda, a charge denied by the Kigali government.

For many years, the government in Khartoum was accused of aiding LRA combatants who made southern Sudan their base. Since March 2002, a joint agreement between the two governments allows Uganda’s soldiers to enter southern Sudan in hot pursuit of the LRA.

But Kony and his lieutenants have continued to elude capture, leading to speculation that Khartoum is still secretly helping the LRA by leaking information and supplying arms. In a BBC interview last month, the Sudanese vice-president and president of the southern Sudan government, Salva Kiir Mayardit, expressed his suspicion that the country’s armed forces are supplying Kony with ammunition and other forms of support.

In February this year, Ugandan troops claimed they had attacked Kony in southern Sudan and killed four of his bodyguards – but, as in previous instances, Kony got away and is reported to have joined Otti in the DRC.

Christian Palme, spokesperson for the ICC’s chief prosecutor, has expressed hope that arrests will take place this year.

But it is clear that if the ICC is ever to bring these fugitives to trial, the international community must pressure the DRC, Sudanese and Rwandan governments to cooperate in the manhunt.

Each has its own reasons for dragging its heels. Rwanda and Uganda have been implicated in the conflict in DRC and in the removal of diamonds and gold from that country, causing friction between them and with the government of DRC.

In Sudan, meanwhile, the LRA has historically served Khartoum as a useful policy instrument as it battles secessionist groups in the oil-rich south.

In short, wherever mineral resources, arms trading and politics come together, there are forces which might find it expedient for the shadowy Kony to remain at large.

Meanwhile, the death toll in the northern Ugandan conflict grows steadily.

David Drew of Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region and Genocide Prevention, which recently visited the region, told journalists that “pressure from the West and UN needs to be brought to bear on Kampala – the humanitarian and security situation in northern Uganda cannot go on a day longer”.

The parliamentarians’ report recommended that UN forces currently stationed in both DRC and Sudan should be mandated to act against the LRA, and that Uganda should itself be pressurised to step up actions against the rebels.

UN forces in the region currently have a limited peackeeping mandate which excludes military offensives against rebel forces.

The time for action in northern Uganda is long overdue. The 100 ICC member states now have an obligation to help ensure that the court’s arrest warrants are executed.

Uganda, both as the location of the conflict and as the nation that initiated the ICC investigation in 2003, has a key role to play, but it has wavered along the way and needs bolstering. The likeliest route forward is probably a two-pronged approach, with multilateral pressure on Uganda and its neighbours being combined with a motion within the UN itself.

A decision by the Security Council to empower UN missions in the region to execute the warrants will be difficult to pass, given the United States’ vehement opposition to the ICC. The US is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the court and does not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction.

But as in the UN decision to refer Sudan’s Darfur conflict to the court last year, sustained lobbying on the human rights front might sway the Americans not to use their power of veto power in the Security Council.

When a thousand lives are being lost each week in what Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, has called “the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today”, decisive action by the UN could help decapitate a guerrilla movement that has terrorised northern Uganda for the last 20 years.