Uganda War Crimes: Road to Hell Paved With Good Intentions?

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

Walking in the eerie darkness engulfing Noah's Ark, a centre that children in northern Uganda escape to for fear of being kidnapped by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, it is easy to see why so many in the region are eager for peace.

Although a handful of the several hundred children who gather here every night are now singing sweetly for a group of visitors, the 19-year battle between government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has scarred their lives.

About 20,000 children have been abducted by the LRA, which has forced them to become soldiers in the rebellion – and sex slaves to LRA commanders. As a result, fearful parents in rural communities send their children to towns in the evening, where they are thought to be less vulnerable to abduction.

Rebel attacks are on the rise again, which some blame on an announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that it is on the verge of issuing arrest warrants for rebels responsible for human rights abuses, rape, murder and mutilation of civilians.

The ICC’s targets include the group’s leader – Joseph Kony – who reportedly wishes to form a government based on the Ten Commandments, his second-in-command, Vincent Otti, and four others. The ICC, inaugurated in 2003, is responsible for trying people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But, while some might view the court’s actions as an overdue attempt to bring the LRA to book for its atrocities, others believe the ICC initiative will simply prolong the agony in northern Uganda.

Amnesty for war crimes

Five years ago, the government of President Yoweri Museveni passed the Amnesty Act to pardon the members of a variety of groups which had rebelled against Ugandan authorities since 1986 (when the LRA took up arms): 22 organisations in all.

Under the amnesty, former rebels are required to turn in their weapons. They receive a certificate indicating that they have renounced conflict and are given assistance to resettle in their communities. So far the government has awarded amnesty to about 10,000 LRA soldiers.

The idea of amnesty complements the traditions of the Acholi people, the main ethnic group in northern Uganda. Talks are also underway to end conflict in northern Uganda, although the peace process has appeared shaky since efforts to reach an agreement on 31 December failed.

Some fear that if the ICC is allowed to press ahead with its prosecution of LRA leaders, these negotiations would unravel completely as Ugandan forces went in pursuit of senior rebels to bring them before the court. The LRA appears to have responded with increased violence.

A delegation of Acholi elders and religious leaders visited the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, at his office in the Dutch city of The Hague in March, hoping to persuade him to delay action against LRA members until peace could take root in northern Uganda. The prosecutor responded that he was ‘sensitive to the leaders’ efforts to promote dialogue between different actors in order to achieve peace.’ But the ICC points out that Kampala’s decision to refer matters in northern Uganda to the court gives it ‘full jurisdiction over grave crimes under the Rome statute for the ICC that have been committed by any party to the conflict in northern Uganda.’

The Ugandan government referred its longstanding conflict with the LRA to the international court two years ago in a bid to ‘use every means to end the war,’ says Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. He adds that the ‘amnesty law is a blanket law for all,’ including Kony.

Other authorities appear less accommodating. The ministry responsible for northern Uganda recently said that it supported the ICC’s wish to arrest Kony and his inner circle. A further complication is that Ugandan forces are themselves accused of committing abuses such as rape, torture and mass killing in northern Uganda.

While the New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC to ensure that all parties responsible for abuses in northern Uganda are brought to book, it remains to be seen whether the Museveni government will allow its troops to be tried alongside LRA leaders.

Some northern Ugandans want to see the LRA also account for its crimes. Okello Laouries, a 15-year-old regular night visitor to Noah’s Ark, believes children forced into the bush by the LRA should be forgiven. “But Kony and other rebel leaders who formed the group should be thrown into jail. He’s done a bad thing.”