Uganda: when international justice and internal peace are at odds

Luis Moreno-Ocampo is an idealist. "Our goal is to end the worst crimes," he told me. He is the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), established by a 1998 treaty among, now, some 120 states. The United States is not a member of the ICC, but many American rights advocates support it strongly.

Now, Mr. Ocampo's idealism is encountering some obstacles that raise tough questions about the identity of the main stakeholders in the ICC's success. To whom, at the end of the day, should the court be accountable? The people in the communities that are the main victims of the crimes it tries – or some more amorphous group, such as "the international community?"

Ocampo faces these questions particularly starkly with the landmark prosecutions he has brought regarding northern Uganda. Five of the six arrest warrants he has issued so far have been against participants in the long-running conflict there: Joseph Kony and four other leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion. (One of the LRA indictees, Raska Lukwiya, was recently reported killed.)

These prosecutions are crucial to the new court as it defines its role and could affect the willingness of member states to continue funding its $90 million a year budget.

Complicating Ocampo's job is the fact that the government of Uganda, which referred the northern Ugandan situation to the ICC back in 2004, has recently changed course. Since mid-July, the government of Uganda has been actively negotiating with the LRA leaders a peace deal that would also give them amnesty. If this peace initiative succeeds, Ocampo's first big criminal case could collapse. (He also has a smaller case under way involving an indictee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

Uganda's peace overture to the LRA has been strongly supported by the Acholi ethnic group from which Mr. Kony and his cohorts come – and which has also borne the brunt of their atrocities. One leader in the Acholis' pro-peace campaign has been Morris Ogenga-Latigo, the head of Uganda's parliamentary opposition.

Speaking with me in the Ugandan capital of Kampala recently, Mr. Ogenga-Latigo said, "The ICC has become an impediment to our efforts. Should we sacrifice our peacemaking process here so they can test and develop their criminal-justice procedures there at the ICC? Punishment has to be quite secondary to the goal of resolving this conflict." Ugandan President Yuweri Museveni now seems clearly to agree. He has said that if Kony accepts the terms of the amnesty being offered, then he, the president, would "fight tooth and nail" to protect Kony.

Norbert Mao, a graduate of Yale Law School who was recently elected chair of the majority-Acholi Gulu District Council, expressed a nuanced view of the ICC's efforts: "As a lawyer, I know the ICC has its role.... And in general, that's an important role. All societies need to have an accountability system.... The essence of the court is to ensure accountability. But we have accountability systems in northern Uganda, too – our traditional systems."

Mr. Mao explained that the Acholi system of conflict resolution, called mat oput or "drinking the bitter root," requires perpetrators to acknowledge their crimes, show remorse for them, and ask the community for forgiveness. Western-style criminal proceedings require none of these things, though a perpetrator who shows remorse can sometimes win a lighter sentence.

Now, Mao, Ogenga-Latigo, and their allies are working fast to have the main points of mat oput codified and incorporated into Ugandan law. (Other countries that have incorporated traditional systems into national law in this way include New Zealand and Rwanda.) Mao told me he hopes this will enable Uganda to tell the ICC that if the LRA leaders undergo mat oput, then they have been fully dealt with under Ugandan law, and therefore the ICC should withdraw its indictments. Uganda's peace campaigners have also recently won the right, as recognized victims of Kony's crimes, to be represented in a "pretrial" hearing here at the ICC: They plan to use that hearing to argue strongly, as victims, that the indictments be dropped.

If Uganda and the LRA can indeed negotiate a workable peace, and (as seems probable) that peace includes amnesty for the LRA's leaders, then Ocampo's idealism will be tested anew. These important indictments he has issued against the LRA may end up having effects very different from what he once expected.

Helena Cobban's book, "Amnesty after Atrocity?: Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes," will be published next month.

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