Uganda's LRA rebels may face home-grown tribunal

Local courts could offer resolution, but critics say they may not go far enough.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Sunlight streams through the wide leaves of banana trees onto Betty Angee, who has lived at a desolate camp for displaced civilians in northern Uganda since fleeing from the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels four years ago. Now she says she has the chance to go home.

Last week, the Ugandan government announced that it is beginning public meetings on how to design a national tribunal that will try LRA members accused of committing war crimes.

The proposed local courts may provide an alternative to extraditing members of the rebel army to face 33 International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The LRA has refused to sign any peace deal with the government unless the charges from the ICC are dropped.

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Many Ugandan survivors of the war say local courts – similar to the ones created in Rwanda after their genocide – is not only necessary for peace, but would administer justice that would be acceptable to most Ugandans. They also worry that trying LRA members in the ICC will actually make the situation worse. For human rights activists, however, the local tribunals are seen as a soft alternative that may encourage impunity.

Decades of brutality

For 20 years, the LRA has waged a savage campaign for power, notorious for forcing women and children into its ranks and cutting off the facial features of their victims. Thousands of civilians have died as a result of the conflict. Nearly 2 million have been displaced and forced to live in bleak refugee camps. Finding a way to try them for war crimes has proven difficult.

"The essence of the system would be based on truth-telling," says Ruhakana Rugunda, Internal Affairs minister and chief government negotiator at peace talks in Juba, South Sudan. He says that the tribunal will include punitive justice, but also draw on forgiveness themes from a traditional ritual known as mato oput. The system requires that a murderer face relatives of the victim and admit his crime before both drink a bitter brew as an act of reconciliation.

If created, the tribunals will not handle crimes committed by the Ugandan government forces during their conflict with the LRA. Government forces fall under the jurisdiction of preexisting courts martial. Additionally, top leaders of the LRA who helped organize genocide will face trial in a UN court, while those guilty of lesser crimes will stand trial in the traditional courts.

"The majority of the people agree that the LRA should not go to The Hague. People want the LRA punished – but not in jail for a long time," says Foreign Affairs Minister Oryem Okello, who is key in the set-up of the tribunal. Victims have expressed more interest in a "symbolic punishment," according to Mr. Okello.

"If they are punished, it will only worsen the situation," says Ms. Angee from the displacement camp. She says that in order for victims and perpetrators to "easily live together," the rebels must be forgiven.

Okello says that the justice model will be comparable to the traditional gacaca courts used in neighboring Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. "All those who admit crimes, show remorse, ask forgiveness and pay reparations will benefit from the justice mechanism," Dr. Rugunda says.

Justice vs. peace?

Still, for many human rights groups, traditional justice would not be enough. "This can't be a slap on the wrist ... the national trials can't be used to shield the LRA from justice," says Elise Keppler, counsel with the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Critics of local justice also are wary of the effectiveness of the seemingly simple mato oput ritual.

In response to groups that have decried a local tribunal as not harsh enough punishment, Rugunda stresses that the government does "not condone impunity."

"The ICC is supposed to only come in if the state is unwilling or incapable of handling the LRA itself," says Chris Dolan, director of the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project. "If the judicial process is vigorous enough, what's inadequate about it [the court] being in Uganda?"

Ms. Keppler worries that the special court will not satisfy international expectations. The Rome Statue of the ICC favors local prosecution, but only if it provides credible and fair prosecution with appropriate punishment.

Despite LRA leaders' calls for the ICC charges against them to be dropped, even with the local tribunals, the Ugandan government does not have the ability to unilaterally clear the indictments. And a sticking point in the tribunal creation process will be whether the government can actually detain the rebels in custody, a problem that led to the ICC's intervention.

Okello says that the public meetings about how to create the tribunals will last until the end of next month. A report will then be released in October that details the findings of the two-month-long consultations. At that point, the minister says the government will be closer to knowing what the alternative justice system will look like and when it will be set up.

"We would like to see them account for their crimes, but we are not obsessed with seeing them march off to a foreign prison," says Norbert Mao, lawyer and chairman of Gulu, one of the conflict's hardest-hit towns.

But he adds: "To think that the traditional system is enough would be to deceive ourselves."

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