Respect Uganda's brand of justice

Communal healing is more important than Western-style prosecution.

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Uganda has enjoyed relative calm since the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) joined the government in peace talks last year. The talks have been on-and-off at best, with the third round just starting this month.

At stake is whether peace will continue. The people of northern Uganda believe it can, if the international community allows them to practice their own cultural traditions of justice.

In dealing with war crimes, the West has emphasized criminal proceedings and punishment, including use of the International Criminal Court (ICC); anything less, advocates say, leads to impunity and possibly future violence. Without justice, the adage goes, there is no peace.

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But the people of northern Uganda, the Acholi, are convinced peace talks will fail if Western-based standards of prosecution prevail. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," says Ojara Bosco (quoting Gandhi), a member of the peace committee at Unyama camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The LRA will leave the negotiating table, they believe, and continue the violence that has touched virtually every family in Acholi-land. Already they have endured two decades of atrocities: mutilation, rape, murder, the forced relocation of 1.6 million people into camps for IDPs, and the abduction of 30,000 children turned into combatants by the LRA.

Thus, the Acholi want this round of talks to prioritize their traditional systems of justice over what the West prefers. "Since the wrongs were committed on the Acholi people, we want to deal with them in the Acholi way," says Okiedi Raymond, chairman of the peace committee in Unyama camp. Indeed, it is imperative that the Acholi be able to confront issues of accountability and reconciliation not as the West deems acceptable, but as their culture dictates.

For northern Ugandans, without forgiveness, there is no peace; justice is achieved through the restoration of relationships. And they have a cultural tradition in place for achieving this: mato oput, a longstanding practice that involves truth-telling and accountability, forgiveness, and reparations.

The traditional Acholi mechanism seeks to attain peace, justice, and reconciliation for perpetrators and victims. Its practice developed long ago, according to Acholi legend, after a disagreement between two brothers led to escalating levels of retaliation and violence.

In mato oput, alienation of a perpetrator through punishment and incarceration only further ruptures broken relationships in communities – and communal harmony is paramount to the restoration of peace. Justice is peace, and "peace is when you can live and eat together," said Bishop Macleord Ochola, a founding member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, in an interview. "If justice is punishment, then the victim is left with bitterness and the perpetrator is left with guilt," he concluded.

The limitations of mato oput will certainly be tested, given the extreme scale of atrocities. A vital component of mato oput is the coming together of communities from both sides of the offense; unfortunately, most victims and perpetrators are unable to identify their offenders or the offended due to the rampant violence.

Still, while mato oput may not be the only mechanism for peace recognized at the peace talks, it should be a vital and central component. The international community should help the people of northern Uganda find justice through mato oput by contributing to a victims' reparations fund or making material contributions.

It should also confront the well-meaning but harmful attitude that Africa needs to be "saved," a theme in much of today's social activism. It is not for Western societies to determine what justice is or looks like – that would, in fact, do a great injustice to the victims of northern Uganda. This is the moment for them to stand behind an African people and tradition, to demonstrate that Ugandans hold the key to their own future and that the rest of the world may, in fact, have much to learn from the Acholi.

Claire Putzeys is a research fellow for Catalyst Peacebuilding's Voice to Vision project (catalystpb.org) , which tells stories of forgiveness and reconciliation in post-conflict Africa.

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