Uganda sees local justice as key to peace

Talks raise hopes that a central African conflict involving the Lord's Resistance Army is winding down.

In the northern districts afflicted by Uganda's violent 20-year rebellion armed fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) can be found trudging through the undergrowth untouched.

A cease-fire implemented on August 26 means that Ugandan soldiers leave them alone, and even provide the rebels with food as they make their way to two assembly points in neighboring southern Sudan.

The cease-fire is a key part of continuing negotiations between Uganda and the LRA that are mediated by the fledgling government of South Sudan. There is hope the fighting may be drawing to a close, allowing 1.7 million displaced Ugandans to return home, and bolstering regional stability. But that optimism is tempered by international concerns that peace may come at the expense of international justice. Part of the deal is an amnesty offer made to the rebels by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

"While the ICC [International Criminal Court] indictments helped push the parties to the negotiating table they are now seen as a hindrance," says David Mozersky, Horn of Africa analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The ICC and the international community are demanding justice and accountability whereas the prime concern of the LRA leadership is their personal protection and that's something Museveni is willing to discuss."

Although charged by the Hague-based ICC in October with large scale atrocities, five LRA leaders – chief Joseph Kony, deputy Vincent Otti, and commanders Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen, and Raska Lukwiya – may never appear before the ICC or elsewhere. Rather, the Ugandan government argues, it will push for the ICC to drop its warrants and instead offer the men amnesty followed by traditional Ugandan justice – if they emerge from hiding and sign a peace agreement.

The charges stem from one of Africa's longest and most bizarrely brutal conflicts in the region where northern Uganda, eastern Congo, and southern Sudan meet. Rebel groups fought unchecked in the area for decades until a 2003 peace deal ended Congo's civil war and southern Sudanese rebels joined the government in 2005.

Thousands of children were abducted in the fighting and used as soldiers or sex slaves; civilians suspected of collaborating with government have had their lips and ears chopped off. Mr. Odhiambo is thought to have led a notorious attack on a camp for displaced people in February 2003 that killed nearly 200 people.

Museveni says Uganda should find an "alternative solution" to the ICC to bring the men to justice for the killings.

"The [ICC] indictments should remain until Kony agrees to stop his criminal activities," says Museveni. "But once he does that ... we will work with the ICC to see if he can be removed from that list."

The ICC insists LRA leadersface trial. But ICC spokesman Christian Palm said Uganda continues "to update us on the developments in the talks."

The alternative to an ICC trial that Museveni prefers is a traditional reconciliation ceremony called "mato oput" - drinking the bitter herb – in which the perpetrator of a crime meets the victim, admits wrongdoing, asks for forgiveness, and pays compensation. The ritual ends with perpetrator and victim sharing a cup of sheep's blood mixed with a bitter root.

Ugandan analyst Zachary Lomo, director of the Refugee Law Project, wants the ICC to withdraw its warrants. "That victims want some form of justice is not disputed," says Mr. Lomo. "What is being contested is the idea that all the victims want trial justice ... to tout trials as a magical panacea is intellectually dishonest."

One Kampala-based Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained, "Nobody wants the ICC to fail, but we can't be seen to say, 'Continue this war because we want Kony in the [ICC] dock.' "

The ICC indictments also represent a Catch-22.Museveni has said he will argue for the ICC indictments to be dropped once a peace deal is signed, but LRA deputy Mr. Otti has said the indicted leaders will not come out of the bush until the charges are dropped.

For the people of the north, exhausted and traumatized by years of conflict, a return to normalcy is the priority, even if that means forgiving Kony for his crimes. The government this month announced a $340 million fund to help the war-ravaged region.

There is still much to negotiate, including talks ondisarmament, reconciliation, and political change. Museveni recently hinted that talks might continue beyond a Sept. 12 deadline.

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