Don't let Uganda's war criminals off the hook

"We will not negotiate with terrorists." The logic of this stance is simple: accede to demands at the barrel of a gun and find more guns pointed at you.

Unfortunately, that lesson appears lost on many in Uganda, where the brutal leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) may soon gain immunity from the International Criminal Court (ICC) by threatening violence against civilians.

Long neglected by the world community, the atrocities committed by the LRA in northern Uganda are staggering in their impact and depravity. More than 12,000 people have been killed in a decade of violence that has displaced almost 2 million civilians from their homes.

Named a terrorist organization by the United States in 2001, the LRA has garnered universal condemnation for its forced conscription of children, heinous assaults on civilians, and sexual enslavement of young girls. This condemnation took concrete form in 2005, when the ICC issued arrest warrants for LRA chief Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mr. Kony's response was pragmatic. Within months, he and his deputies recommitted to peace talks with the Ugandan government and expressed their desire to end the insurgency. Many Ugandans were heartened by the prospects for peace, but progress was slow. The negotiations centered around the ICC's role, and the position of the LRA was clear: Drop the charges or the violence continues.

The resulting dilemma is often described as one of peace versus justice. The Ugandan people's fervent desire to end a deadly rebellion stands on one side of the scale, while the ICC's mandate to hold war criminals accountable weighs on the other. In this debate, the LRA tactics are largely ignored. Cloaked by the peace-versus-justice dichotomy, Kony and the LRA are threatening further violence to save themselves from trial.

To be sure, granting amnesty to Kony and his deputies would hasten an end to the LRA problem. But the LRA's willingness to resort to force even as they pledge an end to fighting reveals the lie in their promises of peace. LRA second-in-command Vincent Otti recently boasted that he would not release the dozens of women and children abducted by the group.

As these victims could attest, the LRA is a model of nihilistic terrorism. Its war against civilians in northern Uganda is driven by no coherent ideology or political aim. The only bargaining chip that Kony and his commanders hold is their willingness to resort to violence.

Sadly, such tactics have succeeded far too often in Uganda. When Idi Amin and Tito Okello ruled the country by the gun, the world community largely ignored their abuses. Even today, the Ugandan government has declared that it will protect the LRA leaders from arrest if they commit to peace, and UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland recently urged the Security Council to support the peace process, suggesting that he felt an international trial of the LRA leaders should be avoided.

If Kony's attempt to gain immunity succeeds, the consequences will be grave: Warlords will gain confidence that, if armed rebellion fails, they can leverage brutality to dictate the terms of their surrender. Ugandans will lose faith that their nation will ever be free of violence. And terrorism will grow more common.

The alternative is clear: The international community must demand that the five individuals indicted by the ICC face judgment for their crimes. While this path surely will be difficult, placing Kony and his commanders on trial does not preclude peace.

Uganda's parliament recently reauthorized a bill that promises amnesty to lower-level combatants who disavow violence. For these individuals, many of whom are young and were abducted into the rebel group, reconciliation and forgiveness should be encouraged.

The leaders must face a different fate. The gravity of their crimes requires a clear rebuke, a signal that the world will punish – not negotiate with – those who adopt terror as a tactic.

Alex Little, a law clerk on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, was a consultant to the International Criminal Court and assisted former President Carter's efforts at conflict resolution in Uganda.

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