Northern Uganda was for 21 years the scene of a bloody insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA fought the government but its victims were civilians in the Acholi, Langi and Teso regions.
Adults and children were massacred, abducted and trained as soldiers or given as wives to soldiers, forced to kill their relatives or be killed themselves, or had their lips or limps cut off. The national army failed to protect its citizens, it even failed the 1.5 million people who lived in camps for internally displaced people. Sometimes the national army directly committed atrocities. Mortality was extremely high due to the living conditions at the camps; outside the camps agriculture was too dangerous a pursuit.
After several half-hearted attempts, the government and the LRA initiated a new round of peace talks over a year ago. In June the two parties signed the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation. The aspects of accountability and reconciliation are the most critical issues pertaining to the rehabilitation of the entire region. They are also the most difficult as there are no easy dichotomies in this war: countless atrocities were committed by both the LRA and the Ugandan army, and abducted children (i.e. victims) became LRA soldiers (i.e. perpetrators) who targeted their own communities.
Complicating the prospects for peace enormously, however, was the sudden involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005. The ICC issued arrest warrants for five LRA top commanders to be tried for crimes against humanity and war crimes. But to the great surprise of the ICC and ‘the international community’ was the absence of a whole-hearted endorsement of the ICC by the communities which have suffered most in this conflict.
At the heart of this complex situation here in the north are questions of justice and healing: Is punishment the only form of justice? Will punishment bring healing to the communities? Is forgiveness a possible or realistic alternative to punishment? Are local notions of justice compatible with international law?
The Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation is currently subject to a consultation by the affected communities. Below are the (edited) viewpoints of 45 representatives of civil society organisations in Apac.
Truth commission and truth-telling: We feel it is important to establish the truth about the committed crimes because:
- The criminal should be linked to the crime.
- It makes the offended feel some kind of peace and fairness.
- It remains for history to guide the future and to avoid a repeat of such actions.
- It is the only way to ensure accountability of what has happened.
The truth-telling should take place before a truth and reconciliation commission. The commission should decide, depending on the case, whether some testimonials can be on camera while some can be in the open. Protection should be provided for those who testify.
Individuals that have been offended and those who saw the crime being committed should confess before the truth commission. They should give the particulars of what happened, who committed the crime and who ordered it, i.e. whether it was the Government or the LRA. The truth commission should comprise people of very good reputation and high calibre, such as Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Truth-telling will help to reconcile the people because after the truths, there will be apologies, reparations and other traditional reconciliation processes which will help the victims with coping. Knowing the truths is actually a way of reconciling people (alternatively, one might remain suspicious of a person: did he or did he not commit a crime?).
After establishing the truths about the crime committed, there should be:
- Punishment for the major offenders as established.
- Performance of the traditional reconciliation and justice systems according to the cultures of the different ethnic groups affected (Acholi, Langi, Teso).
- Reparations should be paid to the affected communities and individuals.
There are two categories of abductees: Those who remained powerless and those who gained power after the abductions. The abductees who became powerful in the bush and could order others to cause atrocities should be punished for the atrocities they caused personally or through chains of command. Those who were found vulnerable (e.g. taken as wives, children) should be helped to become rehabilitated but should apologise to the victims and the community. They should not be held directly accountable but they should accept responsibility for the atrocities committed.
Administration of justice: There is little trust in the Government to adequately punish its people and that is why we suggest the establishment of a special court. The special court should administer the punitive justice for the top LRA or [national] army commanders. Even Government personnel should be handled by the same commission and special court.
The traditional justice system can handle the minor cases, such as crimes committed by those who were ordered, by vulnerable groups etc.
In a way, a person who suffers would also want to see the one who caused the suffering to also suffer!
On the traditional justice mechanisms: Depending on the acceptability by the ethnic group involved in the reconciliation process, we recommend any mechanism that involves reconciliation, such as mato put in Acholi, kayo cuk in Lango, to the extent that it can bring forgiveness among the people. This mechanism will be appropriate in bringing community reconciliation at lower level and will address the concerns of the victims from such ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Traditional justice mechanisms can to a greater extent address the concerns of many affected local people because it is the kind of justice system that they are used to compared to the court process. To some extent, those who committed very serious crimes should be handled by the special commission and court.
[Another view is that] it is advisable that all ethnic groups modify their traditional justice mechanism to some universally accepted system.
[A third view states that] each ethnic group should modify their traditional justice system to some kind of regionally accepted version. The cultural leaders should handle the issue of modification with their subjects.
On reparations: To a great extent, reparations can bridge the development gaps suffered during the war, improve on the life of the affected individuals and the community and balance the development of Uganda. It can reduce the north–south divide in Uganda and settle the emotional gaps in the people as a result of the war. The feeling of belonging will be revived in the people of the greater north and the feeling of marginalization and neglect will be reduced.
The reparations should be in the form of:
- Direct benefits to, or rehabilitation of, the affected persons, families and communities.
- Reconstruction of the infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and roadsThe Government should seek a special parliamentary permission to address the social, economic, political and psychological aspects of the rehabilitation.
- Memorials for the victims of the suffering should be established in the major towns of Uganda
- The reparations should cover the greater north and not only some selected areas. For women and children, we recommend the use of tailored reparations to address their concerns, such as open rehabilitation centres and income-generation activities.
We trust the following stakeholders to present our views effectively: Cultural leaders (like Won Nyasi, Rwot, Emorimori), civil society leaders, and key religious leaders from prominent denominations.
On the failure by the Ugandan government to protect civilians in the north: The role of the Government in the conflict should be investigated by the same truth commission and the culprits handled by the same special court.
On the prevention of future crimes, we recommend that:
- All Ugandans should observe the rule of law and good governance.
- The national cake should be equally shared in terms of public service appointments, political appointments (e.g. ministerial posts), admissions to public institutions and allocation of public resources.
- The rule of law and the equitable distribution of resources should be observed by the central and local government, the international community and the people of Uganda.