Northern Uganda: The Peace Process and the International Criminal Court

The 20-year rebellion in northern Uganda has killed tens of thousands and laid waste to a generation that has scarcely known peace. Once described as the "biggest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world," the brutal war conducted by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) since 1986 has resulted in both boys and girls being abducted to become soldiers and for sexual use, caused the forced displacement of between one and two million people, and devastated the region agriculturally and economically. Its distance from the fault lines of international politics means that deaths in Uganda have never been given the same prominence as those in Kosovo or the Middle East. Areas of fertile savannah are now overgrown scrubland. Boundaries of homesteads are obscured. Whereas before the conflict there were 36,000 cattle in the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda, now there are 5,000. The rebellion has been fought to a stalemate in which the rebels could never hope to take over even the regional government but neither could the government of Uganda dislodge LRA warlords from the borders with Sudan and Congo.

But change came in 2005 following a peace deal to end the civil war in neighbouring Sudan, which ended the tacit support for the LRA by the government of Sudan. This, plus national and international pressure and the exhaustion of a generation of combat, encouraged peace talks between the Ugandan government and LRA rebels. Lines of communication were opened with the LRA and the new quasi-autonomous government of southern Sudan offered to mediate peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA in the southern Sudanese town of Juba. A cessation of hostilities agreement was concluded in August 2006. In April 2007 the talks were strengthened by the intervention of former President Chissano of Mozambique in his role as UN Special Envoy; the following month the parties came to an outline agreement on democracy and development for the North; June saw agreement on principles of post-conflict accountability and reconciliation.

For the first time in a generation the people of Acholiland face the prospect of peace. But northern Uganda now faces a dilemma that calls for the judgment of Solomon. The most terrible atrocities have been committed. How do you balance the requirements of justice and peace? Should arrest warrants against the leaders of the LRA, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in November 2005, be allowed to undermine a fragile peace process? Much of civil society in the north fears that an external legal process could jeopardize the peace and prevent a lasting settlement. To suspend the warrants, however, could send a message that those committing horrendous crimes can escape the consequences of their actions. The credibility of the fledgling court is at issue and its deterrent effect to future atrocities internationally.

Supporters of the ICC claim that the threat of prosecution served to bring the LRA to the negotiating table and contributed to the peace process. Yet the prospect of imprisonment for the LRA leadership is now a stumbling block to agreeing a final peace deal. Both, of course, may be true; there are very complex issues at stake here. To what extent should judicial opposition to the principle of impunity be allowed to jeopardize a sustainable peace? Most of those affected in the North simply want to return to their land and resume a normal life free from violence. In both Northern Ireland and South Africa, it was decided that there are occasions where accountability for terrible atrocities has to be attenuated in the interests of preventing further atrocities in the future. But neither of these countries had to contend with the complicating factor of outstanding arrest warrants of the ICC and a UN system committed to the credibility of the court.

There are possible solutions that can reconcile the ICC with the desire for peace. If the Ugandan government prosecuted the cases effectively then the jurisdiction of the ICC could be superseded, though Ugandan prosecution would need to follow recognised legal processes to satisfy the ICC—traditional processes in themselves would not be enough. It is here that the judgment of Solomon enters—what kind of accountability would be sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the ICC and how can such accountability be guaranteed? When is it justified to let appalling crimes go unpunished in the hope, itself uncertain, that it would lead to the prevention of future atrocities that might be no less terrible?

Certainly among the Acholi people there seems little appetite for the ICC. There is a long history of traditional justice processes such as Mato Oput (the drinking of the bitter root) but these in themselves are not enough. Uganda’s Amnesty Act of 2000 grants immunity to prosecution for all rebels laying down their arms and registering with the Amnesty Commission. Peace agreement agenda item three on accountability appears to anticipate that the arrest warrants might be suspended, but fails to detail the procedures that would enable this to happen. Traditional and religious leaders, Ugandan NGOs, and civil society organizations are currently consulting on a framework in which national and traditional processes could combine to provide a type of accountability that might substitute for the ICC. Trials at the ICC’s home in The Hague, addressing only the LRA leadership, would not deal with those immediately responsible for the killings. They would cost millions of pounds, and anyone convicted would live in material conditions vastly superior to those of most people currently living in IDP camps.

What kind of accountability might be acceptable both locally and internationally as the foundation of peace? Public acts of contrition and statements of apology by both the Ugandan government and the LRA could play a part. These could be built on by reparations paid to the affected communities in the form of improved services. Local traditions of justice including ceremonies of reconciliation held between communities where the conflict has fueled tensions may also help. These ceremonies could accompany practical and relevant memorials such as schools and hospitals dedicated to a future and more peaceful life. Such acts could be drawn into a wider framework of truth and reconciliation backed at a regional level by cultural leaders, at a national level by the Ugandan government, and at an international level by UN sponsorship and resources. It is here that advocacy by NGOs and civil society could help leverage the UN Security Council to suspend the arrest warrants while the peace process takes root.

The problem is both political and legal. With political will and moral imagination the ICC’s requirements for due legal process could be a combination of local, national and international accountability. This could comprise trial of the most senior commanders in the High Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that builds on the current Amnesty Act, possibly including investigative tribunals. But the Ugandan government must first be persuaded of the value of a process that could call its own actions into account. Any agreement will need to satisfy local requirements of justice and be expressive of international solidarity in the norms of human rights and humanitarian law. The form of such an agreement will not be easy. But there is everything to play for in a process that could bring peace to the troubled provinces of northern Uganda and by satisfying the requirements of justice could provide sufficient accountability to provide a sustainable peace.

Michael Bartlet

Michael Bartlet is parliamentary liaison secretary for the Religious Society of Friends in London.