On the map
- East African country
- Area: 236,040 km ² (nearly 3 times the size of Ireland)
- 38 million inhabitants
- Date of independence: 1962
- 1 out of 4 people live below the poverty line
- 1 out of 5 people can neither read nor write
- Human Development Index*: 164th out of 187 (France is 20th)
- 1 lawyer per 18,790 inhabitants (4 times less than in the United Kingdom)
*The Human Development Index is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living (source: UNDP).
Uganda: The clock is ticking against amnesia
When referring to the conflict in Uganda, it appears that the public and media have focused primarily on the crimes committed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). However, at least half a dozen other armed groups were also involved in the civil conflicts and rebellions that ravaged the country for decades.
Many of these conflicts arose out of discontent that originated from the unstable and unequal political and economic situation in Uganda. Since – and after – British colonialism, Uganda has been coping with a divide between the North and the South. While the South enjoyed relative economic prosperity, the North mainly served as a reservoir of cheap labour and recruits for the army.
The North-South battle for power culminated in 1969, with General Idi Amin’s regime soon becoming renowned for its brutality. At least 15,000 people were massacred or disappeared. Victims included members of other ethnic groups, religious leaders, journalists, civil servants, judges, lawyers and students. Amin was ultimately overthrown in 1979.
During the 1980s, the Luwero district in central Uganda became the nexus of fighting between the Uganda National Liberation Army and the National Resistance Army. This Luwero Triangle war claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians.
The longest conflict in Uganda, between the Government of Uganda and a number of rebel groups, most prominently the LRA, spanned two decades. The conflict began in 1986 when the current president, Mr Museveni, came to power. Casualties of the conflict include an estimated 100,000 civilians and 20,000 abducted children. Furthermore, by 2005, nearly 2 million people (+/- 90% of the Acholi-land population) had been internally displaced.
The LRA is still active in the sub-region and continues to abduct civilians and conduct attacks against the civilian population.
Men, women and children were either deliberately targeted or were merely caught up in the crossfire between the warring armed groups.
The consequences of the most internationally known conflict (1986-2006) between the Government of Uganda and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been far-reaching and have severely destabilised the region.
Nearly 1.8 million people have been displaced. Tens of thousands of civilians have been mutilated or killed. Thousands of children have been abducted for recruitment into the LRA’s forces, where these children spent years of their lives, sometimes committing crimes themselves.
Survivors of the violence still suffer. This is particularly the case for women who survived another war between two armed political groups in the central district of Luwero during the mid-80s. These women have suffered from their own injuries and displacement, and had no other choice but to assume the roles of their husbands and male relatives who had perished in the conflict. The women who survived this conflict are now calling for gender equality and an end to impunity for the crimes that were committed during the war.
International crimes and violence impact greatly on people’s living conditions. The decades of conflicts have destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of families across Uganda. Houses and other property such as livestock have been destroyed, while millions have been forced to leave their place of origin and find alternative ways to make a living.
Peace negotiations between the Government of Uganda and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) started in 2006. Ultimately, however, the LRA never signed the peace agreement.
Nevertheless, the Government has started implementing some of the measures foreseen in the agreement, such as the creation of an International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda. This division can prosecute international crimes at the national level. However, prosecutions aimed at holding perpetrators accountable have progressed at a very slow pace. So far, only one accused has been brought before the Court, who was granted amnesty in 2011.
Unconditional amnesty for former combatants has been foreseen by law since 2000. This prevents victims from accessing justice, since perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity can no longer be held accountable.
The existing legal framework in Uganda is currently being revised to organise the award of reparations to victims of past crimes, which is integral to their reintegration in society.
In 2008, the Government of Uganda began developing a National Policy on Transitional Justice. This policy reflects the core objectives of the Government: to end impunity, to promote justice and reconciliation and to foster reintegration of victims and former combatants as a necessary step to sustainable development. It is yet to be approved by the Parliament and subsequently made operational through an enacting law.
Among the numerous other challenges, specific treatment of vulnerable groups (women, children, child soldiers who are both victims and perpetrators), victims’ rights, as well as witness protection need to be addressed.
In 2002, Uganda acceded to the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first permanent international Court to tackle international crimes.
In December 2003, Uganda referred the situation concerning northern Uganda to the ICC. An investigation ensued and, by 2005, arrest warrants for crimes against humanity and war crimes for the five senior leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), including Joseph Kony, were made public.
Three years later, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor publicly called for renewed efforts to arrest top LRA commanders. The United Nations Security Council issued a resolution reminding the international community of the ICC indictments against the LRA. Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the indictment and bringing to trial of Joseph Kony at the ICC.
In 2008, the Government of Uganda explained that a special division of the High Court and the enactment of the relevant legislation would take place after the signing of the final peace agreement with the LRA. It further stated that those individuals who were indicted by the ICC would be brought before this special division for trial.
The same year, the Government and the LRA failed to sign the final peace agreement. Consequently, the ICC requested information as to the steps taken by Uganda to arrest LRA leaders. The Government responded that it remained committed to executing the arrest warrants.
For the past six years, however, there have been no reports of substantial progress by the Government of Uganda to apprehend the LRA commanders.
The victims of international crimes committed in Uganda and their expectations vary due to the different conflicts spread over the years and the way people have been affected.
For many victims, the main concern in the post-conflict situation is compensation, financial assistance or material support. This may be to help cover medical costs resulting from the injuries inflicted, scholarships or compensation for economic loss (i.e. property and livestock).
Many of the female survivors of sexual violence are HIV positive and would like medical assistance for themselves and their children who were born with HIV. Living below the poverty line, they cannot afford to take care of themselves. This reduces their productive capacity, which in turn contributes to the cycle of poverty in which they live.
Victims also want an opportunity to report matters to the police so that crimes can be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted.
Expectations are also linked to generations. Some of the younger victims – who have grown up in households led by children due to loss of their parents or former child soldiers – are in favour of collective amnesia. Their desire is to forget what happened and to move on with their lives “because the scars are very painful”.
Finally, small groups of ex-combatants would like to have the opportunity to apologise, in particular to the women and girls they took as their wives while in captivity.
Although they may have different interests, most of the victims and affected communities have one common goal: they want the truth. They want to know what happened to their loved ones – sons, daughters and husbands – who were abducted and have not returned.
Although some hear that their relatives have died, they still want to know the circumstances of their death, and where they are buried.
Successive governments in Uganda have used the instrument of amnesty to end various insurgencies. In 2000, an Amnesty Act encouraged rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and other armed groups to lay down their arms without fear of prosecution. As a result, over 26,000 combatants have benefited from the process.
Amnesty has played a role in the pacification of Uganda. But how can the authorities pursue justice and accountability for war crimes and serious human rights violations when unconditional amnesty is foreseen by law?
Amnesty for the former LRA people who were abducted is understandable: since they were abducted, they are also victims of crimes. Unconditional amnesty, however, makes no distinction between those who were abducted and those who abducted them, or those who were mistreated or raped and those who mistreated and raped them. This is a decisive hurdle in the fight against impunity and prevents victims from accessing justice.
This situation is leading to mistrust. Many victims’ communities claim that the amnesty law has only facilitated the reintegration of perpetrators at their expense, and they have come to resent beneficiaries of this law.
Another reason behind the lack of confidence in the Government to deal properly with past crimes is linked to reparation. There are no interventions or programmes in place to target the specific needs of victims, especially for communities in specific regions such as the Acholi sub-region.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking. The compositions of the victims’ communities are changing, with an increasing number of children and young adults returning home from captivity. The civilian victim population – persons who were not abducted but suffered injury and loss as a result of the conflict – is composed of middle-aged and elderly citizens. It is gradually decreasing in size, as the elderly and the sick are dying.
International justice is becoming an emergency in Uganda. The thousands of victims of crimes and human rights violations need to be heard and their suffering must be acknowledged.
Get to know the people
Sarah Kihika Kasande is a human right lawyer and works for the International Center for Transitional Justice. For her, time has come to break the cycle of impunity that the Amnesty Act passed in 2000 has created in Uganda. The most serious crimes must imperatively be prosecuted. © François Van Lierde, 2014
Jonathan is 42 years old. He spent almost 18 years in an internally displaced person camp. Poorly protected by the governmental forces, the camp has been attacked many times by the Lord’s Resistance Army. He wants justice to prevail to turn the page and rebuild his life. © François Van Lierde, 2014
Jeremy is 23 years old. He has been abducted when he was 17. He has remained in captivity for more than two years, coerced to fight in the ranks of the LRA. Back in his community, he benefited from the amnesty, but didn’t really want it. He wants to be recognized as a victim and not as a rebel. © François Van Lierde, 2014
Crossroads in Uganda
For the past two decades, the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fomented insecurity among the populations of Uganda. Gross human rights violations were committed including rape, murder, child abduction and looting, affecting people in rural areas. Since 2008, the security situation in the country has stabilized and a transitional justice process was launched to deal with those crimes.
Crossroads supports the efforts aimed at enhancing a policy and mechanisms of transitional justice that would lead to true reconciliation between the various components of the Ugandan population.
- Strengthened capacity of formal justice mechanisms to offer effective and appropriate legal responses that advance accountability for international crimes
- Improved socio-legal environment for accountability and redress for past legacies of mass human rights violations and broad transitional justice processes
- Building upon and strengthen the network of actors with a theoretical and practical understanding of international criminal justice principles by enhancing the capacity of legal actors and civil society organisations working closely with victim communities
- Institutional capacity building through the provision of technical assistance and support to relevant justice law and order sector actors within the transitional justice framework
- Knowledge and skills building through capacity building and awareness raising interventions
- Evidence based advocacy for policy and legal reform that enhance the recognition, fulfilment and protection of victims’ rights to justice for past mass atrocities and human rights
ASF shall also continue to implement activities aimed at enhancing the capacity of national institutions in Uganda so as to enable them, contribute towards the Government of Uganda’s better fulfilment of her international obligations to ensure accountability for mass human rights violations, and at the same time discharge her duties under the complementarity principle of the Rome Statute for the International criminal Court
The primary beneficiaries of the international justice project in Uganda are victims in the affected communities, with a special emphasis on women and children.
Other beneficiaries include legal actors; and National institutions, particularly the International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda, Justice Law and Order Sector Secretariat, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, and the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
Meet The Team
Head of Mission, ASF (Interim)
Project Assistant, ASF