Global Policy Forum

ICC Under Fire Over Uganda Probe


By Josefine Volqvartz

February 23, 2005

By intervening in northern Uganda's 18-year civil war, the International Criminal Court is in danger of perpetuating it, according to NGOs and international bodies concerned about the court's fledgling investigation.

"ICC has committed a terrible blunder," says Bryn Higgs, Uganda Program Development Officer for Conciliation Resources. "To start war crimes investigations for the sake of justice at a time when northern Uganda sees the most promising signs for a negotiated settlement of the violence risks having in the end neither justice nor peace delivered." According to Britain's UN Ambassador Sir Emyr Jones Parry the problem lies with the timing of the ICC's investigation. "This is about sequencing. First you need to put an end to the conflict and move into peace. After this comes justice and reconciliation."

Both are worried that the prospect of being convicted of war crimes at the ICC will drive the rebel Lord's Resistance Army away from peace talks with the Ugandan government. Bryn Higgs said: "The irony is that the ICC is there for a humanitarian purpose, it wants to discourage terrible crimes with impunity, but instead it pushes the LRA back in the bush and this leads to a continuation of the atrocities."

In 2003, Uganda's President Yoweri Museweni referred the brutalities of the Lord's Resistance Army to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who has now determined that there is sufficient basis to start an investigation. But the intervention coincides with the start of the most promising peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA in 18 years. The negotiations have already collapsed once this year and analysts say ICC intervention could be the last straw. "There are many rebels coming out and at the moment, we even have rebel commanders coming out of the bush," Gemma Houldey, Christian Aid's Uganda Program Officer points out. "So for ICC to come in at this moment is not seen as a positive development. And even President Museweni has backed away from the investigations acknowledging that there are alternatives."

But ICC's Legal Officer Darryl Robinson says an investigation can't be suspended unless there is reason to believe that it would not be in the interests of justice. So far this isn't the case, he says. "We do not believe that the rate of defections from the LRA has been slowed by the ICC intervention, which has been known to Ugandans since 2004," he said. In contrast to many NGOs and international bodies working in Uganda, Darryl Robinson is positive about ICC's involvement in the conflict. "These peace discussions have been going on for something like 18 years now. "Perhaps the ICC interference presents an opportunity. What we can do is to isolate the very very top leadership. We can encourage the others to demobilize and we can help galvanize international attention to focus on the situation." He emphasizes that the ICC will not prosecute anyone under the age of 18. In addition, they will focus on the few who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated in northern Uganda.

However, the amnesty for under 18 year-olds is complicated by the length and nature of the hostilities. During the 18 years of conflict, children have been abducted by the LRA and coerced into fighting with threats of mutilation or execution. Many of these children are now in their late twenties and among the leadership of the LRA. Neither the rebels nor the general population are likely to cooperate with the government as long as they or their children risk prosecution.

Retributive or restorative justice

Like most religious leaders and local governors in the war torn region, Doctor FK Olyet, Vice Chairman of Uganda's Concerned Parents Association, believes the only way to solve this conflict is through forgiveness and reconciliation: "The whole society is entangled in this conflict in some way or the other. It's not only the people who are fighting. The LRA has so many collaborators and consists of up to 30,000 children who have been abducted over the past 20 years. If the ICC go and prosecute the leadership they are missing the point."

Doctor Olyet's daughter was one of the many children abducted. She was taken to Sudan and given to an LRA member: "What happened to my daughter in the camp is too terrible to mention. She was told that her mother and father were dead and she had nothing to go back to. But now she is back with her family, she was among the lucky few who were released in November last year."

There is a feeling in the region that the ICC has ignored important messages from local leaders. By doing so the ICC is undermining traditional local justice mechanisms that have been shown to work according to Christian Aid's Gemma Houldey. This includes an amnesty act, which was passed several years ago and has had a positive impact. "It's the tension between retributive and restorative justice," she explains. "The people of the North would prefer restorative justice. That is rooted in their culture and they would argue that the ICC have no grounding with what is going on in the region if it thinks the answer is to pull out a whole lot of rebels."

While Caesar Poblics, Project Officer from the Ugandan peace initiative Kacoke Madit, which means "big meeting" in Acholi, is grateful for the international support Uganda receives at this crucial moment, he is worried about the timing of the involvement of the ICC and the misconceptions it has led to. "We need support from the international community, we need dialogue between the rebels and the government. I know the ICC recognizes justice, but the public and the LRA think the ICC is here to punish children who have been abducted. The timing of this intervention and the lack of explanation is a big problem."

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the crimes committed by all sides during the apartheid regime, recognizes this dilemma. "Ultimately it is Ugandans who have to decide what is best for them. Whatever they choose, it should not hinder reconciliation and healing and yet it should not encourage impunity and hurt the victims yet again," he said. But it is not easy for an institution like the ICC to be flexible in terms of involvement and strategy, says Stig Marker Hansen, Chief of Party of the Washington Northern Uganda Peace Initiative. Marker Hansen was present at the latest peace talks between the rebels and the Ugandan government. "The ICC should consult with traditional structures of Ugandan society and let traditional justice take place. But of course, this is not easy when they are bound by their own statute," states Marker Hansen.

An ongoing disaster

Because Uganda is internationally known for its healthy economy and rapid development, the war and the suffering in the north has largely gone unnoticed for almost twenty years. "It's an ongoing humanitarian disaster," says Bryn Higgs of Reconciliation Resources. "Almost the whole farming community has been displaced. People in the region are destitute. They say it's the end of the Acholi society, the end of their culture."

Currently, 1.6 million people are displaced and 85 percent of them are people from Uganda's Acholi region. Since 1996 most of them have been living in IDP camps and protective villages. Every evening thousands of children trek into villages and hospitals to sleep on dirt floors for the night because they are scared for their lives. "People in camps cannot produce their own food; they cannot trade or do any kind of development. Everything is at a standstill and this has all happened since the late 1990s," says Doctor FK Olyet of the CPA.

But this could all change if the peace negotiations are successful. While most international parties consider a positive outcome likely, people in the region hardly dare hope for peace. They have been hopeful so many times before only to see negotiations collapse. They have seen their country as a whole grow richer while their situation deteriorated. It is unsurprising that they feel let down by their government and the international community. Doctor Olyet is one of the many who have entirely lost trust in government: "President Museweni says he wants to bring peace, but we don't know really if he is serious about peace," he said. "The government could have finished this war within months if they really wanted to. If they can go to Rwanda and Congo and finish their problems, how come they cannot finish the problem in Uganda?"

Kacoke Madit's Caesar Poblics is also skeptical. "How come other parts of the country are doing so well and yet northern Uganda is suffering?" Both men are surprised that the international community has demanded so little from the government, when, after all, it pays aid equivalent to 50 percent of Uganda's GDP. But they both acknowledge that the situation has improved since November last year when Jan Egeland, the UN's emergency humanitarian coordinator, called attention to the war in Uganda, calling it "one of the world's most neglected crises."

Now the international community has the opportunity to prove to these people that they are not forgotten and that peace and prosperity are attainable. With help from the Northern Uganda Peace Initiative, an 18-day cease-fire was in place until February 22, while the LRA are discussing their terms for a landmark peace deal. Last week, Sam Collo, one of the LRA's highest-ranking leaders came out of the bush to negotiate. "It's all looking positive," says Marker Hansen the initiative's Chief of Party. With the right intervention from the international community the peace negotiations present a fair chance that millions of people could be given back the stable lives they once had. The ICC will be watched closely by the many international bodies and NGOs involved in the peace process. Christian Aid's Gemma Houldey said: "What the ICC does now in Uganda has a big impact on how they will be perceived internationally afterwards. But so far it does not look like they are doing well, despite having the very best intentions."

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