Global Policy Forum

Peace in Northern Uganda, But Whose Justice?


By Dr. Erin Baines and Adrian Bradbury *

Sudan Tribune
August 2, 2007

We have just passed the one-year anniversary of the ongoing peace talks between the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Both sides agree that this is the best opportunity ever for peace in northern Uganda; a region of over 2-million people that has been largely ignored, while their community and the future of their children is being completely torn apart by this 21-year conflict. July also marked the historic passing of item number three of five of the peace agenda, "reconciliation and accountability". Endorsed by both parties, "reconciliation and accountability" is a major first step towards a locally led, national solution aimed at lasting peace. However, it too is being largely ignored or more alarmingly, is being dismissed by international actors and the media for its lack of nuance and punitive action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In October 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued it's first ever arrest warrants against five senior LRA commanders, including leader Joseph Kony and second-in-command Vincent Otti for war crimes and crimes against humanity. With the list of charges against the LRA including child abduction, rape, sexual enslavement and murder, there is little to argue against the necessity to hold those responsible, accountable. The ICC, which found strong, active international support in its formation, was built on the ideal of being 'victim-centred'. If the ICC truly is a 'court of last resort', why exactly was the Paramount Chief of the major victims of this war, the Acholi of northern Uganda, David Onen Acana II, in London, Washington, DC and Ottawa, Canada last month pleading with these governments to play a key role in repealing the ICC indictments?

The Acholi people are unanimously in support of urgent peace, but a peace that is grounded in local justice mechanisms. They fear that the ICC indictments will be a barrier to peace, and they understand that without a local solution to the ICC, the LRA will return to war. In short, the victims are interested in their justice, not ours. And well they should be. To the Acholi of northern Uganda, justice is not simply putting the perpetrators behind bars in some foreign court. In fact, any such justice would be incomplete.

The most common form of Acholi justice is mato oput, a process that encompasses truth, accountability, compensation and aims to restore the relationships shattered by conflict. Elders act as neutral arbitrators that bring clans together in dialogue, ceremony and forgiveness. When learning of mato oput, international actors instantly draw their lines in the sand, accusing such traditional means of justice and reconciliation as backwards, 'tribal' and an encouragement of impunity. Global experts accuse local methods of justice as being "infantile" and "lacking all credibility". Traditional justice and reconciliation however, is a local necessity and is the voice of the majority. That is the reality of a people who have lost loved ones, their livelihoods and an entire generation to this war. So instead of hopping up on our soapbox and preaching justice, why are we not offering resources, expertise and support to bolster the Ugandan judicial system?

There is a recognition, even locally, that progress needs to be made if the current system is to be able to handle the ICC's demands. This however, should not be seen as a weakness, but an opportunity for vested nations, like Canada and the United Kingdom, to get involved. Working together with Ugandans would leave behind a legacy of local leadership and a system of justice that could be a beacon of hope at home, as well as to neighbouring nations still embroiled in conflict.

The current 'ICC or nothing' mentality is exactly the same misguided perspective the world of international development was focused on no less than 10 years ago. At the time, funding was provided with top down, donor dictated solutions that didn't necessarily make any sense in the regions they were supposed to be 'helping'. Today however, development is improving because of the push towards local solutions, partnerships with communities, and sustainability through local leaders, with the ultimate goal to empower. So, if the best and brightest in a place like Uganda can be partners in their growth and development, why exactly can't these same people be trusted with a similar partnership when it comes to justice?

The lingering question from the over 1.4-million people still trapped in squalid displacement camps is - - if the LRA will never sign a peace deal with the ICC arrest warrants hanging over their heads, then what exactly is this justice standoff doing for the people it claims to be protecting? We hope Ottawa and London - - having invested heavily in the peace process and having pledged their commitment to the victims - - is ready to answer these tough questions should the Paramount Chief's pleas fall on deaf ears.

About the Author: Dr. Erin Baines is the director of the Justice and Reconciliation Program for Uganda and an assistant professor of the Liu Institute for Global Issues. Adrian Bradbury is a Walter & Duncan Gordon Fellow and is the founder and director of GuluWalk, a Canadian-led global advocacy campaign focused on peace in northern Uganda.

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