Global Policy Forum

ICC's Balancing Act


Integrated Regional Information Networks
August 4, 2006

Thousands of children kidnapped, thousands of people killed, gruesome atrocities committed; it is a tale of shocking brutality, suffering and massive displacement spanning two decades in northern Uganda. It is a battle pitting the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), the country's army, against the mythic Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - a rebel group made up of mainly children, some as young as 10 years. It is a battle that has made northern Uganda a theatre of bloody crimes.

This is where the rebel fighters descend from the bush onto defenceless civilians to gather their harvest before disappearing into the night with their loot: children that they turn into killing machines or sex slaves. But the rebel group in this part of the world is unique in its form. No headquarters, preferring instead to wander nomadically through the bush.

It initially claimed to be fighting to topple a government that has "marginalised" people of the region; but they quickly turned against the same people when support was not forthcoming. They control no territory and rarely try to capture strategic government assets; and this made fighting or arresting perpetrators a nightmare for the government army, until the Ugandan authorities found a new way to exert pressure on their existence. The Government petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICC) in The Hague to investigate and indict rebel leaders for their crimes against humanity.

The ICC responded, and last year issued warrants of arrest for five of the rebel leaders. However, mediators who tried to broker negotiations in the war are not amused. They think that the justice being sought by the ICC was not the immediate requirement, but a luxury that could be put aside for a while as peace is sought. Religious, cultural and some political leaders in the northern region say that what is required is to find avenues for lasting peace and stop the violence that targets mainly the civilian population. The Court itself had remained an institution in isolation as far as the population in Uganda is concerned. Many saw its efforts as the wrong note in a song for peace. Its location, thousands of kilometres away, did not help the situation.

Jane Ajok, the 45-yearold mother of five children , two of whom were abducted and recently returned, was not aware that there is an international body pursuing the rebel leaders for their crimes, though she said she would support efforts for the local justice system if it could convince others to come out and end her suffering. These are the perceptions the ICC has to balance. It has since tried to liaise with a cautious society, already nervous over the indictment of top LRA leaders.

The Hague-based court and some international human rights groups insist on justice and not impunity in situations of crimes against humanity but they face a section of the Ugandan public that believes that justice at the expense of peace and reconciliation is "not good enough". Speaking from the Hague, Arnest Sagaga, the spokesman for the court, told IRIN that a year ago a lot of misconceptions about the court existed, but that a recent effort to have a dialogue with the community had paid off by reducing the proximity gap and by establishing a field office in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. It has since distributed up to 80,000 information kits outlining its work and benefits.

"It has been important to continue with the dialogue because already we have achieved much better understanding of the court in Uganda. We have been meeting people at all levels, and this has fostered understanding," he said. However, Sagaga admits that the challenges are many, including balancing what the court wants to achieve and what the Ugandan systems have to offer - especially the cultural efforts to reconciliation. "The ICC is just complementary to the local justice systems and relies on national policing systems to implement some of its decisions," Sagaga added; but many say this is its main weakness.

The Catholic Archbishop in northern Uganda, John Baptist Odama, who has headed a local effort to end the rebellion through peaceful means, sees the court's decision to issue indictments against the LRA leadership last year as the "last nail in the coffin" for efforts to achieve dialogue. He said that the apprehension over the indictment is not purposely to oppose administering justice, but the impact they have had on the peace process.

"We have not had any direct contact with them (the rebels) since January 2006, because the last time I talked to Vincent Otti, the role of the ICC figured prominently in our discussion," Odama said. "Many people have asked the ICC questions that have not received the necessary answers. The people have been asking the ICC that if there is a strong process of reconciliation, what is there to achieve by the court rushing to issue indictments and instead sending these people far away?" Odama told IRIN.

He added, "How soon are those people going to be arrested?" Sagaga admitted that he did not have a direct answer to this. "We rely on the state police and I cannot give you an answer as to when we can implement the indictments. We have asked states to cooperate with the court and Uganda has promised to cooperate," he said. "ICC would not interfere with other initiatives to achieve peace and reconciliation."

But on reconciliation, local leaders in the north believe that "it takes two to tango". James Otto, a human rights activist in Gulu, said that the feeling among the people is that the ICC blocked the reconciliation process because the process -known as the Mato Oput - depended on the involvement of the rebel leaders. A senior politician in the district has described the ICC's intervention in northern Uganda as "antagonism" to "already successful processes on the ground" - referring to a blanket amnesty that the government extends to surrendering rebel fighters.

Walter Ochola, the out-going Gulu district council chairman, was also referring to the traditional ritual on justice and reconciliation, Mato Oput, although he recently told IRIN that he now believes that the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, will never talk peace. "ICC's new approach to interface with the public is very appropriate because if Kony were apprehended it would send a signal that one cannot commit atrocities and get away with it," said Ochola. The cultural leader of the Acholi sub-tribe, Rwot Acana II, had started performing these rituals as the cultural head of the community. He however said that he and other leaders were not against the prosecution of those who commit crimes against humanity, "but it is a question of when".

Ochola was however sceptical. "Even if the chief prosecutor wanted them arrested, who would arrest Kony?" He added that judging from recent video and communication from Kony, the rebel leader does not accept that "he has wronged the people of Acholi, and therefore he is not ready for the Mato Oput'. The ceremony starts with accepting your wrong and asking for forgiveness. Compensation then comes before reconciliation."

However, others say that the ICC indictment has instead sent the LRA farther away from the reconciliation process, with some pointing to the behaviours of the rebel group soon after the indictments were issued. Some recall that in October 2005, many aid agencies had to suspend or curtail activities after two relief workers were killed in LRA ambushes in the north; two others were also killed in neighbouring South Sudan in attacks that appeared to target them. The ICC had just issued the arrest warrant against the rebel leaders.

Odama agrees: "With the ICC, no senior LRA leader will come out, but they will continue to maintain a strong control on the officers and men under them. Mato Oput requires confession by the offender before the victim can accept. The perpetrator has to pay a certain compensation determined by the cultural leaders before both parties drink from the same calabash, with their heads touching one another and eating together." Mato Oput is an elaborate cultural ceremony - which in the Acholi language literally means to drink a bitter potion made from the leaves of the oput tree. The prodigal sons and daughters receive forgiveness and are welcomed back into their communities.

The ceremony is conducted by a council of elders. The guilty party crushes a raw egg to symbolise a new beginning and then steps over an "opobo" (bamboo stick) to represent the leap from the past to the present. As the rite reaches its climax, both the guilty party and the wronged party drink a brew made from the herbs of the oput tree to show that they accept the bitterness of the past and promise never to taste such bitterness again.

This has been the justice system that the community has used to reintegrate former rebels into the very communities they previously terrorised as a way to prevent the breakdown of society. Odama said this could not be achieved when the war is still going on. "The main thing to work on is to end the war and the ICC is not the remedy that will end the war," he said. The ICC would need to reach out to Ajok, who took the ICC to be the American government and its contemporaries, if its work is to be appreciated by all. The court will also have to win support from all sections of the population that the court's work aims to benefit - the necessary balancing act it needs.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on ICC Investigations in Uganda
More Information on the International Criminal Court
More Information on Joseph Kony
More Information on Uganda


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