Global Policy Forum

World Court Faces Tough Choices


By Daniel Wallis

September 3, 2006

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up to promote justice. But in Uganda, it is increasingly being seen as an obstacle to peace. Enforcing its first arrest warrants could be a defining moment this month, if the Ugandan rebels it has been hunting quit jungle hideouts for talks hailed as the best chance of ending their brutal two-decade insurrection. Should it try to engineer their capture and possibly put negotiations at risk, or abandon its founding principal that there must be no immunity for the very worst crimes?

Many of the 1.7 million villagers currently uprooted by the war in northern Uganda would cheer the sight of Joseph Kony emerging from the Congo forest with his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) fighters to settle in remote southern Sudan. Under a truce agreed a week ago, that is supposed to happen in the next three weeks -- while talks continue. If Kony turns up, prosecutors will have him in their sights for the first time, but mixed support for bringing him to justice. "In our hearts, we want the negotiations to work and finally everyone gets to go home. But in our minds, we support the ICC," said one Western diplomat in Kampala. "Does the ICC want to be seen as a last hurdle to peace, after all these years? No, but can they afford to compromise?"

The world court unsealed its first ever warrants for Kony and four other LRA commanders last October, accusing them of carrying out massacres, mutilating their victims and kidnapping thousands of children as fighters and sex slaves. Almost a year on, it finds itself at odds with Uganda's government, which first referred the case to it, but is now offering the rebels amnesty and protection if talks succeed. On Saturday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni repeated that if a deal was reached and Kony abandoned "criminal activities" he would intervene with the ICC on Kony's behalf.

"One thing we are offering for sure is no prosecution for Kony," Museveni told reporters. "That should be a big relief for him, because Kony should be hanged for what he has done." Investigators in The Hague, however, say they still expect Uganda or Sudan to carry out their legal obligation to arrest the LRA leaders.


Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told journalists this week she believed those with an obligation to arrest the LRA leaders would do so. "We think those persons who bear the greatest responsibility should not go unpunished," she said. Her views were echoed by Stephen Lamony, coordinator of the Ugandan Coalition for the ICC, which supports the court. Some politicians in northern Uganda have suggested formalising ancient traditional reconciliation rituals into law to reintegrate the LRA leaders through "national" justice. They say that could give the ICC a face-saving "exit strategy" should a final peace deal be reached that involves amnesty offers for the indictees. Lamony hinted that he could accept some form of compromise -- or at least a delay. Such an amnesty would only work, he said, if it won the support of all ethnic groups afflicted by the war in the north.

"The government referred the case to the ICC because it could not adequately prosecute the culprits. As long as that remains the case, the warrants should be upheld," he said. Museveni referred the war to the ICC in 2003 hoping to embarrass the LRA's backers in the Sudanese government, analysts say. But since then Khartoum's support has ended, and peace pleas from the rebels have shifted the balance of power. The ICC had been expecting Ugandan help cornering its suspects, while prosecutors also tackle mass abuses in eastern Congo and plan to investigate atrocities in Sudan's Darfur.

Norbert Mao, chairman of Gulu district in the heart of the war zone, led thousands of cheering residents waving white flags to the local army base on Wednesday in support of peace. "We are going on as if the ICC does not exist ... this is our country," Mao told Reuters. "The government's position is very clear: we are not handing over any of the indictees."

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


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