Global Policy Forum

Ugandan Rebels Fear Fate of Liberia's Taylor


By Tim Cocks

June 11, 2007

The trial of former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor is likely to hinder efforts to coax Ugandan rebels out of their jungle hideouts to peace talks, experts said on Monday. Taylor boycotted the start of proceedings last week at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where he faces charges of instigating murder, rape and mutilation when he backed a guerrilla group in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Analysts say the prospect of a similar trial may make other African warlords, who like Uganda's Lords Resistance Army (LRA) rebels are the target of arrest warrants for horrific crimes, less likely to swap military fatigues for civilian clothes. "The Taylor trial has made the LRA very cautious to come out. They are bargaining hard to get their indictments lifted," said Paul Omach, politics lecturer at Kampala's Makerere University.

The LRA's four top commanders are wanted by the ICC for crimes including murdering civilians and abducting thousands of children as recruits during a two-decade rebellion. They have vowed not to make peace unless the indictments are scrapped. "We are going to stay where we are, in the bush, until we have an agreement to keep the ICC away," LRA deputy commander Vincent Otti told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location in the dense jungles of Democratic Republic of Congo. For 20 years, his fighters have spread fear across northern Uganda and parts of southern Sudan, massacring civilians and mutilating survivors by slicing off lips, noses or ears.

Uganda's government, which asked the ICC to issue arrest warrants in 2005, has offered the LRA amnesty, but only after they sign a final deal. That means the LRA will have to trust them -- and analysts say Taylor's fate sets an ominous precedent.

"Breach of Trust"

Taylor stepped down in 2003 under a deal with the Nigerian government as rebels seeking to oust him besieged the Liberian capital Monrovia. Nigeria offered him sanctuary, but later bowed to international pressure and handed him over to the ICC. "However you look at it, the arrest of Taylor was a breach of trust by the Nigerian government. How can the LRA be sure the same won't happen to them?" asked Levi Ochieng, a Kampala-based researcher on conflicts in the Great Lakes region.

Taylor's trial is presided over by Ugandan Judge Julia Sebutinde. Many peace campaigners in northern Uganda, weary of a war that has killed tens of thousands and forced 1.7 million people into refugee camps, want a softer landing for the LRA. "We are convincing them they cannot be betrayed if they do the right thing. If they come out of the bush, they should be pardoned," said Norbert Mao, chairman of Gulu district, at the epicentre of the conflict.

Mao proposes the LRA undergo a traditional "Mato Oput" reconciliation ritual, where the victims effectively forgive the perpetrator after he admits his crime. But the ICC and some human rights groups are sceptical of that approach, saying a credible judicial process must dish out harsh punishments for such serious offences. Analysts say a compromise may be possible -- building on months of stop-start peace talks in southern Sudan's capital Juba where the LRA leaders are represented by negotiators. "If the parties in Juba are serious about striking a deal, they must create a genuine accountability mechanism," said Phil Clark, research fellow at the Ulster University's Transitional Justice Institute. "The LRA commanders will want assurances that they won't serve full sentences for their crimes, so there will have to be plea-bargaining."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on ICC Investigations in Uganda
More Information on Joseph Kony
More Information on ICC Investigations
More Information on Uganda


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