Global Policy Forum

For Ugandan Rebel, A Question of Justice


By Nora Boustany

Washington Post
July 12, 2007

To some international legal experts, Joseph Kony, commander of the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda, should be turned over to the International Criminal Court, which has issued arrest warrants for him and four top commanders for war crimes during his 21-year guerrilla war. But others, anxious to see an end to the conflict, say a compromise should be found, allowing Kony to go into exile rather than face charges, as the price for peace in the troubled Acholi region.

Kony's fate is at the center of talks on accountability and reconciliation that resumed in Juba, Sudan, in June between representatives of the Ugandan government and northern Ugandan tribes speaking for the rebel army. Last Friday, the head of the rebel team said three parts of a five-phase peace agreement had been signed, but declined to provide details. Safety and sanctuary for Kony and his commanders, and guarantees for their livelihood, are some of the conditions the rebel delegation has demanded at the talks.

The idea of exile for repressive African leaders is not new; several African dictators fled their countries after they were deposed, before the creation of the international court in 2002. Among them were Ethiopia's deposed president Mengistu Haile Mariam, who went to Zimbabwe, where he still lives; former president Mobutu Sese Seko, who left Zaire for France and died in exile in Morocco; and Somali leader Mohamed Siad Barre, who sought asylum in Nigeria, where he died. Idi Amin, who was Uganda's president, fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death.

The war in Uganda started as a backlash to brutal excesses by the army of President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986. The Lord's Resistance Army has been accused of plucking out eyes, severing lips and tongues and amputating limbs of men, women and children. Kony's men have also been accused of abducting children and forcibly inducting them into the guerrilla ranks.

Speaking at a conference in Nuremberg, Germany on June 25, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, reiterated that his investigators proved "that the top commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army were personally responsible for conscripting and enslaving children, slaughtering their families, forcing the displacement of millions." Because the court has no law enforcement power, Moreno-Ocampo has urged that the international community establish an apprehension mechanism. Challenges to the timing of judicial decisions and calls for amnesties "to avoid prosecution, supposedly in the name of peace," were not consistent with the court's mission, he said. "As a prosecutor, I want to arrest Kony and his men," Moreno-Ocampo said in an interview in Washington in May. "His destiny is the dock." He added, "There is no conflict between peace and justice. Apprehend them tomorrow, and you have peace and justice on the same day." However, Moreno-Ocampo said, if the U.N. Security Council were to request a 12-month delay of the prosecution, he would have to respect it. A suspension can be renewed for up to five years.

Michael Poffenberger, executive director of the Washington-based nongovernmental group Resolve Uganda, has argued for a more traditional form of justice. It would involve Kony and his men admitting responsibility for past crimes, asking for forgiveness and agreeing to pay some form of compensation to victims or their survivors. Kony's supporters among the ethnic Acholi tribe have said he wants to be exiled in a third country that is not a signatory to the accord creating the International Criminal Court.

Richard Dicker, director of the Human Rights Watch international justice program, said the ultimate "arbiters and deciders" have to be the International Criminal Court judges. If Ugandan courts are to be considered an alternative to the international court, Dicker said, new laws would have to be enacted covering crimes against humanity. He insisted Kony face a trial. Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has said it is wrong to believe the international court indictments are an impediment to peace. "Criminal justice is an instrument of peace, a crime is a breach of peace. One needs to stand by it. We have to use it consistently with its own logic with no political imperatives. You just move," she said during a visit here last month.

Activists such as Africa specialist John Prendergast are advocating the appointment of a U.S. special envoy for the Uganda crisis, especially if the U.N. Security Council decides to step in. Prendergast said he feared Kony could still cause instability in as many as three African countries -- Sudan, Uganda and Congo. "We have a very significant investment in south Sudan, both diplomatically and in terms of assistance, that is at grave risk," Prendergast warned. Prendergast said he believes a plan to arrest Kony should be in place even if he gets asylum. "If you send him away, it is not pure justice, but it is a solution for now. If he misbehaves, we should go after him."

Jimmie Briggs, the author of "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War," said he was torn about the issue. "To me as a Westerner, Kony should be legally accountable for the destruction and killing he caused. But it is for the Ugandans and the Acholi to see how to reconcile equal judgment or have him exiled. I don't believe justice has to be compromised, but it has to be defined by the Acholi. Ultimately, it is up to them."

Kony has 200 children with several dozen wives, some of them taken as sex slaves. Despite his eccentric behavior -- including visions, trances in which he has been described as speaking in tongues, and his predatory form of violence -- he does have lapses of lucidity and rational thinking, those who have spoken to him have said. When Ugandan mediator and peace envoy Betty Bigombe sought to persuade him to come out of the bush and join a peace process, he responded: "But look at what I have done. My fate will surely be death, prison, or maybe exile." Poffenberger said Kony is very "victim-focused" and anxious not to be handed over to an international tribunal, like Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president now facing war crimes charges in The Hague. Poffenberger also said Kony watched a video of the execution of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein earlier this year, after the mayor of Gulu brought him the cassette at his request to observe Hussein's final moments.

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