Peace versus justice

As peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continue, a debate is raging over whether those who have committed war crimes should be allowed to escape international justice for the sake of peace.

The LRA is insisting as its condition for full peace talks that the International Criminal Court (ICC), in The Hague, drop arrest warrants against its leaders on 33 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, referred the civil war in the north of his country to the ICC—the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal—in December 2003.

In July last year the ICC issued arrest warrants for LRA leader Joseph Kony and his main aides, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. None has yet been arrested, but Lukwiya died in a recent gun battle with the Ugandan army.

Now, to the consternation of ICC prosecutors, Museveni has changed his mind.
A year after the arrest warrants were issued, Museveni unilaterally offered amnesty to the LRA in return for an initial ceasefire and an eventual, comprehensive peace deal. He has promised that none of the rebel leaders will be sent to The Hague—raising problems for the ICC, which was depending on the Ugandan army to find and arrest the rebels.

Some ICC officials and NGOs believe Museveni has toyed with the court, cynically undermining its credibility. The 102 countries, including Uganda, that have signed up to the ICC entered a binding agreement under international law and cannot simply opt out of holding to account individuals accused of terrible crimes.

“Museveni is acting in contravention of international law,” said Judge Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. “His government signed the [ICC’s founding] 1998 Rome Statute, and offers of amnesty violate the letter of the law.”

However, Ugandans, particularly those in the north directly affected by the conflict, are frustrated by the amount of time the arrest warrants have been in the public arena without any arrest being made.

Ugandan human rights lawyer Barney Afako said the fundamental question is whether the intervention of international justice is prolonging the conflict or hastening its solution.

“Justice needs to be justified in terms of lives,” said Afako. He asked how many more Acholi people would need to be slaughtered before the ICC is in a position to try the LRA leaders, and went on, “The [international] criminal justice system is isolated from the moral consequences of its intervention.”

If trials in a courtroom in The Hague in full view of the international community are not to take place, what instead is to happen with a rebel guerrilla force that has been at the centre of a web of mayhem and misery over two decades?

The countries that have ratified the Rome Statute governing the ICC no doubt believe it is the most robust form of justice available. But, ironically, many Ugandans say this “formal” mechanism is not sufficient to deal with the range of offences committed by the LRA.

The tradition of the Acholi—the Ugandans worst affected by the LRA terror—is to resolve disputes through an elaborate ceremony called mato oput—which involves a series of symbolic acts to restore unity between the injured and offending parties.

“Mato oput involves the man or woman accepting responsibility for their actions and repenting for their crimes,” said the Anglican bishop of the northern town of Kitgum, the Right Reverend Baker Ochola, a passionate advocate of the local peace-making route. “The situation where the crimes are brought into the open is important, so that suffering is acknowledged and perpetrators sincerely apologise,” said Simon Simonse, of the Brussels-based Catholic peace group Pax Christi International, an adviser at the negotiations between LRA and Ugandan government representatives.

However, one weakness of traditional justice is that it differs from community to community. Stephen Arthur Lamony, coordinator of the Ugandan Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a local ICC support organisation, said that imposing the Acholi system on other tribes would “deny them access to justice”. He said that representatives of other northern Ugandan peoples do want the LRA to be prosecuted by the ICC. Their tribal leaders argue that the Acholis’ mato oput has no jurisdiction over serious offences like rape and murder, he said.

At a meeting on the DRC-Sudan border on July 31, Kony offered apologies to village elders for atrocities committed by the LRA. Simonse, who was present when Kony offered his act of contrition, believes the ICC might be persuaded to withdraw its arrest warrants if the Ugandan government and Acholi leaders can prove that their own way of dealing publicly with war crimes will satisfy the international community.

But should the ICC feel obliged to abandon the case against Kony and his aides? What kind of justice would that be for Acholis who have seen their sons and daughters kidnapped by the LRA to fight as rebels or be kept as sex slaves, whose neighbours’ lips, ears and breasts have been cut off by the LRA? It was Museveni’s government that invited the ICC into northern Uganda in the first place. To honour its obligation to the ICC, the Ugandan government is under an onus to make the local transitional justice system as acceptable as possible to standards the ICC may have in mind.

Judge Goldstone’s objections to such a compromise are supported by Mark Ellis, executive director of the London-based International Bar Association, who urged the international community to take action against Museveni.

Ellis said that the ICC is obliged to adhere to its mandate to ensure that those accused of committing crimes against humanity are held accountable. The ICC would be damaged if a groundswell of support emerges for the practice of ending violence by offering amnesty and freedom from punishment to the actors involved, he said.

Illegal though the developing Uganda deal may be, there are precedents for such amnesties in other parts of Africa. The possibility of amnesty, in exchange for truth telling, lay at the heart of the philosophy of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Centre of Justice and Reconciliation’s Margot Stroeken said she believed the Ugandan government’s amnesty offer could be a “trade-off to forget crimes Museveni’s own troops have committed”. Stroeken questioned why ICC arrest warrants have been issued only against LRA combatants, who see themselves as freedom fighters against Museveni, whose southern-based guerrillas took power by force in 1986.

Afako said that when people realised the ICC was relying on the Ugandan army to arrest Kony and his fellow leaders, their faces fell and they asked, “What is the point of all this posturing?”

Lamony, of the Ugandan Coalition for the ICC, also warned that if the ICC does not change its approach it will continue to be resisted not only by the rebels, but “most importantly by the natives…People want to see the court issuing arrest warrants to both parties in the conflicts in Uganda, Darfur and the DRC, not only the rebels,” said Lamony.

Provided by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting

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