Story by Human Rights Watch
Published July 31, 2006
Initiatives aimed at ending the devastating armed conflict in northern Uganda are welcome, but amnesties for war crimes and crimes against humanity must not be on offer, Human Rights Watch argues, adding that Uganda should prosecute the LRA.
On July 14, 2006 peace talks began between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Juba, the capital of the regional government of Southern Sudan. As part of a peace package, the Ugandan government delegation is offering amnesty to all LRA combatants, including five top LRA leaders for whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch has documented human rights violations committed by the LRA over the years, including torture, sexual abuse, mutilations, recruitment of child soldiers, and forcing children to kill even members of their own families.
The conflict in northern Uganda to depose President Yoweri Museveni began immediately after he took power by force in 1986. LRA, based in northern Uganda, struck fear in the civilian population by carrying out mutilations, killings and forced recruitment of child soldiers mostly from the Acholi people of northern Uganda, although LRA leader Joseph Kony is Acholi himself.
In December 2003 Museveni invited the ICC to investigate the LRA. In July 2005 the court issued warrants for the arrest of top five LRA leaders(Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya, Dominic Ongwen, and Joseph Kony)for crimes including widespread or systematic murder, sexual enslavement, rape, and war crimes such as intentionally attacking civilians and abducting and enlisting children under the age of 15.
“The LRA Five are accused of widespread sexual slavery, murder, and brutalization of children over two decades,” says Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “Amnesty or similar measures cannot be on the table when it comes to these kinds of crimes.”
International law rejects impunity for serious crimes, such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. International treaties, including the UN Convention against Torture, the Geneva Conventions, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, require parties to ensure alleged perpetrators of serious crimes are prosecuted. Uganda has ratified each of these in addition to numerous other human rights treaties.
According to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, amnesties cannot be granted for serious crimes under international law, and peace agreements endorsed by the UN can never provide such amnesties.
The creation of the ICC and other international criminal tribunals to prosecute genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or other serious violations of humanitarian law illustrates the strong international commitment to justice for serious crimes.
“We have seen time and again that turning a blind eye to justice only undercuts durable peace,” says Dicker. “How long can a peace based on this kind of deal last?”
The UN and key governments should continue to speak out strongly against amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Dicker says.
The devastating effect of amnesties for serious crimes can be seen in the example of Sierra Leone.
In 1999 the Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh(allegedly responsible for brutal crimes including mutilations, murder and rape)received an amnesty and was rewarded with control of a government commission in exchange for signing the Lomé peace accord, which was supposed to end Sierra Leone’s brutal war.
Sankoh soon went on to attack both government forces and UN peacekeepers, taking hundreds of them hostage. The revived conflict was not declared over until more than two years later.
Notably, the peace agreement that settled the 21-year war in southern Sudan in January 2005 did not include an amnesty. The government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), composed of former southern Sudanese rebels, came to power through this agreement, which was approved by the Security Council. The GoSS is now sponsoring the peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government.
Saying Human Rights Watch also has documented abuses by Ugandan government forces, including rape, Human Rights Watch calls upon Uganda also should conduct meaningful prosecutions in its own courts to supplement investigation and prosecutions by the ICC. Additionally, the Ugandan government should establish a truth commission or another truth-telling process that would allow people in northern Uganda a forum to speak about the human rights abuses that occurred during the war. This process could work alongside traditional reconciliation.