Saturday, 10 December 2005

Trip to Northern Uganda - Flight

M: On Monday the 5th of December, I boarded a small Czech plane (JK: an LET-410 to be specific) from the communist era (which holds 19 in total, including pilots) and headed up north to the conflict zone. The flight itself was a traumatic experience, as the small aircraft reacted to even the smallest change in air pressure. It felt like we were in a boat with large waves. One thing I was not aware of and would have been good to know ahead of time, was the fact that areas of the bush in northern Uganda are burning on fire (because of the heat from the dry season but also because the UPDF are burning down high patches of bush to prevent the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from using it as cover).
On a technical point, for those of you who don’t know about the conflict situation in Uganda, here is the background of which my masters thesis is about:
"I was in Uganda during the months of November and December 2005 carrying out research for a Master’s thesis in Conflict and Sustainable Peace (K.U. Leuven in Belgium). At the time I arrived, the International Criminal Court (promoting retributive justice) had just issued its arrest warrants for the top five rebel commanders of the LRA. However, there were two other forms of justice (restorative) that already existed in Uganda. As a result, I decided to research all three conflict resolution techniques in northern Uganda.

Affecting all elements of society, the protracted conflict in Uganda has been pervasive for two decades. The war between the government’s Uganda People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) and a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been ongoing in northern Uganda for over twenty years. The result of this conflict has been described as “one of the most excessive cases of violations of the rights of innocent people”. Foremost of the atrocities has unquestioningly been the abduction of children. Since the beginning of the conflict, estimates reveal the LRA have abducted more than 20,000 children (some estimates even put the figure as high as 30,000).

Once a popular war supported by the local Acholi community of the north, civilians became targeted in the early 1990s because their declining support for the LRA was interpreted as collaboration with the Ugandan government. The war worsened and the humanitarian situation declined. Marketed as a ‘safety strategy’ carried out by the Government of Uganda (GoU), the conflict has resulted in estimates of 1.4 to 1.9 million Ugandans being forced to live in squalid and overcrowded camps for protection. These camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) are almost totally reliant on food aid from the UN World Food Program (WFP).

The history of Uganda has seen extensive, recurrent upheavals for power that have resulted in structural imbalances underlying social conflict. Seizing power through conflict in the guise of military coups has been a common theme as well as civil wars and wars with neighbouring countries. The underlying causes of the long history of political upheavals were colonially derived regional and ethnic imbalances. The roots of the present conflict go deeper, dating back to when Uganda was under British rule and are complex and sometimes contradictory. However, if one thing is certain, the recent history of Uganda has shown that military force is the manner in which the involved actors have chosen to achieve their goals. Is it any wonder Joseph Kony and the LRA see the only way for change is through conflict and violence? (e.g. violence begets violence).

Despite the existence of modern penal codes and other legal instruments applying forms of retributive justice, the Acholis still use the mechanisms of their traditional justice system to resolve disputes and repair broken relationships. To complement these traditional forms of Acholi restorative justice, and at the request of those most affected by the violence in northern Uganda - amidst these and other atrocities taking place in other parts of the country - the GoU created an amnesty in an effort to bring peace to the regions in conflict. Effective in 2000, Uganda's Amnesty Act was intended mainly to provide a blanket amnesty to LRA fighters who returned from the bush. However, to date, it has done little to bring about peace in northern Uganda. Its contribution to ending the conflict remains questionable.

Established in 1998, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has the power to exercise its jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern. The Rome Statute governs the jurisdiction and functioning of the ICC. In 2003, under Article 14, the GoU referred the situation in the north to the ICC to bring violators – i.e. the LRA rebel group – of the Rome Statute accountable. This is the first state party referral to the ICC. As a result of investigations carried out since the referral in December of 2003, the ICC has issued indictments in the form of arrest warrants for the top five LRA leaders, including Joseph Kony. A largely forgotten war by the international community with appalling violations of crimes against humanity makes it a challenging case for the ICC.

In 2003, during a visit to northern Uganda, Jan Egeland, the UNs under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs (OCHA), declared that he cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda that is getting such little international attention. While the horror has been widespread, children have particularly suffered as the LRA has abducted them and forced them into service. The conflict has had devastating effects on the livelihoods of the population. The GoU's counter-insurgency strategy of placing people in IDP camps has not only failed to protect civilians, but has also deprived the vast majority of the population of their livelihoods.

A joint statement by Moreno Ocampo and the community leaders from the Lango, Acholi, Iteso, and Madi districts, states they have agreed to work together as part of a common effort to achieve justice and reconciliation, the rebuilding of communities, and an end to violence in northern Uganda. All parties agreed to continue to integrate the dialogue for peace, the ICC, and traditional justice and reconciliation processes. If justice is delayed to the people of northern Uganda, does it necessarily mean that justice is denied? Obviously this remains to be seen as the ICC went ahead - against criticisms from civil society and religious and cultural leaders in Uganda - and issued arrest warrants for the five senior leaders of the LRA. We are now at a point in which the ICCs action cannot be revoked. Not only Ugandans, but also the international community must move forward and use the knowledge and tools that exist, i.e. an international court of justice, an amnesty act, and a traditional form of restorative Acholi justice. The future of northern Uganda will need these different sets of tools applied at different times and at different strengths if peace is to be sustainable. Peace and justice may not be mutually exclusive. As such, it is important for future stability and peace that those most responsible for atrocities are held accountable with the perpetrators responsible for the most serious of war crimes and crimes against humanity be investigated and prosecuted.

One thing is for certain and that is the military approach employed by the GoU has never been effective in quelling the violence, nor has it brought about any indication of peace. Rather, it has had the opposite effect of perpetuating the conflict through renewed offensives by the LRA. Moreover, any military approach should be deemed unproductive, as it is only injuring and killing children who are, for the most part, fighting the war and, more importantly, against their will.

Further action should be taken with respect to those crimes committed before the ICC jurisdictional limit, since the ICCs mandate is limited to crimes against humanity and war crimes committed after July of 2002 - a date which cannot take into account the long history of the war in the north where all sides of the conflict are guilty. But does punishing Kony and his senior LRA commanders really absolve them? Perhaps in terms of modern justice, but is that any consolation to the Acholi people? Another underlying question that has surrounded the conflict since it began pertains to accusations made asserting that both government (UPDF) and LRA forces have committed violations of international humanitarian law. This issue has been widely articulated by Ugandans, civil society, religious and cultural leaders, and even the LRA themselves have made accusations against government forces. The ICC is within its jurisdiction to investigate these accusations as well and Ocampo did not rule out the possibility. The accusations against the UPDF are confirmed by a statement Museveni made in reference to atrocities committed by UPDF soldiers in which he indicates the GoU would punish them itself. However, observers highly doubt the GoU will be as supportive in pursuing the matter. In addition to formal justice, the Ugandan government and the president himself should admit to killings, atrocities, looting, havoc, and destruction committed by the Ugandan army in northern Uganda ever since 1986, if any path towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict is to be opened.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests that a broader truth and reconciliation process (like those introduced in South Africa, Rwanda, Yugoslavia) would be a valuable supplement to the ICC investigation. HRW feels this process could work alongside traditional rituals in which those affected wish to participate. The truth and reconstruction process as advocated by HRW would give people in northern Uganda a forum in which they could raise human rights abuses that occurred during the entire twenty years of war that they believe need to be addressed. This would deal with those that feel the ICC process is not comprehensive enough and that it is partial. It would also address the argument that the ICC process is not enough to bring about reconciliation and sustainable peace in a country that has witnessed armed conflicts for more than just the twenty year LRA insurgency. Reconciliation and amnesty must be adopted on a wider scale and incorporated into northern communities. Perhaps a more formalised process should be developed. This would indeed address the concerns of those advocating restorative justice and the amnesty law as well as the issue as to whether traditional reconciliation mechanisms are capable of tackling crimes against whole communities.

With an announcement of talks for peace by Vincent Otti at the beginning of December 2005 and more recently (August 2006) by the LRA involving the governments of Uganda and Sudan, it could potentially pave the way for the conflict in northern Uganda to finally be brought to an end, although observers remain sceptical. There is no doubt that the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the conflict, people being forced into camps for the internally displaced and witnessing and perpetrating brutal acts of violence, has had an effect on all facets of the northern region of Uganda. A population that has known nothing but war for over two decades will need a tremendous amount of support at all levels, most importantly being at the local and national levels, but also regionally and internationally as well. For example, the northern region will need economic reconstruction that will address the physical and social devastation caused by the conflict; counselling in such areas as trauma, forgiveness and reconciliation; specialised training; health care to those coming from the bush and from IDP camps; disarmament and demobilisation programs for rebels; and resettlement programs for displaced people to return back to their villages. Northern Uganda has a long road of rebuilding ahead of it but their future looks promising, as I don't think it can get any worse than we have already seen."

If you would like to see more of my photos during a visit to two internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps (Acholibur IDP camp in Kitgum and Pabbo IDP camp in Gulu) in northern Uganda, please follow this link:

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