An Assessment of the Risk of Mass Atrocities in Uganda

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by Emily Sample


Uganda continually places within the top 30 countries worldwide at risk of a mass atrocity event, classifying it as of medium risk. In the past year, Uganda has gone through a presidential election where rule of law, extrajudicial arrests, and killings, torture, and wrongful imprisonment have all been part of the campaign and election cycle. Despite this risk level, it has yet to be prioritized for atrocity prevention funding by U.S. and international governing bodies, largely because of the immediate needs for intervention in other countries. This report steps into this gap, seeking to inform mass atrocity prevention practitioners, U.S. desk and in-country foreign policy officers, and those with an interest in a peaceful Uganda. Early warning and early response programs that focus on structural atrocity prevention are more efficient and more cost-effective than post-atrocity interventions, making a compelling case for the prioritization of such activities at the international level. With the goal of informing these efforts, this report investigates community-level understandings of peace and conflict indicators in West Nile, Uganda.

The West Nile region contains many of the potential conflict triggers that Uganda as a whole and many similar medium-risk countries face: porous borders; refugee communities; food, water, and energy resource pressures; poverty; and a history of mass atrocities. In examining how the people of West Nile understand and respond to these pressures, it is possible to build more effective interventions and peacebuilding methods that are developed and owned at local and national levels. The focus of this study is trifold: (1) to illustrate perceptions of current and future security in Uganda through a specific focus on conditions in the West Nile region, (2) to provide insights into potential conflict triggers, and (3) to investigate how best to build up Uganda’s resilience and atrocity prevention capacity.

Through a series of individual interviews and focus group discussions with grassroots peacebuilding activists, local government officials, and community leaders in the West Nile region of Uganda, this report finds that the demarcation between potential conflict triggers and peace capacity building opportunities is highly dependent on community response. Many of the same issues that are frequently noted as conflict triggers can also be avenues for atrocity prevention. Through financial, educational, and training investment in structural mass atrocity prevention and peacebuilding programs with governmental or INGO support, potential threat multipliers can be transformed into positive, sustainable sources of resilience. For example, warnings about high unemployment can instead be understood as a ready workforce to build and staff much-needed schools. High numbers of refugees can be utilized to dig irrigation and plant sustainable farms in partnership with land-owning locals. Fears over hate speech on social media can be countered with community-building educational campaigns on violence deescalation and free speech.

The findings of this report encourage the West Nile community, Ugandan national and district government bodies, the U.S. government, and UN and international NGOs to involve established local actors in holistic atrocity prevention strategies and to design early warning and early response atrocity prevention efforts with grassroots support. Without efforts to increase local agency and support grassroots efforts, top-down peacebuilding approaches will continue to require long-term international intervention. Supporting local sources of resilience is the key to successful structural atrocity prevention, and medium-risk countries like Uganda have the capacity and need for immediate, efficient peacebuilding.