The crisis in northern Uganda is "as bad as Darfur," so where is the international response?

from International Medical Corps
Published on 22 Oct 2004
In the last six months, the world has put to use the lessons of Rwanda and made a concerted effort to confront the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. In this respect, the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda was spectacularly successful at sensitizing government leaders, the media and the public to the ongoing global potential for genocide and the need for vigilance.

But with that response comes a perplexing question: Why, if the crisis in Darfur is deserving of such a response, has the crisis in northern Uganda, which is nearly identical in size and character, been allowed to go largely unchecked and unpublicized for more than 18 years? The answer may lie not so much in the world's willingness to respond, but in the words it relies on to trigger a response.

At the core of the conflict in northern Uganda is the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group with no discernible goals except to overthrow the current government and install one based on its interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Civilians are not just caught in the middle of the violence, they are specific targets of the LRA, which has decided to "cleanse" the local tribe - its own tribe - of those who have refused to join in the fight.

Even though the crisis does not meet the criteria for genocide, it is no less horrific. More than 1.6 million people are displaced. (An estimated 1.5 million are displaced in Darfur.) Ninety five percent of the land has been abandoned and lies uncultivated. And tens of thousands of boys and girls have been forcibly conscripted. In fact, the United Nations (UN) estimates that 80% of the LRA's fighters are children.

In this way, the label "genocide" bestows enormous benefits to victims of a conflict, at least in theory. Under the United Nations' 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, once a signatory state determines that a genocide is taking place, it is legally obligated to intervene. And while that determination may be argued for years, the mere mention of genocide in this post-Rwanda period draws immediate interest from the media.

Unfortunately, there has been no such response for northern Uganda.

Earlier this year, the UN's Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Humanitarian Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, called the situation in northern Uganda "the most under-reported story in the world today." And in September, the U.S. Agency for International Development's Administrator, Andrew Natsios, said it is "as bad as Darfur."

Still, media coverage has been nominal at best, and few Americans or Europeans have any idea that a crisis even exists in northern Uganda.

International Medical Corps (IMC) and other international humanitarian agencies have teams on the ground and are doing their best to reach innocent victims of the violence, but their hands are tied. Chronic insecurity prohibits emergency teams from accessing the hardest hit areas and prevents the formation of even a rudimentary health infrastructure.

And so the suffering continues: displacement, disease, malnutrition, maternal mortality, trauma, desperation.

Fortunately, the time is right for the public to learn more about the crisis. To begin with, journalists from around the world are already assembled in Darfur, and northern Uganda lies on just the other side of Sudan's southern border. (In fact, the story is even closer than that-the LRA has been operating out of southern Sudan for years.)

In addition, the potential for peace may be better than it has been in years, as the Ugandan government is having greater success at inducing rebels to exchange their arms for amnesty.

So the response to the crisis in northern Uganda will be an interesting measure of the world's understanding of the pervasiveness of humanitarian emergencies. If all crises must be labeled genocide before they become part of the public dialogue, the majority will surely continue to go unnoticed. Just as Rwanda educated the world in the reality of genocide regardless of formal government declarations, so Uganda can help raise awareness of the reality of humanitarian crises regardless of their being genocide.