Forgiveness and amnesia in Uganda

News and Press Release
Originally published
Can traditional justice mechanisms that offer a sense of closure to victims work in harmony with international law?

By Evelyn Kiapi, Gawaya Tegulle and Katy Glassborow in Kampala (AR No. 114, 31-May-07)

Since the Lord's Resistance Army embarked on its campaign of violence in northern Uganda in the late Eighties, there have been several attempts to end the insurgency through peace talks. Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni is now taking the same route.

After inviting the fledgling International Criminal Court, ICC, to conduct investigations in northern Uganda in December 2003, Museveni has changed tack and begun peace negotiations with the rebels, in an ongoing process that began last year and is being hosted by the government of South Sudan in Juba.

Some Ugandans believe Museveni's commitment to peace talks is not 100 per cent genuine, otherwise he would have approached the United Nations Security Council by now to request a retraction of the arrest warrants the ICC issued against top LRA leaders in October 2005.

Under amnesty laws which the president created six years ago, 17,000 LRA rebels who agreed to abandon warfare and renounce their crimes have been pardoned and reintegrated into their communities.

Many Ugandans agree that amnesty and reconciliation are the best way forward to bring peace to northern Uganda .

Others are keen to survey options which might not only end an insurgency that has cost an estimated 100,000 lives over the past two decades and forced more than1.6 million into internal refugee camps, but would also be palatable to the people directly affected by conflict as well as to the international community.

Albert Mugumya of the Kampala-based Centre for Conflict Resolution told IWPR that most northern Ugandans favour local forms of justice, which focus on forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than retribution under the punitive mechanisms offered by the ICC.

Furthermore, many people affected by 20 years of violence want a justice mechanism which brings the accused back to face the communities which suffered, so that victims can deal with them face to face.

"If you are not part of the process, it is hard to be healed," said Mugumya, who feels that Uganda should show that the conceptual tensions and procedural differences between international criminal justice and the desire for local solutions can be resolved "without condoning impunity".

Mugumya drew a comparison with Algeria, which last year implemented a limited amnesty programme in an attempt to heal the wounds of a civil war that has resulted in some 200,000 deaths since 1992.

"No one condemned the Algerians for wanting to draw a line under their terrible past," he said.

However he added a warning that if the solution amounts to "organised amnesia", it can only be a "temporary palliative".

"The act of forgetting silences victims and leaves wounds to fester," he said.

This is why many victims from the Acholi community, the ethnic group worst affected by the LRA insurgency, are advocating the "mato oput" tradition of reconciliation to deal with LRA rebels who surrender and emerge from the bush after being granted an official amnesty.

In order to return to their communities, the former rebel soldiers need to win agreement that the past can be put behind them by going through the mato oput ceremony, which as its name indicates involves all parties drinking a brew made from the bitter root of the oput tree.

The key to the ritual is that the offender must accept responsibility, ask for forgiveness, and pay compensation.

As Mugumya explained, "Such participatory local justice reasserts lost dignity".

"Mato oput involves the man or woman accepting responsibility for their actions and repenting for their crimes against their brothers and sisters," said the Right Reverend Baker Ochola, the retired Anglican bishop of the northern town of Kitgum.

"They then ask for the forgiveness of their community and pay reparations - sometimes in the form of a goat or a cow - to those they have wronged. Finally, they rejoin their community, without cruelty or victimisation."

But an admission of guilt could be a step too far for some of the LRA's commanders, for instance its leader Joseph Kony, who is unlikely to confess to anything as long as an ICC indictment exists with his name on it.

The key to mato oput is that it cannot work by proxy - the conflicting parties need to be physically present and active participants in the ceremony. Many Acholi people are therefore against a justice process at the Hague-based ICC, on another continent thousands of kilometres away from Uganda.

It is debatable whether mato oput can cope with atrocities as grave as war crimes and crimes against humanity. There are also doubts about whether it could provide the same kind of deterrent effect as an international trial followed by a prison term or a hefty fine.

Reconciliation remains the most important objective expressed by victims of violence in northern Uganda . But without some kind of punitive element, it is unclear whether perpetrators would feel free to continue raping, looting and killing with impunity.

Furthermore, the traditional methods of reconciliation used by the Acholi differ from those of neighbouring ethnic groups such as the Langi, Teso and Madi. That suggests it might be time for Uganda to formulate a court or set of traditional laws to act as an alternative or complement to the ICC.

In Rwanda , local Gacaca courts - meaning "justice on the grass" - complement the formal prosecutions pursued by the UN-backed International Criminal Court for Rwanda.

The Gacaca system is used across the whole of Rwanda , but since the ethnic groups of northern Uganda adhere to differing informal justice systems, there is no clear unified model that could easily replicate the Gacaca system.

Deo Rubumba Nkunzingoma, past president of the Uganda Law Society, told IWPR that the Acholi and Langi have justice systems that can be "written down, polished, and put side by side with international systems". But there would need to be an "internationally acceptable dimension to make sure punishments are not repugnant".

Nkunzingoma said any new system should have already have been set in motion by now, and he urged local and central government to get the ball rolling.

Truth and reconciliation commissions have played a part in healing wounds in South Africa and Sierra Leone and a similar commission could arguably play a part in Uganda .

Such commissions are not courts, but seek to determine the truth and hold individuals accountable for their actions. But some argue that in northern Uganda, victims want to move on rather than dwell on past atrocities.

In Nkunzingoma's view, the answer is a new system which is "a combination of international punitive mechanisms, including imprisonment, and a remedial mechanism of 'thou shall not do it again'".

This synthesis will show that the suspect has recognised that what he did is wrong, and that he has been punished and come out cleansed. Then, "everyone, locally and internationally, can see the accused was punished and will not commit the same crimes again," said Nkunzingoma.

However, he acknowledged that achieving this delicate balance will be difficult, as the international legal community will probably be slow to accept a justice mechanism that undermines the ICC.

Nkunzingoma warned that unless the process is handled carefully, other countries will start asking why Uganda is opting for local justice after inviting the ICC into the country. "It would undoubtedly be dangerous for our international relations," he said.

As the debate on alternatives or complements to the ICC continues, there is always the ultimate threat that hostilities will resume if negotiations fail.

During peace talks in Juba, Captain Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the government negotiating team until he was posted elsewhere, punctuated almost every statement with warnings that the bullets would fly even faster than before if the talks failed.

Captain Ankunda's warning seemed to result from frustration with the slow pace of the Juba talks, as the LRA team continued to unleash demand after demand, most of which the government side deemed unacceptable.

Although the military option has not been successful in dealing with the LRA in the past, the geopolitical situation has changed in the Ugandan government's favour.

In earlier years, the LRA enjoyed the support of the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which provided arms and ammunition to the rebels as well as sanctuary in the vast south of the country.

At the time, Sudan's support from the LRA appeared to be payback for Uganda's alleged backing for the rebel Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army, SPLA. But the 2005 peace agreement between Khartoum and the SPLA reduced Sudan 's strategic interest in the LRA, and its support for the group came to an end.

The LRA retreated into the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, taking advantage of the instability in that country. However, greater stability in Sudan coupled with the fast-improving situation in DRC following elections last year has been followed by both countries agreeing to arrest LRA members.

Uganda and DRC are both supporters of the ICC and have ratified its founding statute. Sudan, however, is opposed to the ICC and has not signed up to the Rome statute.

Khartoum initially signed an agreement with the ICC to arrest LRA suspects if they were found on Sudanese soil. But it retracted the offer after the ICC issued arrest warrants for a Sudanese minister and a pro-government militia commander in relation to events in the western Darfur region.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter. Evelyn Kiapi and Gawaya Tegulle are independent journalists based in Kampala .