Uganda: The ICC and the northern Uganda conflict

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

NAIROBI, 9 June (IRIN) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague has, since 2004, been investigating war crimes committed in the 19-year old conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the government, and recently expressed readiness to issue arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and several of the top brass of the LRA.

The Court was established in 1998 and came into effect in July 2002, when 60 countries ratified its governing Rome Statute. It was established to promote the rule of law and ensure that the gravest international crimes do not go unpunished.

The Court has responsibility to investigate, try and punish the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, in order to bring an end to impunity for these crimes.

The Rome Statute sets out the Court's jurisdiction, structure and functions, and anyone who commits any of the crimes under the Statute is liable for prosecution by the court.

Uganda signed the Rome Statute in 1999, and ratified it in March 2003.

The ICC's investigation in the north pertains to crimes committed in the war since July 2002, when the court came into force. It specifically targets those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed in the war.

In January, the Prosecutor announced that the court was ready to issue arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and several of the LRA's top brass.

Although Uganda's referral was made specifically in regard to "the situation concerning the Lord's Resistance Army", Ocampo has stated that his office will investigate, in an impartial and independent manner, all crimes committed in the conflict that fall under the jurisdiction of the Rome Statute, which puts both the LRA and the government's Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) under scrutiny.

In 2004, Ugandan Minister of Defence Amama Mbabazi said the government would prosecute any member of the UPDF found to have perpetrated atrocities against civilians in the war. However, no mention was made of whether the offenders would be handed over to the ICC for prosecution.

The court depends heavily on the full cooperation of the Ugandan government in its investigations. The ICC does not have its own military or police force, nor does it have access to witnesses or criminals in the same way that the government does. It therefore relies on the support provided by the government and the international community at large for assistance with its procedures.

In August 2004, a team of ICC investigators arrived in Uganda to begin their probe, shortly after the LRA had burned, shot or bludgeoned to death an estimated 337 people in Barlonyo IDP camp in Lira district, 180 km north of the capital, Kampala.

Since the start of its investigations, the ICC has drawn sharp criticism from several leaders in northern Uganda, while at the time eliciting praise from others.

"We, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative [ARLPI], do not question the existence of the ICC or its principles," Archbishop Odama of the Gulu Catholic Archdioses, told IRIN.

"However, we feel that the presence of the court here and its activities are in danger of jeopardising efforts to build the rebel's confidence in peace talks," he added.

Since late 2004, a fresh peace process, mediated by former minister Betty Bigombe, has been ongoing, albeit haltingly. The ARLPI and other leaders in the region maintain that peace is the only way to end the conflict.

The leaders have repeatedly stated that the ICC's effort to attain justice while peace still eludes the region risks, in the end, achieving neither justice nor peace.

Odama said the ICC's activities were in direct contrast to the offer of amnesty given by the government to any rebel who denounces the rebellion: "How can we tell the LRA soldiers to come out of the bush and receive amnesty, when at the same time the threat of arrest by the ICC hangs over their heads?"

The archbishop and several other high-profile leaders from the Acholi, Langi, Iteso and Madi communities, which are among the worst affected by the conflict, visited The Hague in March and April at the invitation of the ICC prosecutor.

They emphasised the important role of an ancient, traditional, cleansing-and-reparation ritual called "mato oput". While acknowledging the need for forgiveness and reintegration, they admitted that those responsible for the most serious crimes should be brought to justice.

They called on the government and the international community to engage in a comprehensive strategy to encourage dialogue, justice, traditional reconciliation and reconstruction.

Some leaders advocated more strongly in favour of prosecutions.

"We cannot allow those who have murdered our people - and continue to murder them - to go free," a senior government official told IRIN. "The peace talks have failed before and will fail again - you can never reason with these terrorists."

Following visits by various groups of northern Ugandan leaders, the ICC promised to continue communicating with the affected communities, and Ocampo said he would be willing to suspend investigations if it became clear that it was not in the best interests of peace to continue.

However, the prosecutor stressed, "timing is possible, but immunity is impossible."

Another dilemma faced by the ICC is the blanket amnesty Uganda offers to rebels. This amnesty extends to all members of the rebel group, including leaders like Kony and his deputy, Vincent Otti, although Museveni announced in 2004 a plan to exclude Kony and his most senior commanders from the amnesty.

The ICC is not bound by national amnesties, however, and may go on to prosecute people who have been granted immunity by their governments.

Uganda's Amnesty Commission has called this a stumbling block to their efforts to get the insurgents to come out of the bush.

"Since the ICC takes precedence over our national laws, even people already granted amnesty could be taken for trial before the ICC - if this happens, the amnesty process and the law will be rendered useless," Justice Peter Onega, chairman of the Amnesty Commission, said in his paper, "The Amnesty Process: Opportunities and Challenges".

Furthermore, the ICC faces the difficulty of categorising members of the LRA as victims or perpetrators. The UN estimates that 80 percent of the LRA's soldiers are children who have been abducted from their families and forced to commit horrendous crimes against their own people.

Many of the highest-ranking LRA commanders today are thought to have been abducted when they were as young as 10 years old and have grown up among the insurgents to become fearsome killers.

While the ICC's goal is to pursue those who "bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes committed", distinguishing those who should be prosecuted from those who deserve amnesty is likely to present serious complications for the court.

The ICC investigations into war crimes in the Ugandan conflict continue, and the court has recently opened an office in the capital, Kampala to facilitate its work.

[ Waiting for elusive peace in the war-ravaged north: ]


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