In this edition of Voices magazine we take a look at accountability for gross human rights violations. The contributions in this issue explore the local context of justice and suggest that Ugandans are at a dilemma when it comes to justice for crimes committed during the conflict in northern Uganda. A one size fits all approach doesn’t necessarily apply to victims of conflict.
At JRP, we believe that a bottom to top approach to accountability is the best solution for communities decimated by conflict. We have learnt from the experiences of other countries that transitional justice interventions, ranging from truth commissions, international and national trials, reparations and security sector reforms have helped societies move beyond the past. And yet despite this, in some places such interventions, no matter how well meaning they may be, have made very little difference in the lives of ordinary people.
For more than 20 years, northern Uganda was home to numerous rebellions against the Government of Uganda – most notably the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. In 2000, an amnesty law was enacted in an attempt to put an end to the bloodshed. The Amnesty Act introduced a simple, non-onerous procedure by which people previously involved in rebellion could renounce violence and return to the community.
To date, tens of thousands of former combatants have returned, taking advantage of government amnesty. Some of the most senior commanders live under the protection and support of the government in military barracks away from the community who suffered violence they perpetuated. The majority, however, have found themselves returning and living side by side with those communities. There, they must co-exist with the very persons against whom they committed atrocities. Many have also opted to join the military, seeing no future for themselves within the community.
Adding to this tension is the fact that the war is not yet over. Kony and his senior commanders remain at large and are on the run causing mayhem in neighboring countries; abducting new children and training them. How do we address the problems that will arise when thousands of ex-combatants return to villages and seek to live alongside victims of the conflict?
Many people have pointed to prosecution. Ugandans needs no reminder that the intervention of the ICC remains controversial. It is argued that the indictments pushed the LRA to the negotiation table, but on the other hand, the indictments have arguably made negotiations with the LRA more difficult, because Joseph Kony declared that he will not surrender until the ICC indictments are lifted. This stance continues to make many in the North view the ICC as an obstacle to peace —at least in the short term – given the military operations in the region. We are also reminded that punitive approaches alone are limited in their ability to address the complex situation in northern Uganda.
A narrow, punishment-oriented definition of justice is deeply problematic as it does not take into account the political and social dynamics of the conflict or peace building. Paying too much attention to the prosecution of perpetrators may cause one to disregard the pattern of abduction and use of extreme violence used by the LRA to force the will of its commanders. It also does not take into account the widely held view of northern Ugandans that their society as a whole is the collective victim of historical injustice: It does not, for example, take into account the longstanding injustices perpetrated by the government (such as those in Corner Kilak and Mukura, to mention but a few).
The major concern, therefore, is that a punitive approach to accountability leads to a narrow solution which has the potential to skew our pursuit for justice. Where do we draw the line between the victim and the perpetrator? Many of the articles in this magazine attest to these and other the challenges of accountability and prosecution in northern Uganda.
I wish to thank every contributor and members of JRP staff for this month’s publications.