Why Now? What the timing of Rewards for Justice means for northern Uganda

Oryem Nyeko

IN RECENT MONTHS, the LRA conflict has been the centre of a wave of international interest that seemed, on the face of it, to come out of nowhere. It started in 2012 when a worldwide internet campaign was used to bring the conflict, its alleged perpetrators and its after effects to the forefront of global consciousness. The most recent development is under the ‘Rewards for Justice’ programme, an initiative of the United States’ State Department, which has brought the hunt for Joseph Kony and the remaining commanders of the rebel group back to the fore.

‘Rewards’ is essentially a bounty-hunter’s dream – millions of dollars are being offered by the US Government for information that will lead to the capture of notorious wanted international criminals. The programme was initially focused on combating international terrorism and drug trafficking. Since its inception in 1984 it had paid up to $125 million in rewards. Following the recent storm of media attention on the LRA conflict, US President Barack Obama signed in early 2013 into law a Bill that extended the programme to indictees of international tribunals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide this year. While Joseph Kony was not initially listed as wanted under the programme, he’s been one of several ‘poster boys’ for the new law. In an official statement issued when the law was passed President Obama said:

This powerful new tool can be used to help bring to justice perpetrators of the worst crimes known to human kind. This includes individuals such as Joseph Kony and other leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), as well as certain commanders of M23 and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) … We have made unmistakably clear that the United States is committed to seeing war criminals and other perpetrators of atrocities held accountable for their crimes, and today’s legislation can help us achieve that goal.

‘Rewards’ is just one in a series of initiatives that reflect increased commitment to ending the LRA conflict by the international community. In 2011, military advisors were sent by the American government to lend support to the Ugandan, Congolese and Sudanese governments in order to “kill or capture” Kony and in 2012 the African Union announced that it was sending 5000 troops to conduct that hunt. What do these kind of efforts mean for transitional justice in northern Uganda, where the brunt of the war was felt the most? And does it matter that they are being made now, decades after the conflict began?

“At the peak of the conflict, there were cries of agony and pain from the suffering people of northern Uganda asking for international help and support,” retired Kitgum Diocese Reverend Bishop Macleord Ochola told me in an interview earlier this year, “Unfortunately, [the] international community neither had eyes to see us, nor ears to listen to our cries. We became invisible people.”

In 2008, Operation Lightning Thunder, an offensive by the governments of the DRC, Uganda and Sudan with support from the US, famously resulted in the killing of up to 100 villagers in the DRC as an act of retaliation by the LRA. Bishop Ochola, who participated in the 2007 Juba peace talks, and as recently as 2012 traveled to Banjul in the Central African Republic with other Acholi religious leaders to attempt peaceful discussion with the LRA, was wary of the timing of Rewards for Justice.

“When the Government launched Operation Lightening Thunder [in 2008] there were cries of agony and pain from the people of [the] DRC, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, but the international community kept quiet. After three years they raised the profile of Joseph Kony. The question is – why now? Why should they have special interest to put an end to the conflict of the LRA, when in fact during the peak of the conflict they kept quiet?” he asked.

It must be noted that these kind of military interventions are aimed not just at ending the conflict or capturing Joseph Kony, but at protecting civilians from abduction, torture or death. In the past few years, the LRA has been reported to have been responsible for attacks on several villages and towns in the region, resulting in the forced displacement of many families. According to a 2011 UNHCR report, there have been abductions, indiscriminate killings as well as torture and mutilation in villages and towns in north-eastern Congo by the LRA.

To put this into context: all of this happened after the Juba peace talks collapsed in 2008 when Joseph Kony withdrew from the talks, citing his fear of capture and trial by the ICC. Also, in May of 2012, the period for amnesty set up in Uganda’s Amnesty Act expired – meaning that LRA returnees are not guaranteed protection from being prosecuted for their actions while they were in the bush. Furthermore, the question of amnesty is still up for review with former LRA commander, Thomas Kwoyelo’s, eligibility being under deliberation by Uganda’s Supreme Court.

Is the hunt the only solution?

Despite the efforts of the regional governments and the United States to end the conflict over the years the fact is that the LRA remains alive. Numerous alternatives to military interventions exist – many of which have been documented by organisations like JRP – such as those examining the effects of traditional justice, the value of truth-telling and the importance of disseminating accurate information about the ICC and other international justice mechanisms to both victims and perpetrators. Transparent, expedited prosecution processes may also incentivise Kony and other rebel leaders to return peacefully, as could resolving the ambiguous amnesty issue.

Ultimately, international attention should be focused on finding solutions that both resolve the conflict and give the opportunity for accountability that is sensitive to the interests and experiences of the actual victims of the conflict. This would go a long way to securing peace in the region and satisfying the need for answers about what happened during the two decade conflict.