peace in northern uganda: five questions

Last Saturday the Uganda Conflict Action Network reported that Vincent Otti, Joseph Kony’s righthand man, has declared that he will turn himself over to the International Criminal Court if it charges the UPDF with crimes against humanity and war crimes. This is the second time this year I’ve found myself wanting to side with the LRA, another reminder that this conflict is vastly more complex than it seems. Last year’s ICC indictments of the top LRA commanders have raised a number of questions:

Should the ICC take precedence over Ugandan governmental and/or traditional justice mechanisms?
I wrote earlier about the problems inherent in using traditional justice to “solve” the conflict in northern Uganda: though Acholi culture provides a number of reconciliation rituals that may be able to heal some of the rifts this war has created, other cultures have also been affected. Many people — the Langi and Iteso, for example — may not feel that Acholi ceremonies are sufficiently punitive to provide justice for the crimes that have been committed against them.

Should the ICC arrest warrants be traded in for a peace agreement?
At the moment, there is only one “way out” of the arrest warrants against Kony, Otti and the two other top commanders: the Ugandan government must prove that handling justice internally will be more beneficial to the Ugandan population than honoring the warrants. Local and international organizations have clamored for the ICC to rescind the warrants if that is what it takes to reach a peace agreement. The court is understandably reluctant, as these are the first warrants they have issued; to void them would set a weak precedent for future action. The LRA has repeatedly used the warrants as a trump card, refusing to allow any progress in the peace talks until they are assured they will not be arrested.

How should the UPDF be held accountable?
I’d like to agree with Otti that the ICC should issue arrest warrants for specific UPDF commanders and try them for crimes against humanity right beside the LRA, but that solution is wishful thinking. The government will never give up its precious military men to the ICC — Museveni’s not exactly jonesing for public disgrace right now (or at any time, really).

Where does that leave the peace process?
The inherent problem here is that the Ugandan government is incapable of meting out justice single-handedly. The widespread accusations and documented incidents of war crimes on the part of the UPDF prevent any peace process spearheaded by the government from appearing legitimate in the eyes of many northern Ugandans. At the same time, a completely external system of justice — trials at the Hague for LRA and UPDF commanders — violates the sovereignty of the Ugandan government.

Traditional justice alone won’t bring peace. The ICC alone won’t bring peace. The government alone won’t bring peace. I’m hoping this is a case of three wrongs making a right. The only end I see to the past twenty years of war is one that blends multiple local views on justice, cooperation with the ICC (this will most likely take the form of an alternative system of justice, developed according to guidelines set by the court and other major international organizations — this way both the court and the government can save face) and a bit of backing down on both the LRA and government sides.

Is that possible?
The skeptic in me says Museveni will never allow the UPDF to be prosecuted, which in my opinion prevents any workable peace agreement. Last week, though, head mediator Riek Machar declared that the peace talks have “reached a point of no return.” His statement is particularly noteworthy given that the current point of discussion in Juba is accountability and reconciliation, the topic which has caused the most trouble in the talks so far.

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