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African peacebuilders undermined

How local peace efforts in Northern Uganda were trumped by the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants

“Can they not see what they are doing? They will cause the war to continue”. John-Bosco1 looked at me, pointing to the day’s copy of the New Vision newspaper open on the café table. It was hard to know how to answer this question; I had been struggling with it for months.

John-Bosco was a night watchman with a family growing up amidst the conflict. He was one of the first people to welcome my wife and I to Gulu, Northern Uganda, when we arrived in 2001.

Now it was 2007, and the newspaper article2 referred to the ongoing peace talks taking place in Juba, Sudan, between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leadership – the best chance for peace in a decade, with the hopes of millions resting upon them.

John-Bosco’s exasperation was in response to the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s intervention in the process. In 2005, the ICC had issued indictments (effectively arrest warrants) for the LRA leadership. John-Bosco’s fear was that this action amounted to a threat to arrest anyone signing a peace deal; that it would push the rebels to continue their campaign of murder and cruelty.

Few doubt the responsibility of LRA leader Joseph Kony and his immediate subordinates for the most heinous crimes. The LRA had been conducting its brutal war for about 20 years, with only the flimsiest political agenda. Its tactics are well known: terrorising the civilian population through mutilations and killings, and abducting people (mostly children) to fight for it. By 2007, the LRA was mostly composed of abductees.

The response of the Ugandan army (UPDF) was to seek to destroy the LRA militarily. The war was a stalemate; the UPDF trying to kill (or capture) the abductees faster than the LRA could abduct and train more. The local community were caught in the middle, victims of both sides.

Peace efforts

Local peace efforts beginning well before 2000 had been considerably more constructive, even heroic. The Acholi religious leaders’ peace initiative (ARLPI), a coalition of the leaders of all the main faith groups in Northern Uganda had come together. They were collaborating with other local NGOs including the Concerned Parents Association (parents of abducted children), the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, and Ker Kwaro Acholi (the traditional leadership).

These groups had successfully campaigned for an amnesty law. This allowed those abducted by the LRA to return to the community without fear of prosecution. Risking ambushes on the roads, local peacebuilders had established networks of volunteers right across Northern Uganda, and contacts with LRA groups. Radio programmes were also being used by communities to reassure LRA fighters that their return would be a cause for celebration, not vengeance.

These community-based efforts were working. Children were coming out alive. Some had returned from the LRA and claimed amnesty. Others escaped and simply went home. Local-level LRA commanders had also started to return, some with their “fighters”. Whole groups had turned themselves in. Thousands had come back.

The LRA had sought to defend itself from these processes. Abductees were told they would be killed by the army if they returned. Radios had been confiscated. Ugandan abductees were brought to bases in Sudan where escape was impossible, and only after long periods of indoctrination sent back to Uganda to fight. Those caught trying to escape would be horrifically killed in front of their fellow abductees. And they still escaped even while believing they would be killed by either side, or their own communities.

Some defected during skirmishes with the UPDF. Others fled at night or while going to the toilet, running for their lives from their captors. Some then wandered for days before meeting someone in a field or reporting to a church, a local leader or army detachment. Local people had succeeded in creating a means of getting their children back alive – of making it harder for the violence to spread – at a fraction of the cost of the military effort.

As some came out, it gave confidence to others to follow. It was not the end of the war, but it had made the war harder to fight. Through the military campaign and the return process, the LRA was weakening.

The ICC intervenes

Then, in 2005 the ICC issued its indictments for the top five LRA war criminals. Some celebrated the imminent arrival of an international force to implement the arrests. Local peace workers, not to mention diplomats, were better informed. There was no international implementation force. The war was the implementation strategy. Worse still, prospects for a negotiated settlement seemed to all but collapse.

The peace talks in Juba that commenced in 2006 were faced with the task of seeking to persuade the LRA leadership not only to abandon their campaign, but now also to present themselves for trial! Sure enough, if they ever were serious about ending their war, in 2008 the LRA returned to the bush, citing the ICC’s indictments as a central factor.

Business as usual

In 2009, the LRA moved its operations to the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), still pursued by the UPDF’s military campaign but out of reach of the locally-based peace networks, Uganda’s amnesty law, or escape routes for fleeing abductees.

Northern Uganda has been peaceful, but in DRC the LRA has resumed its devastating tactics. Children and adults are being abducted again, and killings and mutilations are taking place once more.

The UPDF is continuing its campaign for “justice” through the implementation of the ICC’s arrest warrants, and abducted children are being killed again in the process.

1 Not his real name.
2 “ICC insists Kony must face prosecution”, New Vision, 11 October 2007.
Bryn Higgs worked in Uganda with Quaker Peace and Social Witness