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Report 182 / Africa

The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?

Insufficient political will has thwarted regional efforts to stop the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) but vigorous diplomacy led by the African Union (AU), an immediate military push and complementary civilian initiatives could end the misery of thousands.

Executive Summary

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) remains a deadly threat to civilians in three Central African states. After a ceasefire and negotiations for peaceful settlement of the generation-long insurgency broke down in 2008, Uganda’s army botched an initial assault. In three years since, half-hearted operations have failed to stop the small, brutally effective band from killing more than 2,400 civilians, abducting more than 3,400 and causing 440,000 to flee. In 2010 President Museveni withdrew about half the troops to pursue more politically rewarding goals. Congolese mistrust hampers current operations, and an African Union (AU) initiative has been slow to start. While there is at last a chance to defeat the LRA, both robust military action and vigorous diplomacy is required. Uganda needs to take advantage of new, perhaps brief, U.S. engagement by reinvigorating the military offensive; Washington needs to press regional leaders for cooperation; above all, the AU must act promptly to live up to its responsibilities as guarantor of continental security. When it does, Uganda and the U.S. should fold their efforts into the AU initiative.

The Ugandan army’s attempt in December 2008 to crush the LRA, originally an insurgency in northern Uganda but now a deadly, multinational criminal and terror band, by destroying its camps in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went badly wrong. Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, escaped and quickly organised reprisals that left hundreds of civilians dead in the following months. The U.S.-backed Operation Lightning Thunder became a campaign of attrition, as the Ugandan army began hunting small, scattered and highly mobile groups of fighters in thick forest. It followed them into South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) and scored some early successes, but the operation lost steam in mid-2010, allowing the LRA to go on plundering villages and seizing hundreds of captives and new recruits in the tri-border area. As the UN Security Council agreed on 14 November 2011, this must stop.

The reasons for military failure are at root political. Museveni scaled down the operation to pursue other ventures he felt would win him greater political capital at home and abroad. Since the LRA has not been able to operate within Uganda for years and no longer endangers its security, few opposition politicians or community leaders there demand its defeat. Efforts to pursue it in the DRC are dogged by the host’s refusal to cooperate and grant access to LRA-affected areas. Uganda invaded in the late 1990s, plundered DRC resources and earned President Kabila’s lasting mistrust. As Congolese elections, still scheduled for late 2011, draw near, the army has demanded the Ugandans pull out and, while waiting for the official decision, forbidden them to leave camp. Most LRA senior commanders and fighters are now in the CAR but could return to the DRC at any time and, with the Ugandans restrained, find safe haven. CAR President Bozizé distrusts Uganda’s army, envies its U.S. support, has ordered it to withdraw from diamond areas and could hamper operations further unless satisfied his own army is benefiting.

There is no prospect of a negotiated end to the LRA problem, given the collapse of the multi-year Juba process and the lack of any apparent interest on the part of either Museveni or, especially, Kony to go that route again after three more years of fighting. Instead, the AU, under pressure from some member states and the U.S., announced in late 2010 that it would authorise a forceful mission against the LRA and coordinate regional efforts. A year and counting, however, planning has foundered over its inability to reconcile differences with and between key member states and donors. Uganda and the three directly affected countries hoped the AU initiative would open the door to more Western funding for their armies but are little interested in political guidance or civilian programs. The U.S. wanted the European Union (EU), the AU’s main donor, to share some of its burdens. However, the EU prefers the AU to act politically and is reluctant to finance the armies. Uganda resists ceding any of its military and policy freedom to the African regional body.

Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of Operation Lightning Thunder, the U.S. announced on 14 October that it would deploy about 100 troops to assist the Ugandan army – a majority to stay in Kampala, the rest to advise in the field. The move is part of a broader ramping up of its political and military engagement against the LRA. It has also offered to train more Congolese soldiers and has given equipment to the CAR army in order to win the operation political space. The few score field advisers should be able to improve the Ugandans’ performance. However, the Obama administration, a year from its own elections, is cautious about testing U.S. tolerance of another overseas military commitment. The deployment, it has made clear, will be short term.

The Ugandan army, even with U.S. advisers, is a flawed and uncertain instrument for defeating the LRA. Due to its record of abuses and failures to protect civilians, the governments and populations of the LRA-affected countries distrust it. That Kony no longer presents a direct threat to its interests leaves room for scepticism about Kampala’s political will to see the military job through to the end. But the Ugandan army is also essential, because no one else is prepared to send competent combat troops to do the job. U.S. support, both military and political, is important but may be short-lived. AU money and civilian programs are helpful but cannot stop LRA violence.

Uganda, with U.S. advice and support, should, therefore, lose no time in launching a reinvigorated attack on the LRA, if possible while most of the group’s senior commanders and fighters are still in the CAR and before they can return to the DRC’s more restrictive operational environment. A key part of the advice the U.S. should press on the Ugandan army is the need to prioritise protecting civilians, provide access to humanitarian agencies and accept stricter accountability for its actions.

At the same time, if this new activism is to succeed, the AU must break its political deadlock and put its initiative in play. Adding the AU to the equation is vital to rally the political commitment of Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan by giving the undertaking clear continent-wide legitimacy. The central elements of the initiative should be appointment of a special envoy to smooth relations between Kinshasa and Kampala and authorisation of a multinational and multi-dimensional mission – what AU planners call the Regional Intervention Force (RIF). This will likely involve only those troop contributors presently engaged against the LRA, primarily the Ugandans, but should introduce a new, common operational and legal framework for the Ugandan and host armies and create new military structures to improve coordination between them. Once the RIF exists, their anti-LRA efforts should be placed under its umbrella.

The AU planners should work closely with the U.S. to ensure that from the start the African organisation’s initiative prioritises the same principles as Washington needs to press bilaterally on the Ugandan army. Donors, particularly the EU, should meanwhile fund complementary civilian work, especially to entice LRA fighters to leave the bush. Only such a multi-dimensional approach is likely to bring peace to the tri-border area and begin the slow task of healing the physical and social wounds the long LRA nightmare has inflicted.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2011


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a United Nations Security Council meeting on 20 August 2019 at the United Nations in New York. Johannes Eisele/AFP
Q&A / Multilateral Diplomacy

Behind the Snapback Debate at the UN

In mid-August, Washington notified the UN Security Council that it was launching a 30-day process to “snap back” UN sanctions against Iran. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Ashish Pradhan and Naysan Rafati explain what this step implies for the 2015 nuclear agreement.

What is snapback?

In July 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by passing Resolution 2231. According to the resolution’s Article 11, a “participant state” in the nuclear deal can, on the basis of “significant non-performance” by one of the agreement's other parties, initiate the restoration (or “snapback”) of six Security Council resolutions enacted against Iran between 2006 and 2010 that were terminated under 2231. Snapback would nullify an approaching sunset on restrictions on Iranian arms purchases and exports; strengthen strictures on Iran’s ballistic missile activity; and require Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment, among other measures. Under the terms of Resolution 2231, if the council has not passed a new resolution confirming the continuation of the sanctions terminations after 30 days, the sanctions immediately come back into force.

Didn’t the U.S. leave the JCPOA?

Yes, the U.S. withdrew from the deal in May 2018. But Washington’s contention is that regardless of its exit, it is named in Resolution 2231’s text as a JCPOA participant, thereby giving it standing to use the UN snapback mechanism. The deal’s other parties (France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China, together known as the P4+1, as well as Iran) disagree, reacting to the U.S. claim to be initiating the snapback process by asserting that the U.S. had essentially forfeited its right to do so when it left the nuclear agreement.

Why is this debate happening now?

Resolution 2231 stipulates that UN restrictions on countries selling conventional arms to Iran, or buying Iranian weaponry, are to be lifted on 18 October 2020, five years from the JCPOA’s adoption day. Prior to invoking snapback, the U.S. put forward a resolution proposing that the measures remain in place “until the Security Council decides otherwise” – in other words, an indefinite extension. That resolution failed on 14 August, garnering just one supporting vote from the Dominican Republic. China and Russia voted against the draft, while the remaining eleven members of the council abstained. Rebuffed in its effort to recast the arms restrictions, the U.S. proceeded, as it had previously warned it would, to attempt to initiate the snapback mechanism on 20 August. 

What has happened since the U.S. initiated the snapback process?

The other Security Council members resoundingly rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s snapback trigger notification on 20 August, and since then the U.S. has experienced near-total isolation on the Council. A joint letter the same day from the JCPOA’s three European participants (France, Germany and the UK – known as the E3), saying the U.S. notification was not “effective”, dampened any momentum the Trump administration was hoping to create in favour of its manoeuvre. The E3’s rebuke instead empowered the vast majority of other Council members to also register their objections in writing, culminating in thirteen of the Council’s fifteen members outlining their refusal to recognise the U.S. claim to have standing. 

U.S. diplomats have since adopted a two-pronged approach at the UN. First, they have lobbied unsuccessfully for other members, including Indonesia and Niger – Security Council presidents in August and September, respectively – to table a resolution to continue the termination of UN sanctions as outlined in Resolution 2231, with the intent of vetoing that draft. While such a resolution is not necessary for snapback to be considered successful, some diplomats believed that Washington wanted to add a layer of procedural legitimacy to an otherwise thinly veiled attempt to put an end to the JCPOA. 

Secondly, U.S. diplomats have gone on the defensive in New York to avoid public isolation at the Council while also imposing costs on other members for declining to support snapback. In the days immediately following the snapback notification, the U.S. reportedly objected to the holding of several in-person Council meetings to avoid the possibility of a separate discussion aimed at giving the other members the floor to raise their concerns and outline their continued support for the JCPOA.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York. On 31 August, the U.S. vetoed a resolution on counter-terrorism issues tabled by Indonesia in a move that other Council members interpreted as, at least in part, a reprimand of Jakarta for its failure to facilitate the snapback process as Council president. But other than that, Council business has carried on as normal to date.

What happens next?

The U.S. goal in initiating the snapback process – which it claims to be on track to achieving – is to restore all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions on 20 September. But given the divide between Washington’s view and other Council members’ assessment that the U.S. lacks standing to trigger the mechanism, there is likely to be a parallel claim put forward. The Trump administration, perhaps with the support of Middle Eastern allies, will contend that it has restored all UN restrictions on Iran’s activities – and insist that these are binding on all member states. U.S. officials will likely turn their attention toward enforcement, pressuring UN member states to recognise the reimposition of pre-JCPOA sanctions. “All countries are bound to enforce them”, contended Secretary Pompeo in a recent op-ed. “To do otherwise grossly undermines the Council’s authority and credibility, and could normalise selective enforcement of Security Council resolutions”. The vast majority of Council members, including the P4+1 parties to the nuclear deal, will maintain – possibly, again, in writing – that they do not consider these U.S. claims as valid and that sanctions have not been restored. Most Council members will thus consider that the terms of Resolution 2231 continue to define the state of play. These parties will ignore the contrary U.S. claim and decline to enforce sanctions.

Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties

Both arguments are likely to be on display during the UN General Assembly next week. Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties if the Council does not fall in line behind snapback, although most think such a threat would likely be bluster. The P4+1 leaders, who will be addressing the assembly in pre-recorded videos, may restate their commitment to the JCPOA, but they are likely to downplay the issue to avoid generating extra friction with Washington. 

What is the role of the UN Secretary-General and secretariat in this dispute?

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit (the International Court of Justice might, though there is little indication thus far of a Security Council resolution requesting it to deliver an opinion on the matter, which in any case could take months). For now, it is a political and diplomatic issue rather than a neat legal determination.

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit

The next phase of UN diplomacy will likely feature U.S. manoeuvring to reinstate the mechanisms for monitoring sanctions on Iran that were dismantled in 2015. If UN Secretary-General António Guterres believed snapback to be legitimate, for example, he could try to re-form the panel of international experts to monitor sanctions breaches which existed from 2010 to 2015. Although this move would be a technicality (UN sanctions regimes can have legal force regardless of the existence of panels to monitor them), it would send a signal to UN officials that they should take the U.S. position seriously.

Guterres has so far resisted calls to weigh in on the dispute and claimed that Council members “need to interpret their own resolution”, but he may find that it is hard to remain entirely neutral. Even if the Secretary-General takes no action at all, Council members opposed to the U.S. position will interpret this inaction as proof that Washington’s claim has no force. The Secretary-General is supposed to report on Resolution 2231’s implementation to the Security Council every six months and the next report is due in December, pushing him to take a stance on the implications of recent events.

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback.

Nonetheless, the Secretary-General has little to gain from adopting a firm position in this dispute. He would be best advised to do no more than tell Council members to resolve it among themselves. 

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback. One is the status of individuals and entities that were previously under UN sanctions but were de-listed following JCPOA implementation and adoption of Resolution 2231. The reintroduction of past sanctions resolutions could mean that these individuals and entities could once again be designated under a reinstated sanctions regime. The status of the procurement channel established by Resolution 2231 for the “transfer of items, materials, equipment, goods and technology required for Iran's nuclear activities under the Nuclear Deal” will also come into question, as the U.S. will argue that this arrangement should now be terminated. The concrete impact of either measure on Iran in the short term is unclear, and Security Council members and UN officials are likely to get bogged down in inconclusive debates on these technicalities.

What happens when the conventional arms embargo on Iran expires?

Having rejected the U.S. position, most Security Council members accept that the conventional arms embargo on Iran – which the U.S. tried to extend prior to calling for snapback – will end on 18 October. The E3 floated compromise options on the embargo, such as a one-year or six-month extension, but none was simultaneously acceptable to the U.S. and China or Russia, let alone Iran.

The restrictions check Iran’s ability to import or export a range of conventional weapons, including “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems, as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms or related materiel”. During an August visit to Moscow, Iran’s defence minister predicted “a new chapter in defence cooperation” with Russia after the restrictions lapse, and U.S. intelligence assessments have pointed to jets and tanks as possible purchases. U.S. officials have told Western counterparts that they will impose bilateral penalties on Chinese and Russian companies that sell arms to Iran, although many of these firms are already under U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials also claim that after the restrictions are lifted the country has “the capacity to export several billion dollars a year in military equipment”; media speculate that Iran could find buyers for its domestically produced missile and air defence systems, ground equipment, naval craft and drones. Nevertheless, after 18 October, Iran’s outgoing transfers would remain subject to other Security Council prohibitions, including those covering Yemen and Lebanon, and an EU embargo continues to be in effect at least through 2023. 

What does all this mean for the nuclear deal? 

The snapback debate is reflective of the divide that has emerged between the U.S. and P4+1 since the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA. Washington contends that pressure – unilateral where necessary, multilateral where possible – can coerce Iran into accepting its demands to not only revisit the terms of the nuclear agreement but concede on a wider range of issues. The P4+1 have differing views on Iranian policy, but even in cases where there are shared concerns with Washington (the Europeans, notably, are apprehensive about the expiration of arms restrictions) their priority remains to salvage the existing negotiated framework as a basis for broader discussions, even as Iran has breached its terms in response to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign. 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front

The most recent quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes, for example, that Tehran continues to enrich uranium beyond the JCPOA’s 3.67 per cent ceiling and has accumulated an enriched uranium stockpile nearly ten times its 202.8kg limit. At the same time, the IAEA noted a drop in Iran’s heavy-water inventory, and Director General Raphael Grossi on 14 September told the agency’s board of governors that inspections had begun at two sites of concern where access had become a matter of tension (albeit separate from the JCPOA). 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front, as that might scupper continued efforts by all remaining parties to save the agreement (and isolate Tehran rather than Washington). Tehran regards its current breaches as a calibrated response to the erosion of the economic dividends it expected from the JCPOA. It wants sanctions relief, as provided for in the nuclear deal, in return for resuming full compliance. For its part, the Trump administration appears intent on pressing ahead with its “maximum pressure” approach.

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute.

How will the U.S. elections affect the dispute? 

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute. If President Trump wins a second term, he will have ample time and opportunity to kill off the JCPOA, and then hope that Iran will come back to negotiate a different deal (which he has said will be “a deal that’s great for Iran”). Conversely, his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has proposed to rejoin the JCPOA, if Iran returns to compliance with the agreement, and then attempt to “strengthen and extend” its conditions. It is not clear precisely what steps a Biden administration would need to take at the UN to unwind the U.S. snapback drive retroactively and reaffirm its commitment to the JCPOA. But diplomats and UN officials in New York are unlikely to let the niceties of UN procedures get in the way of reconstructing the nuclear deal.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
Senior Analyst, Iran