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LRA: A Regional Strategy beyond Killing Kony
LRA: A Regional Strategy beyond Killing Kony
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Report 157 / Africa

LRA: A Regional Strategy beyond Killing Kony

To make an end of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) once and for all, national armies, the UN and civilians need to pool intelligence and coordinate their efforts in new and creative ways.

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Executive Summary

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has become a regional problem that requires a regional solution. Operation Lightning Thunder, launched in December 2008, is the Ugandan army’s latest attempt to crush militarily the one-time northern Ugandan rebel group. It has been a failure. After the initial attack, small groups of LRA fighters dispersed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), where they survive by preying on civilians. National security forces are too weak to protect their own people, while the Ugandan army, with U.S. support, is focused on hunting Joseph Kony, the group’s leader. The Ugandans have eroded the LRA’s numbers and made its communications more difficult. But LRA fighters, though disorganised, remain a terrible danger to civilians in this mostly ungoverned frontier zone. National armies, the UN and civilians themselves need to pool intelligence and coordinate their efforts in new ways if they are to end the LRA once and for all.

As the Juba peace process began to fall apart, President Museveni of Uganda worked hard to convince South Sudan and the Congo to participate in a joint military operation against the LRA. He had to overcome their mistrust of his army, notorious for its past abuse of civilians and illegal resource extraction on its neighbours’ territory. The U.S. lent its diplomatic weight to advance discussions. Even though both South Sudan and the Congo finally agreed, Uganda undermined its chances of success by failing to coordinate with them, giving them little reason to commit to the fight. In the event, bad weather and leaked intelligence caused Operation Lightning Thunder to fail in its primary objective, killing Kony, and a lack of forward planning allowed the LRA to put on a bloody show of force against Congolese civilians.

The LRA has since exploited the inability of the Congo, South Sudan and the CAR to control their border areas. Small, fast-moving groups of fighters attack unprotected villages to resupply with food and clothes and seize new recruits before heading back to the cover of the forest. Killing and mutilating are part of a strategy of terror to dissuade survivors from cooperating with the Ugandan and other armies. Even with the help of U.S. satellite imagery and audio intercepts, the Ugandan army, the only force committed to the chase, has had great difficulty tracking its targets. What was supposed to be a sudden, decisive strike has become a slow and very expensive campaign of attrition across three countries. It has also yielded unacceptably high human costs among local civilians, with virtually no accountability for the failure to protect. The weakness of all three state security forces and the limited means of the UN missions in the Congo and South Sudan have left civilians no choice but to fend for themselves, which in many instances they have done well.

In March 2010, Ugandan intelligence reported that Kony was in the southern Darfur region of Sudan, hoping to receive support from his former benefactor, the Khartoum government. He appears now to have crossed back into the CAR, where the bulk of his forces are, but with the fighters so scattered and mobile, it is difficult to pin down his exact whereabouts or the LRA’s present numerical strength. However, as the Ugandan army slowly kills and captures more of his Acholi officers, Kony’s faithful core is shrinking. This threatens the LRA’s cohesion, which depends on the leadership controlling the rank and file through violence and fear. The audio intercept capability the U.S. has given the army makes communication dangerous by any means other than runner. Despite these organisational stresses, LRA fighters continue to cause appalling suffering even in survival mode and would likely continue to do so even if Kony is caught or killed.

To remove this twenty-year-old cancer, a new strategy is required that prioritises civilian protection; unity of effort among military and civilian actors within and across national boundaries; and national ownership. The LRA’s need for fresh recruits and the ability of civilians to provide the most accurate information on its activities makes protecting them both a moral imperative and a tactical necessity. Only by pooling intelligence and coordinating activities across the entire affected region can the Ugandan army, its national partners, the UN and civilians hope to rid themselves of the LRA. The Ugandan operation and UN missions, however, offer only temporary support to LRA-affected states. The latter need to put structures in place now to ensure they can cope with what is left of the organisation and its fighters when foreign militaries leave.

Moreover, even complete victory over the LRA would not guarantee an end to insecurity in northern Uganda. To do that, the Kampala government must treat the root causes of trouble in that area from which the LRA sprang, namely northern perceptions of economic and political marginalisation, and ensure the social rehabilitation of the north.

Nairobi/Brussels, 28 April 2010

Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.