Trying Times in Uganda
Trying Times in Uganda
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
Op-Ed / Africa 5 minutes

Trying Times in Uganda

Uganda is the first case for the International Criminal Court. In terms of war crimes and human rights abuses, it doesn’t get uglier than this, write Nick Grono and Jim Terrie.

At sunset on 21 February, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked a refugee camp in northern Uganda. The camp was meant to provide civilians with shelter against such attacks. Instead it turned into a slaughterhouse, with more than 300 men, women and children hacked, burnt and shot to death by the LRA’s child soldiers.

Within days, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced that he would investigate the attacks on the camp, and that they would be included in his recently announced investigation into the activities of the LRA in northern Uganda. How the Prosecutor handles this, the first investigation of the ICC, will be closely watched by the international community, and will be an important test for the fledging court.

The LRA is a suitable first target for the ICC. It is conducting one of the most savage and vicious guerrilla campaigns in the world today. Led by Joseph Kony, it consists mainly of child soldiers—children kidnapped during raids and forced to fight for the group. Abducted girls are often used as sex slaves. For the last 18 years, funded and armed for much of that time by the government of neighbouring Sudan, the LRA has been engaged in a campaign against the Ugandan government and President Yoweri Museveni. Countless Ugandans have been killed or abducted during this conflict. Some 1.3 million people have been driven from their homes, a situation described by a senior UN official in November 2003 as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world”.

The LRA is not motivated by any identifiable political or progressive agenda, and its military ‘strategy’ and tactics reflect this. Although it does occasionally raise the tenets of nationalism and emancipation for tribes in the north, these are irreconcilable with its violence against those same tribes. It engages in economic extortion by terrorizing civilians and abducting children for use as porters to increase its mobility and help move looted goods to the market. The LRA leadership turns most abductees into soldiers or wives, maintaining the cycle of looting and abduction.

The February attack on the refugee camp revealed serious deficiencies in the Ugandan government’s ability to protect the population and defeat the LRA. The continuing conflict is a significant blemish on the record of Museveni’s government, which has otherwise had many successes, in areas such as economic growth and combating HIV/AIDS, since it came to power in 1996. It is against this background that the ICC is investigating the LRA. But there is a lot more riding on this decision than the possible trial of psychopathic rebels.

The test

The ICC’s decision will have reverberations beyond the confines of the Ugandan conflict. As the first investigation of the newly established court, its success or otherwise will set the tone for the court’s immediate future. For this reason, it will be closely watched by countries that have signed up to the court’s statute. And perhaps the most interested observer will be the Bush administration, which has sought to thwart the establishment of the court every step of the way.

To properly understand the importance of this investigation, it’s necessary to briefly consider what the court can and can’t do.

The ICC was established by the Rome Statute in 1998, and officially came into effect on 1 July 2002, after 60 countries had ratified the statute. Its remit is to try the most serious of crimes—namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes—committed after 1 July 2002. There are many restrictions on the kinds of cases it can hear. For instance, it can only try individuals if their actions were committed on the territory of a country that has ratified the Rome Statute, or if they are citizens of a country that has ratified. So, to take the Iraq war as an example, the court could conceivably try British troops accused of war crimes (because the UK has ratified the statute) but it could not try US or Iraqi troops (because neither the US nor Iraq have ratified the statute). If Iraq had ratified the statute, then Iraqi and US troops could be tried (because the actions would have taken place in a country that has ratified) even though the US is not a party to the statute.

It is this latter scenario, of US troops being subject to an international court to which it is not a party, which explains the Bush administration’s hostility. The administration has long been encouraging countries not to ratify the statute. And it has sought bilateral ‘impunity’ agreements from those that have signed. Under these agreements, countries promise not to hand US citizens over to the court. As an added incentive, the US has threatened to withhold military aid from countries that don’t sign such agreements.

Australia had its own extended debate about signing up to the ICC. The US administration urged the Howard government not to sign up. Many Coalition MPs expressed concerns about the jurisdiction of the court over Australian troops. It was only after a determined campaign by the then attorney-general, Daryl Williams, and the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, that the government decided to ratify the Rome Statute in June 2002, shortly before it came into force.

The challenge

A legal investigation into the atrocities in Uganda and bringing the culprits to court is not a simple endeavour. The Prosecutor has already grappled with the challenges of carrying out an investigation in an African war zone. In July last year, Moreno-Ocampo announced that he was closely following the situation in Ituri, a war-torn province in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In recent years, Ituri has seen some of the worst fighting in a long-running genocidal war which has resulted in an estimated three million deaths, and in which neighbouring countries such as Uganda have backed their own proxy militias. But no formal investigation has yet to eventuate.

Similar challenges will confront the ICC in Uganda. For a start, the investigation makes the Prosecutor a participant in an ongoing conflict. His actions may shorten the war, and some argue that, handled improperly, the investigation could prolong it. The court’s obligation is to try those with the greatest responsibility, but it can’t do that effectively if they are not in custody. The whereabouts of Kony and his henchman are unknown. Some suspect they are operating from Sudan, others claim they are at large in northern Uganda. It will be difficult to collect evidence in a region still subject to LRA raids, as the recent massacres made all too clear. And the decision to focus on the LRA has itself been subject to criticism.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for the Prosecutor to investigate the actions of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) as well as the LRA. President Museveni has claimed that he is not opposed to such investigations should the evidence warrant it. In contrast, some northern Ugandan community leaders have warned against ostracising the LRA leadership and undermining any hope of dialogue.

Clearly, the LRA leaders warrant investigation by the ICC. Clearly also, the court needs not only to be impartial, but seen to be so. These two objectives are entirely compatible. The court bears a responsibility to bring to justice those who are most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Any investigation into the conflict between the LRA and the UPDF is likely to reveal that the bulk of atrocities have been committed by the LRA. But to the extent that atrocities have been committed by the Ugandan forces, it is only right that these offenders are also brought to trial—to ensure that justice in one of the world’s most appalling conflicts is done.


Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer
Former Senior Analyst, Central Africa

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