Cautious optimism over Uganda truce – ISN

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There is hope that a truce agreed on between rebels and the government will provide a solution to northern Uganda’s 20-year conflict, but a rebel amnesty that contradicts the ICC is seen as problematic.

By Simon Roughneen in Nairobi

Women and children shelter indoors at night, safe from the depredations of the LRA. Kalongo, northern Uganda (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

“If their fighters enter these camps as agreed, then even before we sign a final peace deal, we can say it is the end of the war.” So said Ugandan government spokesman Robert Kabushenga, speaking after a ceasefire between the government and northern rebels of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) was agreed on in Juba, Sudan, on 26 August.

LRA fighters are to proceed to two camps in southern Sudan during the three-week period leading up to 12 September, the deadline sought by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni for a peace deal to be signed between his government and the rebels.

On a visit to northern Uganda in April by ISN Security Watch, the desire for peace among the some 200 internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the region, home of sorts to 2 million people, was strong and clear.

At that time, the Ugandan government was promoting the idea that safe return to rural areas and villages was possible for northerners, some of whom had been displaced for almost 20 years. However, people in camps remained doubtful. As James Makena, a farmer staying in the Kalongo IDP camp, said: “ We can only go back when there is no more war, no more rebels and when the Army is gone.”

However, the interim period between now and the proposed peace deal will be fraught with tension. Uganda has seen over a dozen failed peace initiatives since the northern rebellion began in 1987. But recent months have seen the most concerted effort in years, brokered by the former southern Sudanese warlord Riek Machar in Juba, who at some point in the spring made contact with LRA leader Joseph Kony in his Congolese jungle hideout.

Real prospects for peace?

Speaking on Sunday, Ugandan Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, head of the Juba delegation, said: “In spite of a rocky start to the talks, there is currently an unprecedented will from both sides to reach an agreement […] though there are still a few things we do not agree on, but we see a better rapport, we see more commitment, and all of us agree on the need to have peace in northern Uganda.”

His LRA counterpart, Martin Ojul, agreed, telling a UN news service: “Hopefully, the government will [consolidate] the cessation of hostilities agreement, but the LRA is more committed to this process than ever before. We are committed to the process, however long it may take.”

On 21 August, the LRA said reconstituting the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) – the regular army – was the only way to achieve lasting stability in the country. “Uganda shall constitute and build a new national army that guarantees security, peace and sustainable prosperity of the people of Uganda,” according to a LRA position paper presented to southern Sudanese mediators.

The rebel group claimed that the government army stood at 100,000 troops, and demanded that the force be scaled back to 30,000 soldiers, comprising 20,000 from the UPDF and 10,000 from the LRA.

This demand was met with derision by the government. “The demand is simply diversionary and we shall not even consider discussing it. The LRA should only stick to issues on the agenda,” said Robert Kabushenga, a member of the Peace Support Group, a government technical team in Kampala supporting the delegation in Juba.

This issue, along with a number of others – such as regional power allocation, reintegration for rebels and a role for the former LRA men in government – remain contentious. These will be discussed between now and the 12 September deadline for a deal to be cut. The fractious exchange regarding army downsizing and LRA integration shows that there remains much work to be done before an agreed solution emerges.

LRA commander Raska Lukwiya was shot and killed last week in a battle between Ugandan soldiers and LRA guerrillas. This illustrates the potential for violence to occur should the peace talks falter. The LRA is notoriously unpredictable, and the Ugandan government has launched numerous security clampdowns and military offensives during previous peace-making attempts. Moreover, Lukwiya, whose death near the town of Kitgum was confirmed this week, had been the LRA’s number three – a senior figure who was one of five wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Justice, peace and international self-interest

On Monday, 28 August, at The Hague, the ICC made its first formal charges against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubunga, indicting him for enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities.

The ICC has five warrants for the arrest of LRA leaders, including Kony and his deputy, Vincent Otti. However, the Ugandan government offered the LRA amnesty in return for participation in the peace process, and as things stand, amnesty will be part of a final peace agreement. As yet, neither Kony nor Otti have emerged from their Congolese hiding place to attend the discussions that led to Saturday’s truce.

The LRA has reportedly written to South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, asking for help to establish a truth and reconciliation commission on northern Uganda.

Local feeling in the area largely, though not exclusively, supports this form of justice.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Ugandan aid worker in Pader district told ISN Security Watch that rebels killed both of his parents. “I am the eldest, so I went to work to support the other children. Now I am working to help my community. Internationals came here and helped us and so many people in camps […] I received my education with support from my NGO. I want what is best to allow this place to return to normal. If that means arresting people for trial then that should happen. But if people can forgive, then that should come first.”

However, competing international interests overshadow the Ugandan peace process. The ICC warrants remain in place, and the court has decided that all signatories to the Rome Statute (which established the ICC) are bound to arrest the LRA indictees.

Proponents of universal norms of international justice believe that if the ICC is snubbed in this case, it will set a debilitating precedent for their implementation elsewhere.

However the US, which opposes the ICC, would prefer for the Ugandan peace process to develop within local mechanisms. Many Ugandans concur, citing the need to develop a working peace process, allow two million displaced people to return home, and ensure that the LRA is neutralized.

“It’s clear that these warrants are impacting the chances of peace,” said Zachary Lomo, the former head of the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Kampala, “This is a choice between letting more than a million people go home or maintaining the status quo in the hope of staging a largely symbolic trial.”

Britain, which provides £70 million (US$132 million) in annual bilateral aid to Uganda, including over £30 million in direct budgetary support, has backed the ICC stance on the warrants. Lomo described Britain’s stance as “unhelpful.”

Norbert Mao is chairman of Gulu district council, one of northern Uganda’s worst affected areas. He said Britain should encourage the withdrawal of the arrest warrants and drop its proposed UN Security Council resolution authorizing its peacekeepers to hunt the rebel leaders.”We place a higher premium of peace and security than the sort of adversarial justice that the ICC proposes here,” he said.

A tense three weeks ahead

Sudan’s vice president, and president of the regional administration in south Sudan, Salva Kiir, has apparently received assurances from other international governments that the Uganda peace process would be supported. However, it appears that Kony may not fully trust either the Ugandan government or the south Sudanese. The Kampala-based Daily Monitor believes that he has formally approached the Central African Republic (CAR) government seeking asylum. However, gamesmanship is a two-way process – with Museveni insisting that if talks fail and the LRA remains in its Congolese hideaway, the UPDF will cross into the DRC to attack the rebels.

In any case, the modalities of what happens next will make for a tense few days. LRA rebels are to go to two locations in southern Sudan, east and west of the Nile, to facilitate rebels hiding in the DRC and the eastern part of southern Sudan, respectively. LRA leaders, Kony included, are set to fly to one of the locations some time in the coming three weeks.

LRA deputy leader Vincent Otti called a northern Ugandan radio station on Sunday to back the truce. Some LRA, fighters and abductees alike, are to head for places of worship in northern Uganda if they cannot get to the designated points in Sudan. Ugandan state media said up to 200 LRA, including women and children, were already walking towards Uganda from the rebels’ main base deep in Congo’s remote Garamba forest.

While Saturday’s deal assures the rebels they can leave the camps peacefully if the negotiations collapse, that is unlikely, experts say. Both Uganda and south Sudan’s regional government had earlier vowed to crush the LRA if talks fail. The LRA has been carrying out raids in southern Sudan since the early 1990s, and was supplied by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, then at war with the southern Sudanese Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Peace talks notwithstanding, there may be old scores to settle in the minds of some southern Sudanese. When the LRA arrives to its assembly points in Sudan, its members will be under the protection/control of the southern Sudanese army, itself a rebel movement until January 2005, and now providing the bulk of regular forces in southern Sudan.

However, the feeling is that the prospects for peace in northern Uganda are now real, and that the southern Sudanese also have too much to gain from this to jeopardize it by confronting the LRA, or arresting ICC indictees.

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