Gillian Lamunu – WNN Opinion
(WNN/IWPR) Gulu, UGANDA, AFRICA: Last month, the Ugandan government dropped its 12-year-old amnesty for rebel combatants who decide to lay down their arms and renounce violence.
On May 23, Interior Minister Hilary Onek extended the Amnesty Act for a further 12 months, but in a form that left out crucial clauses that have granted reprieve to former rebels coming out of the bush.
Since 2000, more than 26,000 rebels have benefited from the law, which allows them to avoid prosecution for any crimes they may have committed. They have also received psychological support and materials such as household items and agricultural tools to help reintegrate them into their community.
The Amnesty Act in its latest form will allow the resettlement and reintegration of former combatants who have already received “amnesty certificates” to continue. But those who have yet to surrender or apply for amnesty could face prosecution, most likely at the recently established International War Crimes Division of Uganda’s High Court.
Around half of those who have surrendered to date are from the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which fought a brutal 20-year war in northern Uganda starting in 1987. The conflict killed approximately 100,000 civilians and displaced nearly two million people from their homes.
The International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague has charged LRA leader Joseph Kony and top commanders Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen with atrocities committed during the insurgency. Two others whom the ICC indicted in 2005 have since died.
Legally, the ICC indictments override any amnesty offered under Uganda law.
The LRA is now holed up in border regions of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, the Central African Republic, CAR, and South Sudan, where they continue to wage attacks on civilians.
The change to the amnesty provisions caught everyone by surprise, including the people of northern Uganda. The law was due for renewal in May and the deputy speaker of parliament had announced in April that it would be extended, but made no reference to any changes to its terms.
Following the interior minister’s decision, a government press release announcing the act’s extension made no mention of the fact that the crucial legislation granting amnesty to rebels had been struck out.
The Ugandan state has been under growing pressure from international donors and human rights groups to prosecute those who are accused of perpetrating major crimes during the LRA war.
Uganda is a signatory to the ICC’s Rome Statute and has also incorporated legislation into its domestic code allowing national courts to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
But is this the right time to do away with the amnesty completely? Has Uganda achieved what the act was brought in to achieve back in 2000?
While the LRA is a much depleted force compared with the days when it wreaked havoc across northern Uganda, its members continue to abduct children and commit atrocities in the area where DRC, CAR and South Sudan intersect.
A Ugandan military force, backed by United States troops, is currently tracking the rebels in a bid to arrest Kony and his senior colleagues. But there has been little sign of success so far.
On the streets of Gulu town where former LRA rebels now rub shoulders with those they would once have attacked, the change in the amnesty law met with mixed reactions.
Traditional justice and reconciliation mechanisms enjoy a lot of support in northern Uganda, but calls for conventional prosecutions in keeping with international law are growing louder. Some favour prosecution for the rebels who are still at large, particularly those of senior rank who orchestrated crimes as well as perpetrating them.
Yet there is also concern for the hundreds of rebels who were forcibly abducted as children, and for whom capture or surrender could spell prosecution once they were back in Uganda.
In my view, the amnesty has been abandoned prematurely.
Although the act did need amendment to remove the possibility of blanket impunity for all former rebels, it now offers no guarantees even for those who, as children, were conscripted into LRA ranks against their will. That is a worrying development.
The Amnesty Act should be credited with weakening the LRA over the last 12 years. According to the Amnesty Commission, more than 13,000 LRA members have defected to obtain amnesty since 2000.
It might be argued that 12 years down the line, it is time for to bring the remaining LRA fighters to book. But the withdrawal of opportunities to apply for amnesty could prompt the force to embark on a recruitment drive to strengthen its position.
With the guarantee of amnesty off the table, there seems little chance that rebels will surrender voluntarily. Under the revised law, fresh recruits will have little option but to remain in the force indefinitely or face the possibility of trial.
In order to further sap the LRA’s strength, the amnesty legislation should have been extended in its entirety. While the individuals indicted by the ICC were not eligible under the previous format of the Amnesty Act, the law was an effective tool for weakening the organisation by encouraging low-level and senior commanders to defect.
Now the LRA will have to be defeated without it.
The LRA has been outside Uganda for the last six years, but there is no guarantee it will not try to return. Nor is there any guarantee that the government will display the determination to stop this happening. Just last year, it withdrew a battalion of 700 soldiers tasked with tackling the rebels.
On June 11, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called for greater support from the international community to stop the activities of the LRA, which has now displaced over 445,000 people in CAR, DRC and South Sudan.
Lawmakers should also be mindful of the tense political climate in the wider region. What is now a bitter relationship between Sudan and the recently-seceded South Sudan means that any interested party could seek to take advantage of the LRA as a proxy militia to further destabilise the region.
The Amnesty Act should have been extended in full while discussions took place about how to prosecute senior commanders. A revised law could have formally exempted certain members of the LRA leadership from amnesty. Fresh components could have been worked in at a later date, in order to square the act with international law by allowing for prosecutions.
Such an approach would have delivered justice for the victims of the rebel conflict while safeguarding those abducted by the force from prosecution.
Now, however, it is unclear who will be prosecuted and who will not.
In May, a senior LRA commander, Caesar Acellam, surrendered to the Ugandan military in the CAR. While the Ugandan government described it as a “capture”, the way it happened suggests Acellam may have intentionally given himself up in order to claim amnesty as others have done.
Without the prospect of amnesty, it is unlikely that more LRA members will follow Acellam out of the bush.
If it were simply a matter of capturing rebels and bringing them to book, there would have been no need for an amnesty law in the first place. As long as the LRA is still active, albeit not inside Uganda, that need will still exist.
Gillian Lamunu is an IWPR reporter in Gulu, northern Uganda.
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