What's ICC Up to in Northern Uganda?; Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) a Facilitator of Peace in Northern Uganda or a Stumbling Block? Michael Bartlet Looks at the Dilemma Facing Northern Uganda, the ICC, and the Prospect of Peace

By Barlet, Michale | New African, August-September 2008 | Go to article overview
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What's ICC Up to in Northern Uganda?; Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) a Facilitator of Peace in Northern Uganda or a Stumbling Block? Michael Bartlet Looks at the Dilemma Facing Northern Uganda, the ICC, and the Prospect of Peace


Barlet, Michale, New African


The 22-year-old rebellion in northern Uganda has killed tens of thousands and laid waste to a generation. Once described by the UN undersecretary, Jan Egeland, as the "biggest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world", the brutal war conducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has resulted in children being abducted to become soldiers and sexual partners, forced the displacement of nearly two million people, and devastated the region agriculturally and economically.

The rebellion has been fought to a stalemate in which the rebels cannot take over even regional government but neither can the government dislodge them from the borders with Sudan and Congo. Peace talks mediated by the Sudanese vice-president, Riek Machar, began two years ago, leading to a cessation of hostilities on 26 August 2006. Since then, there have been agreements on "comprehensive solutions", "reconciliation and accountability", "permanent ceasefire" and "disarmament and demobilisation".

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In early 2008, the delegations initialled a "final peace agreement" but on 10 April the LRA leader, Joseph Kony failed to turn up in Ri-Kwang-Ba (South Sudan) to sign.

At the nub of his refusal was unwillingness to face trial before an international tribunal and the adequacy of arrangements for an alternative. He claimed that he did not understand the relationship between a proposed special division of the Ugandan high court, for trying crimes committed during the conflict and traditional Acholi justice mechanisms.

So to what extent does Kony's failure to show up now put the whole process at risk? The International Criminal Court (ICC) is pivotal to the conflict. While supporters credit it with bringing the LRA to the negotiating table, and undermining Sudan's support for the LRA, detractors criticise it for failure to hold the Ugandan government to account for war crimes and scuppering a final agreement.

President Yoweri Museveni referred the situation to the ICC in December 2003. In July 2005, the court issued arrest warrants against Kony and four senior commanders.

The court illustrates a complex relationship between justice and peace. While the UN Security Council recognises that the worst crimes are a "threat to international peace and security", many community leaders feel that the arrest warrants, which cannot be withdrawn without the consent of the court, are themselves a tangible threat to peace in northern Uganda.

Since the cessation of hostilities, the killing in northern Uganda has largely stopped. For the first time in a generation, the people of Acholiland have experienced the first glimmer of peace. Northern Uganda now faces a dilemma that calls for the judgment of Solomon. Where the most terrible atrocities have been committed, how do you balance the requirements of justice and peace? Many fear that external legal processes could jeopardise peace and prevent a lasting settlement.

Yet suspending the arrest warrants could encourage impunity, while putting at risk the credibility of the ICC. The court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, sees the case against the LRA as pivotal both in regard of its regional context and the operation of the LRA across national borders.

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There have so far been no successful ICC prosecutions and a fear that if this case fails, it could undermine the court's deterrent effect. But community leaders in northern Uganda now fear that "Plan B", the military option, is the worst alternative. Farmers are going back to their land and life returning to normal. Military action could put this at risk.

In fact, war risks destabilising not just northern Uganda but the whole region. A trial at The Hague is seen by some as neocolonial justice. Many of Africa's most brutal wars have been brought to an end by amnesties and conciliatory processes.

The conflict between justice and peace is no less acute in Sudan where the ICC's chief prosecutor has now requested judges of the court to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir over the Darfur crisis.

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What's ICC Up to in Northern Uganda?; Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) a Facilitator of Peace in Northern Uganda or a Stumbling Block? Michael Bartlet Looks at the Dilemma Facing Northern Uganda, the ICC, and the Prospect of Peace
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