November 11, 2010

Dated July 15, 2010 / Made public November 11, 2010

Dear Mr. President,

We write to provide input to the comprehensive strategy that the US government is developing following the recent enactment of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. We believe this law is a crucial step toward addressing the LRA threat in central Africa. We applaud the efforts of those in Congress who helped pass the bill as well as your commitment when you signed the bill into law on May 24.

In this letter we outline what Human Rights Watch believes are critical tasks that should be included in a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians from LRA attacks and ensure that LRA leaders are brought to justice. We also set out a possible range of options for how we believe these critical tasks can be implemented. We understand that your administration has already begun to gather input from across the US government and we hope our recommendations will assist these endeavors.

As you know, Human Rights Watch has been documenting horrific abuses by the LRA for many years. We are gravely concerned about ongoing attacks on civilians and the wide-scale abduction of children and adults in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). Nearly 2,000 civilians have been killed by the LRA in northeastern Congo since 2008 and a further 2,300 have been abducted, including many children. Hundreds of others have been killed and abducted in CAR and Southern Sudan in the same time period. Nearly 350,000 people have been displaced in the three countries, many without access to humanitarian assistance. These latest victims need to be added to the tens of thousands of victims of LRA violence in northern Uganda.

The enormous scale of LRA abuses - which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity - merits urgent attention and concrete action from the international community and the governments of the region. The LRA has repeatedly been declared a threat to international peace and security by the UN Security Council, yet to date not nearly enough has been done to end the group's atrocities.

In addition to helping the civilian population achieve security, an end of the LRA threat is also crucial for conflict prevention and regional peace and stability, in particular in Southern Sudan. As you know, in the mid-1990s the LRA's only state supporter was the Sudanese government in Khartoum, reportedly in retaliation for the Ugandan government's support of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). While that support diminished and perhaps even ended from 2002 onwards, there have been recent indications that the LRA may once again be seeking to reach out to officials in Khartoum. If the past tactics were repeated, it could destabilize the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and possibly next year's referendum on independence. The US government has invested significant efforts in seeking peace in Southern Sudan, which could be put at risk by a continuing LRA threat.

The components of a comprehensive strategy to address the LRA threat are described below.

Enhanced protection of civilians should be central
Recent military operations against the LRA have failed to ensure the protection of the civilian population. The Ugandan armed forces (Uganda People's Defence Force or UPDF), with support from the US government, has to date focused on targeting the LRA's top leaders (so far unsuccessfully). Only limited military efforts have been dedicated to protecting vulnerable populations. National armed forces in DRC and CAR, which the Ugandan government says are tasked with protecting civilians, have been largely ineffective. UN peacekeeping missions operating in DRC, CAR and Southern Sudan have also failed to adequately respond to the LRA threat due to limited resources and competing priorities.

The result has been a near total vacuum in civilian protection in many LRA-affected areas. This is particularly egregious since experience demonstrates that the LRA has repeatedly targeted civilians in retaliation when the group has come under military pressure. The failure to include adequate protection of civilians in military plans has led to an unacceptably high cost in human life and devastating humanitarian consequences.

Urgently enhancing the protection of civilians should be a top priority in a new strategy in dealing with the LRA. Relying solely on removing the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, and his top commanders, frequently cited as the most critical task to improve civilian security, is inadequate. The apprehension for trial of Kony and other LRA leaders subject to arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court should be seen as one task in a broader and more comprehensive strategy to protect civilians, not as the only task.

In order to enhance civilian protection, a new strategy should include the following key elements:

  • a. Deploying sufficient numbers of effective and accountable soldiers and police in LRA- affected areas who are tasked with protecting civilians. This will require a substantially enhanced international commitment. Adding ill-trained and ill-equipped troops from national armed forces, either from the region or elsewhere, will be ineffective or likely be counter-productive. In Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, increasing the number of Ugandan troops did not dramatically improve the situation for the protection of civilians.
  • b. Using and extending intelligence gathering to improve civilian protection. To date the intelligence gathered through surveillance flights and satellite imagery has been used mainly to try to pinpoint the location of LRA leaders. But this information is also vital to following the LRA's movements and to identifying the communities that may become vulnerable to attack.
  • c. Better communication networks and strategies to improve information flows and early warning systems. The extension of mobile phone networks, for example, would provide a significant advantage for protection of civilians. A greater focus should also be put on establishing mechanisms to allow local communities to provide information on their protection concerns.
  • d. Improved coordination between UN missions and national armed forces. While the UN has sought to improve its internal coordination, such as through the appointment of LRA focal points in each UN mission to facilitate information sharing, more should be done to better coordinate with all relevant national armed forces, especially the UPDF. The establishment of a joint coordination cell that includes representatives of the various UN peacekeeping missions, the UPDF and other armed forces would greatly facilitate information-sharing and coordination. The US should consider seconding senior staff, both military and civilian, to this unit, ideally based in the field. The US should also determine how to share information with the participants of the joint coordination cell and ensure it is adequately resourced.

Apprehension of LRA leaders subject to ICC arrest warrants
The apprehension of LRA leaders subject to arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court (ICC) is a crucial element of a strategy to deal with the LRA, though it should not be conducted without full consideration of civilian protection concerns.

In July 2004, following a referral of the case from the government of Uganda, the ICC prosecutor opened an investigation into alleged crimes by LRA forces in northern Uganda. A year later the court issued five arrest warrants for Kony and other LRA leaders, including Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. They were charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and enlisting of children as combatants. Two of the LRA's leaders for whom arrest warrants were issued - Vincent Otti and Raska Lukwiya - are now dead. The other three remain at large and continue to commit atrocities.

The apprehension of LRA leaders wanted on ICC arrest warrants is important to help end attacks on civilians, to ensure justice for the horrific crimes committed by the LRA, and to promote sustainable peace in the region. The failure to apprehend the LRA leaders to date has left them at liberty to continue their brutal attacks on civilians.

Attempts to apprehend the LRA's leaders have thus far failed. UPDF officials claim that Ugandan forces are getting close to the targets, but such optimistic claims have been made repeatedly in the past two decades. Seventeen months into the current phase of military operations, these claims increasingly ring hollow. As global and regional powers develop a new comprehensive strategy, they should recognize the limitation of the UPDF's capabilities to apprehend the top leaders sought on ICC arrest warrants. The continuation of military operations based on the mere hope that Ugandan troops will get lucky is irresponsible and is likely to lead to further attacks on civilians and greater regional instability.

Experience in other conflict zones illustrates that operations to apprehend individuals wanted for serious crimes usually requires military special forces or specially trained police units supported by expert intelligence and quick reaction capabilities, as was the case in Bosnia. The UPDF do not currently have this capacity and are unlikely to acquire it in the near future. Specialized support from states that have these operational capabilities is needed to apprehend the LRA's leaders while minimizing the risk to civilians. The US government should be able to play an important role in seeing that such capabilities are available, even if it is not willing to send the needed units itself. The US should also use its diplomatic clout to find other countries that can contribute such expertise.

Apprehending the LRA's top leaders sought by the ICC is also important to give meaning to commitments US policy makers have frequently made that individuals responsible for serious violations of international law will be held to account. While the United States is not a state party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, it has consistently supported justice for serious crimes in country situations, including through international and mixed international-national courts. During the June 2010 ICC Review Conference in Uganda, in which the US participated as an observer, the US government pledged to support efforts to bring the LRA leadership to justice. Failure to apprehend the LRA's leaders not only puts civilian lives further at risk, but also risks undermining the credibility of international justice efforts to hold perpetrators of the most serious crimes to account.

Additional protection tasks for a comprehensive strategy
A comprehensive strategy to address the LRA threat should bolster efforts to rescue abducted children and adults, improve voluntary disarmament and demobilization programs, and increase humanitarian assistance to civilian populations.

Hundreds of children and adults remain with the LRA as porters, support workers, and sexual slaves. Others are in training to become combatants. Increased efforts are required to rescue abducted persons, including during military operations. Despite efforts by Ugandan soldiers to reduce civilian casualties during firefights with the LRA, lack of local language skills and other complications have meant unnecessary civilian losses. Further consideration should be given to safely rescuing abducted children and adults.

Further efforts are needed to assist abducted individuals trying to escape the LRA and LRA combatants wishing to defect. The LRA does not have recruits who voluntarily join the group. Instead, it replenishes its ranks through the abduction and forced recruitment of children, often between 10 and 15 years of age. More resources and support to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs and a communications campaign would assist combatants seeking to leave the bush. Mobile reception centers that abductees and LRA combatants can easily and safely reach should also be created.

Lastly, humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees and victims of the LRA has been woefully inadequate in the DRC, CAR and Southern Sudan. There are limited logistical possibilities for international and national humanitarian organizations to travel to areas where displaced persons have regrouped due to insecurity and lack of road infrastructure. Where it is possible to provide assistance, humanitarian agencies have been hampered by the lack of financial resources. While the number of humanitarian actors has increased in Haut Uele district of northeastern Congo, the assistance provided meets only a very small percentage of the humanitarian needs. In Bas Uele district of northeastern Congo and in southeastern CAR, the situation is even more desperate with very few humanitarian agencies operating in LRA-affected areas. Urgent and greater efforts are needed to increase logistical capacities for humanitarian agencies (including flights and road construction), increased security, and increased financial assistance.

The continuing failure of the international community to address the LRA threat has come with high costs. For 24 years the LRA has been responsible for immense loss of life, widespread humanitarian suffering, instability across the central African region, and lasting trauma for victims and affected communities.

The American people and the US Congress have demonstrated that they wish to see action to address this human rights and humanitarian catastrophe. We hope your administration will consider the full range of options and pursue a strategy that both ensures the protection of the civilian population and results in the apprehension and prosecution of the LRA leadership for their horrific crimes. The tens of thousands of LRA victims and their families and the communities who remain at risk deserve no less.  

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

CC: Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of Defense, Dr. Robert M. Gates
National Security Advisor, James L. Jones
Administrator, USAID, Dr. Rajiv Shah