The new regional government of Southern Sudan has ignored the International Criminal Court’s warrants for the arrest of four top Ugandan rebel leaders, Human Rights Watch said today. The regional government, which acknowledges that the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has committed grave abuses, has an obligation to help bring its leaders to justice.
On May 2, representatives of the Southern Sudan government met in southern Sudan with LRA leader Joseph Kony and his second-in-command, Vincent Otti, who are subjects of arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court. In a digital recording of the meeting made by the Sudanese participants, Dr. Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, vice-president of the regional government, can be seen handing over bundles of cash to Kony. On the recording, the vice-president is heard cautioning Kony not to use the money for ammunition.
“Southern Sudan’s leaders should arrest people accused of horrific war crimes, not give them food and money,” said Jemera Rone, East Africa coordinator at Human Rights Watch.
The LRA began its war to topple Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in 1986. The rebels, based in northern Uganda, struck fear in the civilian population by carrying out mutilations, killings and forced recruitment of child soldiers mostly from the Acholi people of northern Uganda. In December 2003, Museveni invited the International Criminal Court to investigate the LRA. On October 14, 2005 the court issued warrants for the arrest of the top five LRA leaders: Kony and Otti, who attended the May 2 meeting; and Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya and Dominic Ongwen (deceased). They are accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In 1994, the LRA started operating from bases in Southern Sudan. The Sudanese government provided the LRA sanctuary in territory along the border, as well military and food supplies, allegedly in retaliation for Ugandan government support of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
In 2005, the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A signed a peace agreement. The former SPLM rebel group is now the ruling political party in Southern Sudan’s government. The LRA, which began to attack and loot the property of southern Sudanese civilians once supplies from Khartoum started to dwindle, has continued attacking, abducting and looting Sudanese civilians despite the peace agreement between the LRA’s Sudanese backers and the SPLM rebels.
The former Sudanese rebels now heading the southern regional government said that the meeting with Kony was meant to stop LRA attacks in southern Sudan. If the LRA agreed to this, the Southern Sudanese government stated that it would mediate peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government. The regional Sudanese government defended its actions of May 2 in the media and to the Sudanese public by saying that it gave the LRA food, reportedly five tons, and some cash, reportedly US$20,000, to purchase more food supplies. The LRA has claimed that it attacked Sudanese civilians to feed its troops. “These payments have stopped the LRA’s attacks on civilians in Sudan, at the cost of rewarding the LRA,” said Rone. “What happens when the government stops paying?”
Several Southern Sudanese parliamentarians interviewed by Human Rights Watch during an 18-day mission to Southern Sudan in May expressed surprise that their government gave food and money to the LRA when there are many displaced southern Sudanese still recovering from the long civil war who are in need of such assistance. A key component of the agreement reached between the LRA and the government of Southern Sudan at the May 2 meeting was that the LRA would accept Southern Sudan’s mediation and enter into peace negotiations with the Ugandan government. Kony listed several demands to be put to the Ugandan government, including amnesty from prosecution by Uganda and the ICC.
On May 13, Southern Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his delegation attended the Kampala inauguration of Museveni, recently elected to a third term as president of Uganda. According to media reports and interviews Human Rights Watch conducted with several Sudanese present at the event, the Sudanese delegation met with the Ugandan president and showed him the recording made of the May 2 meeting with Kony and the LRA. Museveni agreed to talks with Kony mediated by the Southern Sudanese. Museveni publicly said that if the talks were successful, he would give the LRA leaders amnesty and protect them against ICC prosecution. The ICC then reminded the Ugandan government of its obligations as a party to the ICC to arrest Kony and the other men who are the subject of arrest warrants. Riek Machar told Human Rights Watch that the ICC represented “European justice,” ignoring the fact that Museveni had invited the ICC to Uganda. The vice-president, citing Southern Sudan’s multiple challenges of establishing a new democracy in a long-neglected and war-torn area, said his fledgling government could not be the “police of the world.”
At a celebration of SPLM/A Day on May 16 in Juba, Southern Sudan’s capital, President Salva Kiir said that he met with European diplomats while in Kampala about this Uganda peace initiative. He claimed that the diplomats signaled that peace between the LRA and the Ugandan government was a higher priority than the arrest of the persons wanted by the ICC. Human Rights Watch has not verified this claim. Human Rights Watch called on all countries to respect demands of justice and accountability. Representatives of the Southern Sudanese government told Human Rights Watch in May that it had given the LRA two months to meet with the Ugandan government for peace negotiations, indicating that they wanted an early resolution of the issue and would not continue indefinitely to provide food assistance to the LRA. If the Southern Sudanese peace initiative failed, the regional government would ask the LRA to withdraw from its territory, engaging the LRA in combat if it refused to leave. It would also ask Ugandan government troops to leave Sudan and for the Ugandans to take their war back to their own country, “where it belongs.”
Southern Sudan’s current leaders were rebels who until January 2005 waged a 21-year war against the National Congress government of Sudan, which came to power in 1989 by a military coup led by the Islamist congress. In that month, the SPLM signed a peace agreement in which the government and rebels formed a new government of national unity. The parties to the peace compact agreed that the National Congress would hold 52 percent and the SPLM 28 percent of executive and legislative positions in the new government. The SPLM formed an autonomous regional government in the southern region and took over 70 percent of executive and legislative positions. The SPLM succeeded in keeping its army, the SPLA, as a separate national army and in winning the right to a southern self-determination referendum in 2011. The Southern Sudanese government has taken a markedly different approach to the LRA than the National Congress, which never attempted publicly to broker a peace deal between the Ugandan government and the LRA. Since 1994, the National Congress government supported the LRA with training, weapons, ammunition and food in bases in Southern Sudan bordering on northern Uganda. It used the LRA militia to fight the SPLM/A in southern Sudan as well as to cause upheaval in northern Uganda.
The National Congress government publicly denied its support for the LRA, but privately blamed it on Museveni’s support for the SPLM/A. Museveni said he backed the SPLM politically but not militarily. In 2001, the U.S. State Department designated the LRA a terrorist organization. The government of Sudan in 2002 gave consent for the Ugandan army to conduct military operations in southern Sudan against the LRA; that permission has been extended continuously to date. In the four years of operations in southern Sudan, the Ugandan forces have not succeeded in capturing Kony. Since the SPLM rebels took over the regional government, the Ugandan army has coordinated some attacks on the LRA with the regional army of Southern Sudan (formerly the rebel SPLA). Peace initiatives between the Ugandan government and the LRA have had few results. A peace initiative by former Ugandan government minister Betty Bigombe in 2004 collapsed before direct talks were held with Joseph Kony. The Southern Sudanese meeting on May 2 with Kony was believed to be the first meeting Kony has held with outsiders for a decade.