(New York) - Any proposed alternative to International Criminal Court (ICC) trials for the most serious crimes committed in northern Uganda must include fair, credible prosecutions accompanied by penalties that reflect the gravity of the crimes.

Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) are expected to resume and take up issues of accountability and reconciliation on Thursday. The talks have been taking place in Juba, the regional capital of southern Sudan, on and off since last July.

In a memorandum directed to parties involved in the peace talks, Human Rights Watch details benchmarks that must be met for any national trial to be an appropriate alternative under the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute and international human rights standards. Human Rights Watch said that prosecutions for the most serious crimes, along with broader accountability measures for lesser offenses, are essential to ensure justice and a sustainable peace.

"In northern Uganda's 21-year conflict, horrific crimes have been committed," said Richard Dicker, International Justice director at Human Rights Watch. "Fair and credible prosecutions with appropriate penalties will tell would-be perpetrators that no one is above the law, thereby helping to promote a peace that is durable."

ICC arrest warrants for four LRA leaders on war crimes and crimes against humanity provide a major opportunity to ensure justice is done for at least some of the crimes. At the same time, some involved with the peace talks are exploring possible national alternatives to ICC prosecutions to help facilitate a peace agreement. These include national trials, traditional justice, truth commissions, or a combination thereof.

"The ICC warrants for LRA leaders are a crucial step toward ensuring justice in northern Uganda," said Dicker. "In fact, the ICC permits, and actually favors, national prosecutions where possible. But any alternative to the ICC would need to meet serious benchmarks."

Benchmarks for any national alternative detailed in Human Rights Watch's memorandum are:

  • credible, independent and impartial investigation and prosecution;
  • rigorous adherence in principle and practice to international fair trial standards; and
  • penalties that are appropriate and reflect the gravity of the crimes, i.e. prison sentences that are substantial but observe international human rights standards of detention.

The international community should insist on these benchmarks, Human Rights Watch said. Key actors include members of the "core group" on Uganda (the US, the UK, the Netherlands, and Norway) and African observers to the peace talks (South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo). In December, former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano was named the UN secretary-general's special envoy for the LRA-affected areas.

"Key governments and the UN secretary-general's special envoy have a critical role to play," said Dicker. "They should help ensure that any outcome for northern Uganda includes fair, credible prosecutions for the worst crimes."

A 12-month deferral of the ICC's investigation and prosecution by the UN Security Council under article 16 of the Rome Statute, a possibility which has been raised by the LRA, would be inappropriate, Human Rights Watch said. In the absence of fair and credible prosecution at the national level, a Security Council deferral could be utilized to shield LRA leadership from facing trial, perhaps indefinitely if renewed. Article 16 permits a temporary suspension of ICC investigation or prosecution by the Security Council, but not to facilitate alleged perpetrators to evade justice. A deferral by the Security Council could also open the door to dangerous interference in the ICC's independence over its judicial operations.

Background

The conflict in northern Uganda to depose President Yoweri Museveni began immediately after he took power by force in 1986. The conflict has been characterized by serious crimes under international law and other human rights abuses committed by the LRA and to a lesser extent government forces, which Human Rights Watch and others have documented. On the part of the LRA, these have included willful killings, beatings, large-scale abductions, forced recruitment of adults and children, sexual violence against girls whom it assigns as "wives" or sex slaves to commanders, and large-scale looting and destruction of civilian property. On the part of the government, abuses have included extrajudicial executions, rape, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary detention and forced displacement.

In December 2003, Museveni invited the ICC to investigate the LRA. In July 2005, the court issued warrants for the arrest of the top five LRA leaders - Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya and Dominic Ongwen - for crimes against humanity, including widespread or systematic murder, sexual enslavement and rape, and war crimes such as intentionally attacking civilians and abducting children under the age of 15 and using them as child soldiers. Lukwiya was killed in August 2006 during a fight between the LRA and Ugandan military forces.