(Washington, DC) - The United States government should step up efforts to protect civilians in central Africa from abuses by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a coalition of 39 human rights and humanitarian organizations said today. The organizations urged the Obama administration to appoint a special envoy for the African Great Lakes region with a mandate extending to LRA-affected areas, to support stronger United Nations peacekeeping and to intensify efforts to arrest three LRA leaders being sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
May 24 is the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's signing into law the bipartisan LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, the most widely supported, Africa-specific legislation in recent US history, which committed the US to help civilians in central Africa threatened by the LRA. The US government published its strategy for action against the LRA in November 2010 and outlined four primary goals: apprehending or removing the group's top leaders, protecting civilians from LRA attacks, encouraging escape and defection from the LRA, and providing humanitarian assistance to affected communities. Since then, the US has primarily focused its strategy on providing enhanced logistical and intelligence support for Ugandan-led military operations against the LRA, which the US had already been supporting since 2008.
"Congress gave the Obama administration an unprecedented mandate to end LRA atrocities and help affected communities recover," said Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve. "The administration has improved some of its efforts, but, by and large, has failed to strengthen civilian protection or apprehend the LRA's top leaders."
The adoption of the US legislation on the LRA gave hope to terrorized communities across central Africa who felt abandoned and forgotten, the organizations said. The governments of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan - countries where the group is currently active - have not shown sufficient capability or resolve to protect civilians adequately from LRA abuses. UN peacekeepers, meanwhile, are too few in numbers and have little capacity or will to protect civilians beyond the borders of their bases.
"Many of us believed that President Obama's commitment to addressing the LRA threat would finally help stop our suffering," said Abbé Benoit Kinalegu of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu, Haut Uele, Congo. "Yet one year later, we continue to live in fear as the LRA's attacks have shown no signs of decreasing."
Continued Threat to Civilians and Regional Stability
Since September 2008, the LRA has killed nearly 2,400 civilians and abducted about 3,400 others, according to Human Rights Watch and UN documentation. These atrocities are continuing in northern Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan. In the first four months of 2011, the LRA carried out at least 120 attacks, killing 81 civilians and abducting 193, many of them children. 97 of these attacks were in Congo, representing nearly half the total number of attacks reported in 2010. More than 38,000 Congolese civilians were newly displaced in 2011 due to LRA attacks, adding to the hundreds of thousands in the region who had already fled their homes. LRA attacks are also undermining international investments in peace and stability in Southern Sudan, ahead of its independence in July 2011.
The LRA, which originated in Uganda, has carried out a brutal campaign of killings, rapes, mutilations, and mass abductions of children for 25 years. Three LRA leaders - Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen - are sought by the ICC under arrest warrants issued in July 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda. All three remain at large and have been implicated in new atrocities since the arrest warrants were issued.
The LRA spreads more panic and fear with each attack, devastating livelihoods and forcing whole communities to flee. In the past few months, groups of over 20 well-armed LRA combatants, together with dozens of abducted children pressed into LRA service as combatants or porters, have attacked town centers in northern Congo. They have also begun attacking Congolese army bases, diverging from their usual strategy of choosing civilian "soft targets."
Accounts from people abducted by the LRA who recently managed to escape show that the LRA command structure remains intact. Scattered LRA groups are communicating with each other, and the rebels are continuing to abduct and train new fighters.
Need for Expanded Efforts to Implement LRA Strategy
The United States has been by far the most active government outside central Africa in addressing the LRA. But better coordination and more dedicated resources from the United States could produce significant improvements, the organizations said.
Specifically, the organizations called on the United States to appoint a special envoy for the African Great Lakes region, with a mandate extending to the LRA-affected regions of central Africa and reporting directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. If given sufficient resources and experienced staff to coordinate efforts in all countries involved and across different agencies of the government, such an envoy could help ensure that the United States is properly equipped to deal with the LRA's cross-border nature.
The envoy's work should be strengthened through regular engagement among officials across relevant US government agencies at both the working staff level and the more senior Deputies Committee or Principals Committee level. This should include tasking a point person at the Deputies Committee or Principals Committee level.
Senior-level US political engagement is also needed to help manage tensions and encourage cooperation among regional governments and other key actors, the groups said. In addition to helping coordinate regional governments, the US should rally serious political engagement and dedicated resources from European partners, the African Union (AU), and the UN Security Council to address the LRA. In particular, ambitions by the AU to help coordinate and facilitate greater regional and international responses to the crisis have stalled and are in need of new momentum.
"The US should lead robust multilateral efforts to overcome years of stalled attempts to address the LRA's threat to civilian populations," said Poffenberger.
Capable Force Needed to Protect Civilians
There is no international peacekeeping presence in the LRA-affected areas of eastern Central African Republic, and fewer than 1,000 UN peacekeeping troops are deployed to northern Congo's Haut Uele district. There are no peacekeepers at all in the neighboring Bas Uele district, even though some of the worst recent LRA atrocities have occurred there and Kony, the LRA leader, is believed to have been there recently. Even where UN peacekeepers are deployed, they often lack the operational capacity or willingness to protect civilians beyond the limits of their own bases.
The US government should take immediate steps, including using its diplomatic influence with other Security Council members and UN member states, to ensure a more effective peacekeeping presence in the LRA-affected regions, the organizations said.
As part of its protection strategy, the US government has made a commitment to build up communications and road infrastructure in the LRA-affected areas, which will eventually improve communities' ability to report attacks or the presence of LRA groups. However, a lack of funds has limited planned communications projects; some people have gained access to life-saving phone and radio networks, but hundreds of thousands of others remain isolated.
"A ‘911' call can be a lifesaver, but only if those on the other end of the line can bring help fast," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "More peacekeepers are urgently needed in these areas to effectively protect civilians at risk of LRA attacks."
Congolese armed forces, which are insufficiently equipped and poorly paid, have demonstrated little capacity to protect civilians. Soldiers deployed in small units to remote posts in the Uele districts often have no means of transport or communications with their commanders, and, lacking ammunition, are often forced to flee with the population when the LRA attacks.
Congolese army soldiers have also been responsible for serious abuses against the civilians they are charged with protecting, including killing, rape, torture, and arbitrary arrest. In mid-March 2011, for example, soldiers based in Nambia, Niangara territory, Haut Uele, tortured two children, ages 8 to 10, with burning sticks and melted plastic. The children had been accused of stealing a radio. In recent months, Congolese soldiers repeatedly attacked the nomadic Mbororo herder community, committing numerous rapes and killings, and pillaging cattle while forcing community members deep into the forests or across the borders into the Central African Republic or Southern Sudan.
Congolese and Ugandan authorities should investigate any abuses and hold perpetrators accountable in fair trials, the organizations said. The United States should ensure that it does not support any Congolese or Ugandan army unit responsible for serious human rights abuses.
Greater International Efforts Needed to Apprehend LRA Commanders
Apprehending Kony and other senior LRA commanders remains a critical step toward enhancing broader civilian protection efforts, the organizations said. Experience in other conflict zones illustrates that an operation to apprehend people wanted for serious crimes in violation of international law may require specially trained military or police units supported by expert, actionable intelligence and rapid reaction capabilities, including helicopters. In the case of the LRA, such operations should be carried out in parallel with enhanced efforts to encourage LRA commanders and fighters to defect.
The Uganda People's Defence Force lacks adequate intelligence and rapid reaction capacity. A US proposal to send military advisors to assist Ugandan efforts could help address some of these gaps, but even with additional support, the Ugandan army is unlikely to acquire the needed capabilities in the near future, the groups said. Operations are further hampered by deep-seated mistrust and suspicion between the Ugandan and Congolese armies, nearly sabotaging collaborative efforts to protect civilians and pursue the LRA leadership. There are unconfirmed reports that Congolese authorities have called on the Ugandan army to leave Congolese soil by mid-June.
Authorities in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and in the LRA-affected regions have consistently played down the LRA threat, leading to public protests and tensions between the authorities and local populations. Similarly, Ugandan authorities have repeatedly stated that the LRA has been defeated, despite the new LRA attacks and the fact that the LRA leadership remains at large.
"Congolese and Ugandan denials and inaction do not change the fact that tens of thousands of civilians in central Africa continue to live in fear of the next LRA attack," said John Bradshaw, executive director of the Enough Project. "One year since the passage of a landmark LRA law, the US, with its regional and international partners, has much more to do to move beyond marginal policy shifts and develop an enhanced apprehension strategy capable of decisively ending the LRA threat."
The following 39 organizations have signed on to this news release:
1. HelpAge International
2. Human Rights Watch
3. Organisation pour la Défense des Droits de l'Enfant Internationale
4. A Thousand Sisters, USA
5. ENOUGH Project, USA
6. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, USA
7. Invisible Children, USA
8. Resolve, USA
9. Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l'Homme à Shabunda (ACADHOSHA), Democratic Republic of Congo
10. Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture (ACAT) - Nord Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo
11. Action Globale pour la Promotion Sociale et la Paix (AGPSP)
12. Action Humanitaire et de Développement Intégral (AHDI)
13. Africa Justice, Peace, and Development (AJPD)
14. AJDI Doruma, Democratic Republic of Congo
15. Appuis aux femmes Diminue et Enfants Marginalisés (AFEDEM), Democratic Republic of Congo
16. Blessed Aid, Democratic Republic of Congo
17. Bureau des Actions de Développement et des Urgences (BADU), Democratic Republic of Congo
18. Centre des recherches pour l'Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de L'Homme (CREDDHO)
19. Centre d'Etudes et de Formation Populaire pour les Droits de l'Homme (CEFOP/DH), Democratic Republic of Congo
20. Centre d'Observation des Droits de l'Homme et d'Assistance Sociale (CODHAS), Democratic Republic of Congo
21. Centre pour la Paix et les Droits de l'Homme - Peace and Human Rights Center (CPDH-PHRC), Democratic Republic of Congo
22. Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires du Congo (COJESKI), Democratic Republic of Congo
23. CONVERGENCES, Democratic Republic of Congo
24. Défense et Assistance aux Femmes et Enfants Vulnérables en Afrique (DAFEVA), Democratic Republic of Congo
25. Doruma Civil Society, Democratic Republic of Congo
26. Encadrement des Femmes Indigènes et des Ménages vulnérables (EFIM), Democratic Republic of Congo
27. Groupe Lotus, Democratic Republic of Congo
28. Human Rights Activists of Niangara Territory, Democratic Republic of Congo
29. Initiative Congolaise pour la Justice et la Paix (ICJP), Democratic Republic of Congo
30. Initiatives Alpha, Democratic Republic of Congo
31. Ligue des Jeunes de Grand Lac (LJGL), Democratic Republic of Congo
32. Observatoire Congolais des Prisons (OCP), Democratic Republic of Congo
33. RéseauProvincial des ONG de Droits Humains au Congo (REPRODHOC), Democratic Republic of Congo
34. Solidarité des Volontaires pour l'Humanité, Democratic Republic of Congo
35. Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI), Democratic Republic of Congo
36. UJDL Youth Association of Doruma, Democratic Republic of Congo
37. Union d'Action pour les Initiatives du Développement (UAID), Democratic Republic of Congo
38. Diocese of Nzara, South Sudan
39. Nzara Comboni Missionary Sisters, South Sudan