The African Union last month announced a plan to improve coordination to end atrocities by Joseph Kony’s Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Efforts to arrest Kony and other LRA leaders wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to end LRA abuses are urgently needed. But that is only half of the picture; addressing the legacy of the LRA and Ugandan army abuses is the other. This history of abuse also has implications for US and other foreign support to Ugandan-led arrest operations for Kony.
The LRA emerged partly as a response to the Ugandan government’s marginalization of the people of northern Uganda, policies maintained by President Yoweri Museveni since he took power in the mid-1980s. As the toll on civilians escalated in the 1990s, the conflict received increasing international attention.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented LRA abuses, and we have also documented human rights violations committed by Ugandan forces in the name of stopping the LRA in Uganda. On a lesser scale than those of the LRA, crimes by government forces nevertheless included deliberate killings, routine beatings, rapes, and prolonged arbitrary detention of civilians.
A heavy-handed government policy of forced displacement as well as LRA abuses forced some 1.9 million people into internally displaced persons camps by 2005. For many years, conditions in these overcrowded camps were appalling. And people in the camps remained vulnerable to attacks and abuses by both the LRA and the Ugandan army.
There has been little or no justice for the many victims of Ugandan government abuses. The Ugandan army claims individual soldiers have been prosecuted but it has been unwilling to make specific information about the cases public and no senior commander has been prosecuted.
We called on the ICC prosecutor to examine Ugandan army abuses of the civilian population. Nearly seven years after ICC arrest warrants were issued for the LRA leadership, the ICC prosecutor has not provided a clear and public explanation of prospects for charges against Ugandan officials or commanders. This silence has helped ease the pressure on Ugandan authorities to hold their forces to account.
Ugandan government abuses are not confined to the LRA conflict. Recently, the ICC handed down its first verdict, a guilty conviction for Thomas Lubanga, the leader of a Congolese rebel militia. But Lubanga’s militia did not act alone in terrorizing civilians in Ituri, eastern Congo. Uganda was the occupying power in Ituri between August 1998 and May 2003. The ICC prosecutor should explore the regional dimension of the conflict in Congo by investigating high-level political and military officials from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda who supported, armed, and financed militias in Ituri.
We are still awaiting action by the Ugandan defense minister and military prosecutors who told us last year that they would look into recent reports of rapes by the Ugandan army in Congo.
The Ugandan army also has continued to commit human rights violations within Uganda’s borders in an atmosphere of declining human rights protection in Uganda. In 2007, Human Rights Watch investigated multiple cases of unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention, and destruction of property by the army during government “disarmament” operations in the northeast. In 2008 and 2009 we interviewed scores of detainees, mostly young Muslims, tortured in illegal detention centers operated by Uganda’s military intelligence in the name of counterterrorism. In 2011 we interviewed families of Ugandans killed by soldiers sent in to quell anti-government protests.
These abuses, too, have largely gone unpunished. Museveni, recently re-elected to his fourth term, has long relied on the army for power. Foreign support for the Ugandan army, whether for LRA arrest operations or more broadly, could contribute to Museveni’s increasingly entrenched authoritarianism.
The Ugandan army has been fighting the LRA for over 25 years, despite repeatedly claiming to be on Kony’s heels. Although the LRA no longer operates in northern Uganda, it still preys on civilians in nearby countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. In 2008 a Ugandan-led effort backed by the United States, code-named “Operation Lightning Thunder,” failed in its aim to capture the LRA leadership; hundreds of civilians were killed by the LRA in retaliatory attacks.
The US has now sent 100 Special Forces personnel as military advisers to Ugandan troops and other armies in the region. Instead of relying on Ugandan forces, specially trained units are needed to conduct arrest operations while minimizing civilian casualties. Ensuring that Ugandan forces do not commit new abuses in their current operations is equally important.
Insisting that the victims of Ugandan government abuses, too, can tell their stories does not distract from the importance of arrest efforts for Kony. In fact, a wide-eyed recognition of the Ugandan army’s rights record should help, not hinder, those efforts. It can also refocus discussion on broader accountability for abuses and securing justice for Africa’s longest war.
Maria Burnett is the senior Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author most recently of the Human Rights Watch report, “Righting Military Injustice: Addressing Uganda’s Unlawful Prosecutions of Civilians in Military Courts.” Elizabeth Evenson is senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch.