Human Rights Watch’s work to curb atrocities perpetrated by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group, took a major step forward in May, when the Obama administration agreed to actively help end the violence.
New US legislation compels the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians from LRA attacks. It must take steps with governments in the region to curb atrocities and to ensure the rule of law in central Africa.
The law calls on the United States to increase humanitarian assistance to all countries affected by LRA violence. In northern Uganda, a region ravaged by past LRA activity, the United States must support economic recovery. The law also obligates the United States to assist Uganda in bringing members of the LRA to justice.
The LRA has been involved in one of the world’s longest-running and most brutal insurgencies. The rebel group sustains its ranks by abducting children and forcing them to become soldiers. Women and girls are abducted and turned into sexual slaves; abducted men are used as porters and laborers. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for the group’s top leaders for serious crimes committed in Uganda.
In March, Human Rights Watch released Trail of Death: LRA Atrocities in Northeastern Congo, which documented a four-day rampage in December 2009. We found that the LRA had attacked civilians, killing at least 321 people with machetes, axes, and heavy wooden sticks. The group abducted another 250 civilians, at least 80 of whom were children.
Despite the enormous death toll, the December attack went unreported in the press, in part because the region is so remote—there are no telephones, electricity, or roads—but also because few paid attention when people from northeastern Congo began, tentatively, to talk about the killings.
Human Rights Watch listened to those brave enough to speak with us, and then fully investigated and broadly publicized the massacre. Trail of Death generated media coverage in at least 20 different countries, landing articles on the BBC's homepage and the front page of the New York Times.
We took our findings to diplomats, UN representatives, and government officials. We got traction not only with the US government but also with the United Nations. The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission to Congo—known by its French acronym, MONUC—sent its own human rights investigators to look into the massacre and develop recommendations to mitigate future abuses. MONUC also acted on our suggestion to set up a new base in Tapili, one of the towns targeted by the rebels, as a preventive measure against further violence.
We translated and delivered a public letter to President Obama from thirty-one human rights defenders from Niangara, a town in northern Democratic Republic of Congo wracked by LRA violence. “We live each day with the fear of more LRA attacks,” they wrote. “What chance do we have if no one hears our cries and no one comes to our aid? We beg of you, please do not leave us alone in the hands of these killers.”
We created a short video postcard featuring a human rights defender in Niangara appealing to President Obama to act. We released this as President Obama was about to consider the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. The bill was signed the day after key members of Obama’s team reviewed the video postcard.
This August, we revealed that the LRA had abducted more than 697 adults and children over the past 18 months in another largely unreported campaign, this time in the Central African Republic and part of neighboring Congo.
Nearly one-third of those abducted have been children, many of whom are being forced to serve as soldiers or are being used for sex by the group’s fighters. Additionally, Human Rights Watch learned of dozens of cases were the LRA forced children to kill other children and adults, often by beating them over the head with clubs.
The situation in northeastern Congo and the Central African Republic, where the LRA is currently based, is dire. The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act—the most widely supported Africa-specific legislation in recent congressional history—is a crucial step toward protecting civilians from the LRA’s brutality and finding a lasting solution to the insurgency.