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For nineteen years the people of northern Uganda have suffered, victims of a war waged between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal rebel group responsible for countless acts of willful killing, torture, mutilation and abduction, and the Ugandan government, whose undisciplined army, the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF), has committed crimes against civilians with near total impunity.  While the war continues, the displaced people of northern Uganda remain isolated, ignored and unprotected, vulnerable to abuses by both rebel and army forces.

The UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland describes northern Uganda as one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters—and least known. While certain aspects of the war such as the LRA’s mutilations and abductions of children have received occasional media coverage, comparatively little has been done by the Ugandan government and the international community to alleviate the suffering of the more than 1.9 million people forced from their homes in northern Uganda to a precarious existence in government displaced persons camps.

Even less has been done by the government and international community to assist their safe return to their homes and livelihoods. Before this war, northern Uganda was overwhelmingly rural, like the rest of Uganda, and poor. Following the forced displacement of 95 percent of the population in the three districts inhabited primarily by the Acholi ethnic group, and the looting and destruction of property by the LRA, northern Uganda is poorer than ever.

The failure of the Ugandan government to address the concerns of the people of northern Uganda has been especially troubling. The UPDF has not provided adequate protection to its own citizens, even to those living in its displaced persons camps. The LRA’s 2005 offensive again targeted displaced persons camps and resulted in numerous atrocities, but the Ugandan army did little to protect this vulnerable population. At the same time, UPDF forces were responsible for widespread abuses against the civilian population in northern Uganda. And while President Yoweri Museveni has gained donor favor by pursuing economic reforms that brought some prosperity to the rest of Uganda, these improvements have not been shared in the north and the area remains economically marginalized.

Despite nineteen years of fighting, there is no sign that the war is abating.  In 2002, the Ugandan army embarked on large operations to rout the LRA from its bases in southern Sudan where the LRA received Sudanese government support; the rebels probably continue to receive some aid from elements of the Sudanese army, according to commanders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Sudanese rebels who concluded a peace agreement with their own government in early 2005. The Ugandan government claims that the LRA has only 400 fighters—while SPLA commanders estimate there are 1,000 LRA rebels still in Sudan.

In 2004, peace talks were held between the Ugandan government and the LRA spearheaded by the efforts of Betty Bigombe, a former government minister who is from the north. These negotiations broke down in early 2005 and fighting was renewed.

Both the LRA and the UPDF enjoy almost complete immunity from prosecution for their crimes in northern Uganda. Human Rights Watch believes all of those responsible for war crimes and other serious abuses should be held accountable, be they LRA or UPDF combatants and their commanders.

Thousands of LRA fighters and commanders, including many responsible for grave abuses, are among the 15,000 persons who have received amnesties under the Amnesty Act of 2000, which was enacted to encourage rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. The government provides these ex-fighters “amnesty packages” of cash and supplies to help them start over, which has created resentment among the impoverished civilian population in the north.

In December 2003, the Ugandan government referred the “situation concerning the Lord’s Resistance Army” to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has since expanded the scope of its inquiry to cover the situation in northern Uganda more generally, implicitly including serious crimes committed by Ugandan government forces.

The ICC referral, the first ever by a state party to the ICC treaty, has not generally been well received by the leadership of some communities in northern Uganda. Many traditional, civic and religious leaders as well as civil society groups in northern Uganda have opposed the ICC investigation on the grounds that it undermines the peace process and will lead to increased violence against civilians. They have instead advocated amnesty for all members of the LRA, including the top leaders who would be the individuals the ICC would most likely investigate and prosecute. 

Opposition to the ICC also stems from the perception among many northerners that it will only investigate the LRA and not government forces despite the UPDF’s long record of abuses. The ICC is to blame for such perceptions: it has failed to undertake an effective outreach strategy to actively engage civil society and the general population in northern Uganda to explain its mandate and the scope of its inquiry. Despite its shortcomings, however, the ICC remains the best option for achieving some measure of justice and ending impunity for the people of northern Uganda.

Justice in northern Uganda requires that the ICC thoroughly examine UPDF abuses of the civilian population as well as abuses by the LRA. The willful killings, torture and mistreatment, rape and arbitrary arrests and detention of civilians by UPDF soldiers highlighted in this report are serious crimes that may fall within the ICC’s jurisdiction.  The ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes particularly when committed as part of a policy or plan or on a large scale. 

The government remains responsible for many of the hardships and abuses endured by the displaced population. Since 1996 the government has used the army to undertake a massive forced displacement of the population in the north and imposed severe restrictions on freedom of movement. While justifying the displacements on grounds of security, the government has forcibly displaced people without a lawful basis under international law and then has failed to provide the promised security. Many of those displaced, including almost the entire population of the three Acholi districts live in squalid conditions in displaced persons camps that are susceptible to LRA attacks. The Ugandan army has failed to protect these camps, compounding the harm inflicted by the original forced displacement.

People in the camps are forced by extreme necessity to travel outside to farm, hunt and gather firewood or water, where army soldiers have raped women and girls and beaten and detained men and boys. And those displaced persons who must leave the camp confines may be greeted on their return by undisciplined soldiers who beat them for coming back past curfew hour or other minor infractions.

The government has failed to meaningfully prosecute military personnel responsible for abuses or otherwise discipline its forces in the north. These forces have committed deliberate killings, routine beatings, rapes and prolonged arbitrary detentions of civilians to such an extent that there is extreme resentment against their presence. Most complaints of army abuse result in no action. Even when action is taken, it is usually transfer of the offending soldier or unit, the dispersal of a small sum of money for “medical costs,” or the beating of the soldier in the barracks. Human Rights Watch found that the 11th Battalion of the UPDF based in Cwero and Awach camps of Gulu district committed numerous deliberate killings and beatings of civilians during the months in 2005 when it was assigned to those camps; it was transferred out of the area after numerous international complaints.

The current protection and accountability structures within the camps and within the army are grossly inadequate—charges the Ugandan government denies. In effect the safety of the camp population rests with the local army commander: where he does not tolerate undisciplined behavior, the level of abuse is far less. Unfortunately most commanders, up to the highest levels, show far too much tolerance for abuses, despite lip service given to respect for human rights

The importance of army discipline is even greater because in most displaced persons camps the army post is the only government presence—aside from local councilors who are often intimidated by the army. Police are far too few to address the widespread criminal acts committed by UPDF soldiers (and civilians) in the more than eighty displaced persons camps of northern Uganda. The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), a government body, is almost entirely absent from northern Uganda, with only four of its one hundred officers placed there.

While increased police and UHRC presence could provide other avenues of redress for the population against government army abuses, these organizations would need the consistent backing of higher authorities, up to President Museveni, to affirm their mandates to investigate and prosecute soldiers in the northern “war zone.”

The active involvement of civilian officials and the high command of the army in efforts to end impunity could radically improve the situation. In Bobi camp, Gulu district, training in 2004 of local leaders by a Ugandan human rights nongovernmental organization helped build confidence and understanding in the displaced population on what their rights were and how to complain about abuses. A high-ranking Ugandan army official was invited to and attended the workshop. His subsequent intervention with the local battalion helped to halt recurring sexual abuse in the camp. Such interventions are rare, however.

An international protective presence in the camps is just beginning—again, very late. Some protection activities were undertaken by UN agencies such as UNICEF and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activity (OCHA) and nongovernmental relief organizations in 2003 but their protection efforts remain a work in progress. The May 2005 decision of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to deploy several human rights monitors in northern Uganda is to be welcomed. It should make assistance to local nongovernmental rights organizations its priority.

The international community and the Ugandan government must act now to radically overhaul the protection and accountability structures in the north to ensure that, in peace or war, the continuing suffering of the people of northern Uganda is alleviated. 

Northern Uganda has been ignored for too long. Despite the occasional spike in media coverage of the conflict the people remain subject to an unremitting assault of human rights abuses from both sides, and persistent poverty is exacerbated by the abuses. The intensification of hostilities this year has only highlighted the vulnerabilities of the civilian population; as of the time of this writing, the war is far from over, and the victims still have no peace, justice or protection.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2005