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Lack of Protection for Civilians

The beleaguered displaced population of northern Uganda remains extremely vulnerable to serious abuse. It is confined to living in internally displaced persons camps by an LRA campaign of terror directed against persons it imagines to be “with” the government and by constant coercion and intimidation by the UPDF—which moved tens to hundreds of thousands into camps for their safety. The civilian protection provided by herding people into camps, at the cost of their livelihoods, health and education, has been questionable.

The present Ugandan government system for protection of internally displaced persons in northern Uganda is ineffective. An overall shift is required from a management system based on confinement and abuse, the legacy of a military strategy which included displacement and encampment as a counter-insurgency tactic, to a system of at least part-civilian management focused on protection and assistance.

A greater protection presence must be put in place to ensure the adequate protection of civilians in the north. This protection must be accompanied by enhanced capacity for monitoring by UN agencies, particularly the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and Ugandan and international NGOs, described above.

Humanitarian Crisis

The extreme squalor of the displaced persons camps is very apparent when driving on the rough dirt road into one of the camps in northern Uganda. Most of the camps lack efficient sanitation and consequently outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases are common. The intense heat and crowded conditions result in fires in the dry thatched roofs, making people homeless within the displaced camps. The population in the camps still lives in intensely deprived conditions years after they moved there, ill-catered for by the meager humanitarian assistance afforded by international donors for such a prolonged crisis. The international appeal for donor funding for northern Uganda for 2005 was greatly improved over 2004, however, when only 19 percent was committed at mid-year.184

Many protection problems stem from the extremely deprived conditions in which the displaced population of northern Uganda lives. The rations are not enough to live off and people in the camps are forced by economic necessity and the need to survive to travel outside to the fields nearby. The LRA has made such travel extremely hazardous by killing, maiming, beating and abducting civilians to the point where many are afraid to venture out even for the food that they and their malnourished children need.

Women are particularly vulnerable. Many women interviewees became victims of the LRA or the UPDF when outside the camps collecting firewood or water, or sometimes going to farm.

The LRA seems to allow some sowing but actively discourages farmers from harvesting their crops. Its fighters seem to rely for their own food on what they can steal from the fields and huts. Aware that relief organizations distribute food to displaced persons, the rebels tell civilians found in the fields such things as, “The food in the field is ours. Why do you go to the fields when WFP gives you food?”185

Yet LRA ambushes on vehicles traveling most northern roads can be frequent. Many roads to displaced persons camps are so unsafe that military escorts have been used for most relief and commercial vehicles for years.

The government army does little to provide security to people traveling outside the camps and towns on foot, to the fields or to villages. In only one camp, Bobi in Gulu district, civilians reported that a program had been set up for the army to patrol with people going to till their fields. This initiative had developed following the workshop in the camp held by the Gulu-based NGO Human Rights Focus (HURIFO) and is perhaps further evidence of how civilian-military relations can be improved by constructive collaboration between a senior military officer and an organized community.

The UPDF imposes limits on how far outside the camps or towns civilians are allowed to move. This varies according to the judgment of the UPDF of the LRA threat. In 2004, the more than 33,000 displaced persons in Pajule camp, Pader district, were allowed to move in a perimeter of two kilometers around the camp to go to their gardens. In 2005, because of suspected LRA movement in the area, they were limited to the perimeter of the camp.186

As previously described, the UPDF also imposes strict curfews at irregular times. The curfews may be enforced by abusive soldiers who brand anyone returning late as a “rebel” or “rebel collaborator.” Such civilians are arbitrarily beaten, detained and tortured for minor infringements.

As a result of the situation described above, people are forced to become even more reliant on often inaccessible and insufficient humanitarian assistance.

International Protection Activities for the Displaced: Protection Officers and Working Groups

The UN protection presence in northern Uganda has been notable for its absence for almost two decades. Despite continual conflict in northern Uganda since 1986, only one UN officer was responsible for protection of internally displaced persons in all of Uganda before 2003: an assistant protection officer with UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) based in Kampala. Many UN personnel have been working on behalf of displaced persons for years, although their positions were not conceived of as “protection officers” and their responsibilities were primarily for service and food delivery, not monitoring the safety of or providing protection for their beneficiaries.

Since Jan Egeland declared in 2003 that “the United Nations has done too little,”187 the UN has begun to scale up its presence. In 2003, OCHA deployed an officer responsible for humanitarian coordination in Gulu. Although not officially responsible for protection, this officer, OCHA’s head of office in Gulu, was able to encourage and coordinate protection activities in the area. He helped to initiate the NGO working groups on protection now active in the north.

UNICEF first deployed a child protection officer in Gulu in December 2003. Since then other child protection officers have been located in Lira and Kitgum. There is now a head of child protection in Kampala who is recruiting experienced staff to increase UNICEF’s presence and effectiveness in the north. In early 2005, the first of three UNICEF protection officers was installed in Kitgum.

These UNICEF protection officers have a broader mandate than traditional child protection officers in that they are to monitor human rights abuses and intervene with authorities to stop the abuses. They are also mandated to train local people on measures that can be taken to enhance protection at a grassroots level.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is planning to deploy some eight international staff members to monitor the situation in northern Uganda and support, both in terms of resources and capacity building, the expansion of the government’s Uganda Human Rights Commission presence in the north. While this is to be encouraged, OHCHR monitoring offices and staff should carry out monitoring independently, to ensure high standards in research methodology, to guarantee the security of confidential information, and to protect witnesses. The priority should be on support for independent NGOs which to date have been the most effective human rights monitoring organizations in northern Uganda.

The deployment as planned, however, will still not be enough. The UN needs to dramatically increase the number of officers present in the north to monitor the widespread ongoing abuses committed by the LRA and the UPDF.

Such monitoring would provide valuable information and inform appropriate responses to the conflict by the United Nations, donor governments, human rights and humanitarian organizations, and other members of the international community, and should be accompanied by effective, high-level interventions to stamp out abuses. The increased presence and information that would come from such a presence would enable the UN to develop more effective strategies for protection of civilians from abuse by all (including by other displaced persons and domestic abuse). It could create reporting avenues for persons who have suffered human rights abuses and promote accountability, thus providing a deterrent.

Largely at the instigation of OCHA, UN agencies, international and national NGOs and national authorities started forming protection working groups in northern Uganda in 2002-2003. A national protection working group, chaired by OCHA, meets in Kampala and protection working groups exist at the district level. Some such district level groups have sub-groups for specific protection issues. For example, in Kitgum, protection subgroups on sexual and gender-based violence, formerly abducted children and “night commuters,”188 have been created.189 In Gulu, the protection working group is co-chaired by HURIFO and UHRC and attended by most operational NGOs in northern Uganda.

The protection working groups are still relatively new. The group in Gulu has been established longer and has achieved some success. It has protested that the UPDF is forcing civilians to cut down grass from the roadsides; the UPDF clears elephant grass yearly, as it can grow taller than men and provide a secure hiding place from which the LRA can launch ambushes. Forcing civilians to do this heavy manual labor without compensation, however, became a major problem in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader in 2004.  At the same time, HURIFO began litigation on cases of forced labor. As a result of these interventions, this practice of forced labor has declined. International humanitarian law prohibits uncompensated or abusive forced labor.190

The Gulu protection working group also rallied efforts to bring attention to rape problems in Bobi camp (alongside HURIFO’s efforts) and this advocacy probably helped to curtail the abuse there.

The working group in Gulu is limited in its ability to act and exchange information, however, because the UPDF public relations officer attends meetings and it is difficult to openly discuss controversial issues regarding army abuses and formulate strategies for dealing with them in front of him.

The situation in Kitgum and Pader lags behind Gulu. The fledgling protection working groups have not yet established themselves in those districts. More is needed to bolster their capabilities and coordinate their activities. An enhanced UN protection presence could spur them on.

The protection working groups, however, are comprised mostly of organizations that do not specialize in protection work, mostly operational NGOs experienced in the provision of humanitarian aid. OCHA, as chair of the Protection Working Group, and other protection-mandated agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF and OHCHR, also should provide training and technical support to other agencies, with particular attention to protection of vulnerable groups such as children and women.

An effective protection strategy must incorporate the needs of the relief operations. Some protection concerns are closely linked to the provision of humanitarian aid (or lack thereof) by both UN and NGOs. For example the eight women who had their lips cut off by the LRA in February 2005 referred to earlier in this report went for water outside the camp because there was only one functioning borehole in the camp. A coordinated humanitarian and protection strategy would help to minimize the risks internally displaced persons are subjected to—which requires close collaboration between the UN, the government, the army, human rights organizations and operational humanitarian NGOs.

These mostly NGO working groups on protection should not be forced to take the lead in protection work in northern Uganda as most are assistance delivery, not human rights, NGOs. They can act far more effectively as support to an enhanced presence of institutions and personnel with a primary protection mandate and expertise. The working groups should continue as a valuable source of insights and recommendations into how food and non-food aid could be delivered in a manner that enhances security, and as a source of information on new and unresolved abuses arising in the communities they serve.

The Government’s Forced Displacement in Northern Uganda

A government has the duty to protect its citizens. International humanitarian law requires all parties to a conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population under their control against the effects of attacks.191

International humanitarian law prohibits the forced displacement of the civilian population for reasons connected to the conflict—except when done for the “security of the civilians involved” or for “imperative military reasons.” These prohibitions are applicable to both governments and insurgents.

Displacement or capture of civilians solely to deny a social base to the enemy has nothing to do with the security of the civilians. Nor is it justified by “imperative military reasons,” which require “the most meticulous assessment of the circumstances” because such reasons are so capable of abuse. One authority has stated:

Clearly, imperative military reasons cannot be justified by political motives. For example, it would be prohibited to move a population in order to exercise more effective control over a dissident ethnic group.192

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement state that, “prior to any decision requiring the displacement of persons, the authorities concerned shall ensure that all feasible alternatives are explored in order to avoid displacement altogether.”193 The principles state that states are under “a particular obligation to protect against the displacement of… peasants, pastoralists, and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to their lands.”194

The government might in the case of northern Uganda invoke both the security of civilians and imperative military reasons for requiring civilians to move for reasons connected to the conflict. Should it engage in a legal discussion, the LRA might claim imperative military reasons—although in either case the military reasons must be “imperative” and the movement may not be forced or carried out through humanitarian law violations. Whether either party to the conflict has met these legal requirements cannot be determined without a more extended development of the facts and history of displacement in northern Uganda over the years.

It must be noted that “violations of international law may be the cause of large-scale population movements and at the same time betray a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities to provoke such movements.”195 International humanitarian law forbids displacement on the grounds of ethnicity or other discriminatory factors.196

International humanitarian law offers another caveat to the prohibition on forced movement of civilians for conflict-related reasons. “Although not expressly stipulated, it is understood that such movements may be only temporary.” The displacement in northern Uganda has lasted years and in some cases more than a decade.197

Since 1996, the UPDF has followed the military strategy of massive displacement of the overwhelmingly agricultural civilian population—to allow free UPDF movement and operations throughout rural northern Uganda as well as to remove the social base in which the LRA might find food and support, or the classic “drain the sea [farmers] where the fish [rebels] swim.”198 The protection of the civilian population living in remote areas is a reason frequently invoked for creation and maintenance of the huge internally displaced persons camps, which receive both people fleeing LRA abuses or people moving on account of government orders.

Whatever the legal basis for displacement of the civilian population, the government has additional duties when it comes to ordering people to move for safety or other reasons connected with the conflict: when such displacements are carried out, “all possible measures” must be taken so that the civilian population receives satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, nutrition—and safety.199

Government Protection and Safety for the Internally Displaced

In northern Uganda, 90-95 percent of the population of the three northern Acholi districts has been uprooted by LRA and UPDF actions. This population must be properly cared for in conditions of safety, pursuant to international humanitarian law. The UPDF falls short of providing adequate safety for the displaced people living against their will in camps.

The 2005 resurgence in LRA hostilities has revealed how resilient the LRA is. The attack on Koch Goma camp in Gulu on May 5, 2005 was demonstrative of the continued ability of the diminished LRA to breach protective measures put in place by the UPDF—and how vulnerable to attack the camps remain.200 

In the past, many people in northern Uganda blamed the army’s military tactics for its failure to protect the camps. Some pointed to illogical deployment: some detaches are located in the center of the displaced persons’ camps, as in Amuru.201 This makes the civilian homes the perimeter protecting the military force, instead of having the military force guarding the perimeter. The army has not explained why it decided to locate barracks in the center of some internally displaced persons camps.

The local defense units (LDUs) were created to help protect the camps. But they have not been an effective protective force in the past. This was most dramatically revealed at Barlonyo, Lira district, on February 21, 2004 when more than 300 people were killed after the five members of the Amuka (Rhino) Boys militia who were left to guard the camp fled the much larger LRA attacking forces.202

In 2004, the army continued to recruit LDUs to protect the camps, instead of the somewhat better trained UPDF units.203 This was a controversial issue in northern Uganda and both Reagan Okumu and Michael Ocula, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for Aswa and Kilak counties respectively, refused to take part in the LDU recruitment, for various reasons.204

Other MPs are concerned about the announcement that Ugandan troops would be sent on a peacekeeping mission to Somalia, when the situation in the north has not been stabilized. Aggrey Awori, an MP from northern Uganda, said it was “absurd [that] an army that has unresolved internal obligations goes international.”205

[184]  “Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP): Mid-Term Review of the Humanitarian Appeal 2005 for Uganda,” OCHA, Geneva, June 22, 2005, (retrieved July 24, 2005).

[185] Human Rights Watch interview with woman farmer, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[186] Human Rights Watch interview, Pajule camp, Pader, March 4, 2005.

[187] “War in northern Uganda world's worst forgotten crisis: UN,” AFP, Nairobi, November 11, 2003.

[188] For more information on the phenomenon of children who become “night commuters” in northern Uganda, see Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda, June 15, 2003,, pp. 68-70.

[189] OCHA, Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division Mission Report, Uganda, November 29-December 7, 2004, displaced persons/docs/reports.htm (retrieved June 22, 2005).

[190] Protocol II provide that persons who are deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict “shall, if made to work, have the benefit of working conditions and safeguards similar to those enjoyed by the local civilian population.”  Art. 5(1)(e). See also, ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, vol. 1,pp. 330-332.

[191] See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, vol. 1, pp. 68-71.

[192] “The ICRC and internally displaced persons,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 305, April 30, 1995, pp.181-91, (retrieved July 20, 2005).

[193] UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, (contained in the annex of document E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2 dated 11/02/1998), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

[194] Ibid.

[195]“The ICRC and internally displaced persons,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 305, April 30, 1995, pp.181-91, (retrieved July 20, 2005).

[196] “The ICRC and internally displaced persons,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 305, April 30, 1995, pp.181-91, (retrieved July 20, 2005). “Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions forbids parties to a conflict to have recourse to discriminatory treatment founded on ‘race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria’.”

[197] Jean-Philippe Lavoyer, “Refugees and internally displaced persons: International humanitarian law and the role of the ICRC,” International Review of the Red Cross, no. 305, April 30, 1995, pp.162-180, (retrieved July 20, 2005).

[198] See Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda, June 15, 2003,; Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights,; “War Crimes in Kosovo,” March 1999, (all retrieved July 20, 2005).

[199] Protocol II, article 17.

[200] Daniel Wallis, “Rebels kill 19 in northern Uganda as attacks worsen,” Reuters, Kampala, May 6, 2005.

[201] OCHA Humanitarian Update Uganda, May 2004, Vol. VI, Issue V, June 23, 2004, (retrieved June 28, 2005).

[202] Human Rights Watch interviews, Ogur camp, Lira district, April 8, 2004.

[203] Julius Mucinguzi, “LDUs replace ghost soldiers”’ New Vision, Kampala, July 28, 2004.

[204] Emmy Allio and Dennis Ocwich, “Army, MPs clash over militias,” New Vision, Kampala, July 5, 2004. Human Rights Watch interview, Ronald Reagan Okumu, MP for Aswa county, Kampala, March 22, 2005. These two MPs were released on bail after being charged in 2005 with the death of a pro-government politician in 2002. On the arrests, see Human Rights Watch press release, “Uganda: Key Opposition MPs Arrested,” New York, April 27, 2005, (retrieved August 4, 2005).

[205] Julius N. Uma, “UPDF integrity questioned ahead of UN peacekeeping mission,” The Monitor, Kampala, May 6, 2005.

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