Over a mug of coffee this morning I read the Sunday paper of one of the two most prominent Ugandan newspapers. The article that caught my attention was discussing how the political opposition uses the ongoing war to cast a shadow on the incumbent’s track record while addressing crowds of supporters in the North. It was an op-ed piece that was sharply criticizing the practice and setting the record straight: those who are responsible for the war are the LRA rebels—not the current government. The proof, the journalist opined, is that the International Criminal Court(ICC) has issued warrants for the top 5 in LRA command. I’ve been meaning to write a few thoughts about the hotly debated role of the ICC in Northern Uganda and this article is an excellent example of one of the many (unintended) byproducts of the international community’s attempt to administer justice. While I hold my own opinions on ICC involvement it seems most appropriate to focus on the perception and desires of those who are directly affected by it—the people in the North. While I can’t claim to speak for them, in my limited time here my conversations with colleagues, formerly abducted children, parents, camp leaders, religious leaders, and others have confirmed without exception empirical research that has been conducted that I’d read. (Justice & Peace Commission and Refugee Law Project are two main organizations). Three main beliefs about the ICC are reoccurring themes in conversations and research on the subject.
It is not seen to be objective. The case was referred to the court by the government of Uganda and by indicting only the top 5 in command of the LRA the perception (whether it is valid or not may be another story) is that the ICC has “chosen sides” in an ongoing conflict. Although virtually no one supports the LRA, many in the North don’t support the current government either and have been victims of human rights abuses committed by both warring parties. Most people believe that if there is to be accountability for injustices it should be comprehensive. The ICC has made statements indicating that the government would not be exempt from investigation. However, they only indicted top LRA and those statements seem to have only been read by a rare few who relish sifting through reports and not by your average (often illiterate) camp resident in Northern Uganda.
It undermines amnesty and therefore, many believe, the only shot at achieving sustainable peace. The government’s attitude towards the amnesty process is widely perceived to be at best ambiguous and at worst a trick to lure rebels out of the bush and then when peace is achieved to use the documentation of amnesty recipients as incriminating evidence to prosecute them—letting a thousand flowers bloom Ugandan style. In a strictly legal sense, if I understand it properly, it truly only undermines the amnesty of five individuals, however, it is NOT understood properly by the general population and even less so by those (children) who remain in the bush afraid of what will happen to them if they try to come out. The risks of escape are great. The stigmatization experienced while trying to reunite with a community and a family plagued with grievance is inevitable. The perceived liklihood of being prosecuted for crimes committed involuntarily does not provide the assurance that many need to even begin contemplation of surmounting the other hardships. Couple that with the fact that many of those trying to decide if they should risk escape and apply for amnesty are or were children when they were abducted and have undergone significant “mental conditioning” since then. The ICC has said that it would consider postponing the case “in the interests of justice.” If even one child is dissuaded from coming home to his/her family by confusion over the ICC is that in the interests of justice?
It imposes a western version of justice ignoring both the traditional way as well as the needs of the victims. Someone recently told me that they don’t want Kony sent to the Hague and then shipped to some comfortable jail somewhere. Nor do they want him tried by Ugandan courts where capitol punishment (by hanging) would be his likely sentence. No, they don’t want his blood on their hands, they want him to spend his life working in the fields. He should have to plow and sweat just like the rest of Northern Ugandans. While this scenario might not sound viable it reflects a widely held belief and practice of reintegrating perpetrators into their communities. If the victims do not believe the ICC is achieving justice—than who is the justice for? Does it only satisfy the international community’s desire to do something? It pours some water on our burning consciences as each day we continue to fail to effectively respond to the growing suffering of the people of Northern Uganda. While the crimes that the ICC deals with are those against humanity—we must not neglect the fact that the victims of those crimes have faces and names and many of them are still alive and thinking about their futures. One mother told me that there could be no meaningful restitution for what she has suffered—the injury is too great. For her, justice means that her daughter and the children that she bore in captivity receive the best possible education. Justice for Northern Uganda, will not be achieved by 5 arrest warrants. It will need to move beyond retributive and punitive justice and draw from the deep traditional well that the people of Northern Uganda have used for centuries—of restorative justice.