Contradictory responses to international crimes by the Ugandan government on the one hand and the international community on the other, follow last Saturday’s capture of Caesar Acellam - the fourth highest-ranking member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
By Maaike van Breevoort
Although Uganda has an amnesty law, the United Nations is calling for Acellam to face trial on charges of crimes against children in the Great Lakes region. Nathan Twinomugisha, chief legal adviser to the Uganda Amnesty Commission, said Acellam is eligible for amnesty.
On the other hand, “the arrest and subsequent prosecution of Acellam would send a strong message to the LRA leadership that they will be held accountable for their actions,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. “I am encouraged by the capture of one of the worst perpetrators of child rights violations and hope that the Ugandan authorities would not apply amnesty but instead, bring him to justice.”
Uganda’s amnesty law has been in place since 2000. It offers amnesty to “any Ugandan who has at any time since the 26th day of January, 1986 engaged in or is engaging in war or armed rebellion against the government of the Republic of Uganda.”
Under current legislation, even LRA leader Joseph Kony would be able to qualify for amnesty. But the International Criminal Court (ICC) has the power to waive such amnesty and prosecute perpetrators of the most serious crimes. And while Kony is subject to an ICC arrest warrant, Acellam is not.
“There is no limitation to the nature of the crime”, said Dov Jacobs of Leiden University. The law covers all crimes, although legal experts argue that blanket amnesty is not permitted under international law. “If you look at international law, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, there cannot be an amnesty, because there is an obligation to investigate and prosecute”, Alison Smith of the NGO, No Peace Without Justice said.
Laying down arms
The amnesty act was implemented by a government trying to coax rebels into giving up their armed struggle. Any combatant that “renounces and abandons involvement in the war or armed rebellion” can be granted amnesty.
The law has encouraged more than 26,000 ex-combatants in Northern Uganda to lay down their arms and return to their community without the fear of prosecution, according to a report from the Amnesty Commission
The act takes the extraordinary circumstances in which the perpetrators grew up into account. Many rebel soldiers who committed international crimes were forced into combat as children, including Dominic Ongwen, one of the LRA leaders wanted by the ICC.
People in Northern Uganda say the act should be broadened to include the needs of victims, as it provides assistance for the rehabilitation of ex-combatants, but not for victims. Human rights organisations want to tighten the act to exclude perpetrators of major war crimes. They fear the amnesty provides impunity for even the most senior LRA leaders.
The amnesty law was about to expire this month but was extended for two years. However, no amendments have been made, leaving the issues presented by Northern Ugandans and human rights organisations unaddressed.
Reintegration or retribution?
For many Ugandans, the reintegration of former rebel fighters into society takes precedence over judicial prosecution. “This amnesty has over 90 percent support from Northern Ugandans,” said Jacobs.
Peace talks are often preferred over war, as recent LRA abductees have been the first killed in military raids. Ordinary Ugandans prefer reconciliation to global justice.
Despite the amnesty law, Uganda has set up an International War Crimes Division of the Uganda High Court as well. To some, the amnesty law appears to be in conflict with international law, with Thomas Kwoyelo, a former mid-level LRA commander, in the middle.
Kwoyelo was detained in 2009 and put on trial for war crimes. The Ugandan constitutional court found Kwoyelo qualified for amnesty and his case was thrown out. However, the prosecutor refuses to grant amnesty to Kwoyelo as he faces charges of international crimes.
More senior LRA commanders have already benefited from the amnesty act. However, Kwoyelo is still in detention, awaiting the outcome of a legal battle that will determine whether his trial will continue.
Beyond retribution and amnesty
Luke Pecos Kulihoshi Musikami, Coordinator of People for Peace and Defence of Rights Uganda, said “the amnesty is not solving the real problems,” and “a sentence will not help at all to a person whose lips have been cut”.
He suggests a look beyond discussion of retribution and amnesty, to the root causes of the problems in Northern Uganda - like social exclusion, political discrimination and economic problems. Capturing Kony will not suffice, warns Musikami. “If the core problems are not solved you shall have a repetition of the rebellion.”