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Historical Background Northern Uganda

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Since 1987, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent rebel group, has been fighting the Ugandan government in the northern part of the country.[1] This uprising resulted from the longstanding political divide between the north and south of Uganda, and was a direct response to President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) and its efforts to consolidate control over the northern part of the country.[2] An earlier insurgency, Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, had garnered popular support in the north, but was defeated in 1987. [3] The LRA then emerged, headed by Joseph Kony, a former commander in the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) with little formal education. Kony saw himself as a messenger of God and a liberator of the Acholi people. He had his own belief system and set of rituals, drawn from a mixture of Christianity, Islam, and animist traditions.

Joseph Kony, however, failed to garner popular support and was rejected by the population and local leaders.[4] Kony increasingly turned against the civilians, accusing them of aiding the government in seeking his defeat. The conflict in northern Uganda escalated and resulted in large-scale killings, mutilations, abductions, and massive displacement.[5] Civilians also suffered abuses committed by the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), the national army charged with protecting them.[6]

Several attempts have been made to end the conflict, either militarily or through dialogue. Military actions such as Operation North in 1991, and Operations Iron Fist I and II in 2002 and 2004 failed to weaken the LRA significantly. Each time the LRA managed to escape and regroup, responding to the military operations by carrying out massive attacks on civilians. By 2002 the LRA had spread the conflict east into the non-Acholi districts of Lira and Soroti, claiming large numbers of victims in these areas. Various peace talks with the LRA also failed, allowing the LRA to regroup and launch attacks.

In 2006, the Ugandan government and the LRA began a new round of negotiations, known as the Juba peace talks, mediated by the President of South Sudan, Riek Machar. The LRA declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities and, within a month, representatives of the Government of Uganda and the LRA signed a formal Cessation of Hostilities Agreement as a first step toward a mediated settlement.[7] South Sudan had been a traditional base for the LRA, with support from Khartoum, and it is possible that political changes in Sudan (i.e., the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan) prompted the LRA to enter the negotiations. It is also possible that the LRA entered the negotiations to avoid criminal prosecution by the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC).[8]

The new peace talks offered the first significant prospect for peace. The LRA withdrew its forces from northern Uganda, assembling in Garamba National Park in the DRC. With the guidance of the mediation team, the parties created a five-item agenda: (1) Cessation of Hostilities; (2) Comprehensive Solutions to the Conflict; (3) Accountability and Reconciliation; (4) Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration; and (5) Formal Ceasefire. The government conducted a large-scale public consultation about measures for justice and reconciliation, but after several crises with walk-outs by the LRA, the peace process ultimately collapsed. 

In response to Kony’s refusal to sign the final peace agreement, the Ugandan government, together with the United Nations, the governments of Sudan and the DRC, supported by the U.S. government, undertook a joint military operation against the LRA. Operation Lightning Thunder, with significant support from the U.S. government, sought to neutralize the LRA leadership from Garamba National Park, in eastern DRC, and dislodged the LRA in December 2008.[9] Once again the LRA evaded the attack and regrouped but now the conflict had become regional, with the LRA operating mainly in the DRC and the CAR.

The ICC arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and his commanders remain to be executed and the involvement of the Court has been controversial.[10] Critics have pointed to the lack of prosecution of government actors as a sign of partiality, and argue that the ICC arrest warrants threatened the peace process. Conversely, supporters of the ICC’s intervention have argued it has put renewed focus on the conflict, that the arrest warrants have placed pressure on the LRA to seek a negotiated settlement, and that the involvement of the ICC has created incentives for an agreement that includes accountability measures. At the same time, the Ugandan Parliament passed the International Criminal Court Act on March 9, 2010, to makes provision in Uganda’s law for the punishment of the international crimes covered by the Rome Statute: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.[11]

For now, the LRA continues its operations outside of Uganda. The Ugandan army is conducting joint operations in both DRC and CAR, and on May 13, 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the “Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act” which will fund efforts to apprehend the LRA leadership and provide humanitarian assistance to affected communities for a six-month period. However, in the same way it responded to previous military operations, the LRA is now taking revenge on the population, killing and abducting civilians. Thousands, mainly in DRC and CAR, have been killed, and, at a minimum, several hundred abducted.[12] Northern Ugandans know too well the type of violence their neighbors now experience. But the LRA has withdrawn from northern Uganda and, for the first time in decades, the population enjoys peace, or at least the absence of violence. Civilians have resumed their lives. At the time of the survey, about 81,000 people (or 8% of the population) remained in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Acholi districts while about 920,000 had returned home.[13]

[1] The following is a summary and update of the background to the conflict in northern Uganda. Additional details are provided in a previous reports. Pham PN et al. (2007) at n2

[2] Under colonial rule, the northern ethnic groups dominated the military while the southern groups dominated the administration. This division continued in post-colonial history, fueling a series of conflicts. See Horowitz D (1985). Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press

[3] The LRA was originally called the Holy Spirit Movement II, but was later renamed—first as the Lord’s Salvation Army, then as the United Christian Democratic Army, and finally to its present name in 1992. Doom R and, Vlassenroot K, Kony’s message: A new Koine? The Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, African Affairs 98 (1999), 22.

[4] ibid, p23.

[5] The violence and the Government’s response to the rebellion forced the majority of the population into camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), where they were subjected to extremely poor humanitarian conditions. Refugee Law Project (2004). Behind the Violence: Causes, Consequences and the Search for Solutions to the War in Northern Uganda. Working Paper No. 11, Kampala: Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University.

[6] See the Report of the Secretary General on internally displaced persons, Francis M. Deng, Addendum, Profiles in Displacement: Mission to Uganda, UN Doc E/CN.4/2004/77/Add.1 (3 March 2004).

[7] For background on the Juba Peace Process, see International Crisis Group report No. 124, Northern Uganda: Seizing the Opportunity for Peace (26 April 2007).

[8] In January 2004, President Museveni referred the situation in northern Uganda to the ICC at a joint press conference with Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo in London, and in July 2004 the ICC formally opened an investigation. In October 2005, the Pre-Trial Chamber unsealed arrest warrants against LRA commanders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Dominic Ongwen, Raska Lukwiya, and Okot Odhiambo.

[9] Human Rights Watch (2009). The Christmas Massacres

[10] For an in-depth study on the issue, see Allen T (2006). Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord’s Resistance Army. London: Zed Books. 

[11] Because of the date of the signing of the bill, the International Criminal Court Act only goes into effect June 25, 2010, and is prospective. Thus, the Ugandan prosecutors cannot retrospectively charge individuals for alleged crimes committed before the entry-into-force date of June 25, 2010. Experts still believe there will be local trials for individuals involved in crimes committed in northern Uganda, but the legal basis as to date is still unclear.

[12] Human Rights Watch (2010) at n1

[13] Computed from UNHCR’s April 2010 population movement matrix.