Sunday, November 29, 2009




With the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels effectively off Ugandan territory and northern Uganda coming to terms with the return of peace, human rights advocate Samuel Olara returns the teething matter of accountability back to the debate.

In the run-up to the African Union (AU) sponsored Special Summit on Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced People in Africa held in Kampala, this month, Uganda’s Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, was quoted to have declared that confining non-combatants to camps in conflict zones was “an effective military tool for counter-insurgency.”

Gen. Nyakairima’s straight-faced revelation is surprising, coming after years of denials that the government deliberately created the camps and drove civilians into them, as a conscious military strategy.

State neglect

Other than strafing villages to drive the population into the camps and establishing military garrisons to restrict population movements in and out of the camps, the state did virtually nothing to provide for the basic needs of the population, but left them to be dependent on the charity of international humanitarian organisations.

Contrary to previous steadfast denials until recently, the order for the creation of camps was officially announced by President Museveni to members of the parliamentary Committee on the Office of the President and Foreign Affairs, on September 27, 1996. As reported in the media on September 29, 1996, forcible encampment of civilians would leave the countryside “open for UPDF confrontation with the marauding remnants of the rebels then terrorising innocent people.”

Chua County MP, John Livingstone Okello Okello, recalls that members of the legislature from northern Uganda region raised serious objections to the plan to move civilians in eastern and northern Uganda into camps. In response, President Museveni agreed to consult with the military, and later inform the concerned legislators about official government decision, but they never heard from him again.

In October 1996 the Presidential Advisor on Political Affairs, Maj. Kakooza Mutale, deployed in Gulu. Maj. Mutale began to recruit and deploy in Gulu, a paramilitary force, the Popular Intelligence Network (PIN) that reported directly to the Office of the President.

One of their first assignments was to persuade people to move into camps. According to Maj. Mutale, President Museveni’s idea was that the camps would “enable the destruction of the intelligence centres of insurgency”.

Their strategic thinking was elaborated by the Major: “The depopulation of the villages removes the soft targets and logistics for the survival of the rebels. They will lack food, information, and youth to abduct and people to kill. Desperation will drive them to attack the army and the camps. That will be their end”.

With PIN’s operatives living among the population, the resident Presidential Advisor on Military Affairs in charge of the northern Uganda insurgency, Gen. Salim Saleh, had declared the end to any peace overtures and announced renewed military offensives against the LRA in northern Uganda.

To make good on their efforts to “depopulate” the countryside and “destroy intelligence centres of insurgency”, civilians in Acholi were ordered to move into camps, and to break any reluctance detected by Maj. Mutale’s PIN, the army swiftly began to shell villages in Pabbo, Opit, Anaka, Cwero, Unyama, Awach, Koc Goma, and Amuru, to mention but a few [Human Rights Focus, 16-24; Daily Monitor, November 20, 1996).

The shelling was supported with aerial bombardment. At the time, the then commander of 4 Division, James Kazini (RIP), denied that the aim was to force civilians into camps. He said the shelling was of LRA units.

The military approach to a “cleared area” was revealed by Gen. Saleh on August 7, 1996. Gen. Saleh told journalists that, once the period covered by the military edict to civilians to leave the countryside had elapsed, the army and the state would take it for granted that: “the people [the army] come across in the countryside are rebels”.

Immediately, members of the Acholi Parliamentary Group (APG) sought audience with then Minister of State for Defence, Mr Amama Mbabazi, to express their concerns about the unconstitutional conduct of the army in the region.

According to the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiatives (ARLPI) report, Let My People Go; the Minister declared: “Since some of the people in Acholi supported the rebels, the army had no choice but to move people away from their villages in order to deny the rebels food and information”. He is quoted to have further asserted that he “did not believe that the reported atrocities committed by soldiers were true.”

The minister later repeated the same statements to a delegation from the European Union, who had visited Gulu and had in fact, voiced the same concerns (see Let My People Go, ARLPI 1990).

Responding to criticisms of the policy, Gen. Saleh was to reveal that the army acted alone in creating camps because it “suspected bureaucracy and politicking over the issue” (Daily Monitor, October 26, 1997).

Once the camp policy was in place, the UPDF essentially became very reluctant in responding to LRA attacks on civilians, as an additional strategy to force those still reluctant to leave their villages into camps.

The government later withdrew a large number of soldiers from the north and deployed them first in the war in Rwanda and later in DR Congo, leaving the camps unprotected. Even the few soldiers that remained did little to protect the civilian population as the LRA routinely raided, abducted, maimed and killed people in the camps.

Training vigilantes

In an attempt to shore up the security of the north, the government came up with a lamentable programme that began under the stewardship of Minister Betty Bigombe of training Local Defence Units - home guards - from among the camp population, to be deployed as frontline fighters against the insurgents.

Consequently, between January 7 and 12, 1997, LRA rebels allegedly murdered more than 412 men, women and children in Lokung, Padibe and Palabek, in Kitgum District. This first of a series of gruesome massacres in Acholi, triggered the first waves of flights to the so-called military detaches which were deliberately erected far away from the local villages and trading centres.

On October 4, 2002, the UPDF announced a 48-hour ultimatum to the entire Acholi population to move into camps. Those who moved into camps were put under strict movement orders enforced by the LDU and the regular UPDF.

A curfew was imposed on the camps and strictly enforced. Those found outside the perimeters of the camps were treated as rebels and rebel collaborators with grave consequences. Thus, anti-civilian violence came to be used not just to prevent the population from building a political relationship with the rebels, but also to prevent the population from organising to demand an end to the war itself.

The LRA also attacked civilians they found outside the camps; and the UPDF’s policy meant that people had no choice but to remain inside the camps.

Death traps

Caught in a Catch 22 situation; the ‘Concentration Camps’ thus became the deadliest killing centres and the most destructive manifestation of the Ugandan government’s anti-civilian counterinsurgency campaign.

Devoid of protection, the camps did serve their military purpose of denying insurgents recruitment and intelligence. But even more importantly, forcible internment had the political effect of preventing political organisation among the Acholi that, in the short run, could have held the UPDF accountable or demanded the end of the war or, in the long term, could have acted as a base of opposition politics to the NRM no-party autocracy that made such policy of brutalising citizens possible.

Legal minefield

The government policy of forced displacement and internment comprised a number of crimes under international humanitarian and human rights law. It was a war crime under the Geneva Conventions and also qualifies as a crime against humanity.

Determining the intent of a perpetrator of any crime is rarely an easy task; it can be inferred from “sufficient evidence,” which could include:
“... actions or omissions of such a degree of criminal negligence or recklessness that the defendant must reasonably be assumed to have been aware of the consequences of its conduct…”
Intent can also be “inferred from a systematic pattern of coordinated acts.”

Again, forced expulsion into harsh environments and deliberate non-provision of basic amenities fall under such an interpretation. In the case of northern Uganda, intent has been established beyond doubt.

The Geneva Conventions state that: “Should …displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.”

The government took little, if any, such measures. People were left without access to food or water; and aid was not provided until it became apparent that displacement could not be sustained without extensive international humanitarian intervention and assistance.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1998, declares that “[d]eportation or forcible transfer of population” constitutes a crime against humanity “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack, directed against any civilian population”.

Largescale forcible expulsion of people is no longer linked with the category of war crimes: It involves a crime against humanity, whether carried out in armed conflict or otherwise.

Humanitarians’ position

There is a significant need to also expand the debate over post-conflict accountability in northern Uganda so as to include the complicity of humanitarian aid agencies and other external actors who were responsible for enabling and supporting the Ugandan government’s policy of forced displacement and internment.

While the Ugandan government is the suspected principal, humanitarian aid agencies can be said to be accessories to those crimes and thus are also liable.

Since forced displacement and internment in camps is a crime when done without providing the displaced population with minimum amenities to support their lives, any party that knowingly acts in such a way so as to assist in keeping people in the camps is complicit in that crime.

It is not necessary that a second party recognise that displacement and internment are crimes in order for that party to be legally liable as an accessory.

It appears that if the relief agencies had not intervened and had not continued to manage the internment camps to-date, political pressure over internment would have combined with popular resistance among the people of northern Uganda to have rendered mass internment unsustainable.

This leads to the conclusion that, because the humanitarian crisis was the product of displacement into the camps and because the camps could only be sustained by the massive presence of relief agencies, the relief agencies, instead of resolving the humanitarian crisis, contributed to its perpetuation.

World Food Programme (WFP) for instance, agreed to cooperate with forced displacement despite the lack of reasonable steps taken by the Uganda government and UPDF first, to minimise displacement and second, to create conditions in which it can be brought to an end as quickly as possible.

The fact that so many aid agencies quickly got involved in supplying the camps makes them complicit by default with that government policy.

In short, many aid agencies understood that they were providing essential assistance to the government policy of forced displacement and internment, and some even recognised that that policy was illegal.

WFP admitted that in provisioning the camps, it was “cooperating with a possibly illegal government policy whose intention was not civilian protection but coercive control, and whose outcome was not security but potentially long-term internment.”

Clearly, the creation and sustaining of the camps, and forced displacement and long term internment of civilian population in the camps, with little or no basic provisions, were clear violations of humanitarian laws and conventions. As much as the state and their actors are culpable for designing and enforcing these policies, while knowing their intended consequences, aid agencies should also be held accountable for being complicit in committing crimes against humanity.

LRA insurgency time line
January 1986: After four years of political chaos, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army overthrows the Acholi-led government that came to power after the fall of Apollo Milton Obote’s regime in the 1985 military coup.

August 1986: Insurgency begins in traditional Acholi areas of northern Uganda. The people of northern Uganda are particularly concerned that Mr Museveni’s forces, comprised mostly of southern Ugandans, will seek retribution for the brutality of the Obote years.

January 1987 - 1991: Joseph Kony, a 26-year-old northern Ugandan, who claims to communicate with spirits, forms the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to fight the Ugandan army.

The LRA raids villages throughout northern Uganda to show the Ugandan army is unable to protect the populace; the LRA begins abducting civilians into military service.

March 1991: The Ugandan government launches “Operation North,” arming local villagers to combat the LRA. In retaliation, Kony massacres and mutilates suspected government supporters among the Acholi population.

1991 - 1994: The LRA insurgency grows and becomes more violent; families begin to flee their villages.

February 1994 - 1996: After peace talks between the Ugandan government and LRA fail, Kony’s LRA establishes bases in South Sudan.

LRA attacks escalate; abductions, especially of children and young people, increase.

April 1995: The Ugandan government breaks off diplomatic relations with Sudan, accusing the Sudanese government of supporting the LRA

October 1996: More than 200 LRA rebels attack and raid St. Mary’s College in the northern Ugandan town of Aboke, abducting 139 girls. Many of these girls were given to LRA commanders as “wives” and many died in captivity.

Late 1996: The Ugandan government begins moving Acholi villagers into “protected villages” to shield them from LRA attacks.

March 2002: The government’s “Operation Iron Fist” against LRA forces in northern Uganda and South Sudan sparks a bloody counteroffensive by the LRA.

December 2003: President Museveni recommends that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate Kony and other LRA leaders for war crimes.

The ICC later issues arrest warrants - the first since its 2002 founding - for Joseph Kony and four top lieutenants.

July 2006: Peace talks begin between the LRA and Ugandan government in Juba, South Sudan.

September 2006: Both sides agree to a temporary ceasefire. The Ugandan government establishes “return camps” to begin returning families to their villages of origin. The LRA gathers its forces.

From 2007, the LRA shifted some of their camps into DR Congo where they were later attacked by the UPDF in 2008.

Kony has, however, continued to abduct more Congolese nationals while some of his fighters surrender to humanitarian agencies in DR Congo and the UPDF.