Decades of civil strife in Uganda has resulted in widespread abuse at the hands of state and non-state actors, including killings, sexual violence, and the pervasive use of child soldiers. ICTJ partners with civil society leaders in the country to seek redress for these crimes, advocating for the successful reintegration of victims and accountability for perpetrators.
After gaining independence in 1962, Uganda endured nearly two decades of civil strife under former Presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin. During this period, it is estimated that over 300,000 people died.
In 1979, exiled Ugandans—including now-President Yoweri Museveni—invaded the country. Following a guerrilla war, Museveni and the National Resistance Army gained control of the country in 1986 and made deals with several counter-insurgencies.
However, one insurgency—the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)—has engaged in a prolonged, ongoing conflict with the Ugandan military in the northern part of the country. The conflict featured brutal human rights violations committed by both sides, including killings, sexual violence, widespread kidnappings, and the LRA's pervasive use of child soldiers. An estimated 75,000 children were abducted and forced to serve as combatants, porters, and sexual slaves from 1979 to 2005.
Despite holding peace talks from 2006 to 2008, the government has not been able to bring an end to the conflict with the LRA. The LRA's activity has nonetheless greatly diminished in recent years, as several of its leaders have been captured. Since the peace talks ended, the government has pledged to implement several transitional justice measures. However almost 14 years later, victims of gross human rights violations are yet to receive justice.
Compounding the fight for justice is the country's political situation. Museveni has been in power since 1986, and critics have questioned the legitimacy of his last four elections—including the 2021 elections, which saw unprecedented state-sponsored violence, harassment of opposition candidates, repression of civil society, and an internet blackout. Dozens of opposition supporters were arbitrarily detained and tortured. During the campaign season, the Ugandan government used COVID-19 as an excuse to crack down on rights and freedoms and obstruct opposition candidates from mobilizing support. Security forces arbitrarily arrested presidential candidates Robert Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat Oboi of the Forum for Democratic Change multiple times while on the campaign trail and shut down their campaign activities. Police and military personnel used excessive force, including live ammunition and teargas, to disperse political gatherings for allegedly flouting COVID-19 guidelines. To protect himself at campaign events, Kyagulanyi was compelled to wear a flak jacket and helmet.
On November 18 and 19, 2020, street protests broke out in Kampala and other urban centers following the arrest of Kyagulanyi, in which Ugandan security forces killed over 60 people including protesters and bystanders.
Peace Talks and Transitional Measures
In 2006, the government and the LRA began the Juba Peace Talks to end the conflict. The talks ended in 2008 without any formal agreement. The LRA leader Joseph Kony conditioned his final signature on the cancellation of the standing International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants against him and four of his top commanders.
Despite the lack of a signed accord, the Juba talks did lead to five significant points of agreement, which the government implemented after 2008. This included the Juba Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation, which instituted a truth-seeking process, reparations, and formal criminal and civil measures against perpetrators of serious crimes or human rights violations.
In 2008, the government established the Transitional Justice Working Group under the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS). The working group was charged with overseeing the implementation of the transitional justice processes provided for under the Juba agreement. It has developed successive drafts of a national transitional justice policy that provides for a combination of transitional justice measures to deliver accountability for crimes perpetrated during the conflict, afford redress to victims, and ultimately promote national reconciliation.
In 2019, more than 10 years after the peace talks ended, Uganda's Cabinet finally approved the long-awaited National Transitional Justice Policy.
The policy aims, among other things, to facilitate reparations processes and programs, promote reconciliation and nation building, and address gaps in the formal justice system. It further recognizes the centrality of traditional justice mechanisms in advancing accountability and reconciliation and seeks to formalize their use as alternative avenues for post-conflict justice.
Civil society organizations have also expressed concern over the perceived selective transitional justice process, which mostly focuses on the north and on crimes committed by the LRA while ignoring allegations against the Ugandan military and abuses committed against civil society and civilian populations elsewhere in the country.
Seeking Accountability and Disarmament
Uganda has sought to hold those most responsible for violence to account while simultaneously encouraging widespread disarmament of armed groups. In pursuit of these two goals, it has invited the ICC to prosecute responsible parties and has charged alleged perpetrators in national courts.
In 2000, the government also passed the Amnesty Act, which grants amnesty to some insurgents in order to end hostilities. The law provides a form of immunity from prosecution to non-state combatants. The law has been applied to 26,000 disarming rebels to date, about half of whom were LRA members.
The Amnesty Act is not without its controversy: It was interpreted at one point to include amnesty for international crimes, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. That interpretation was ultimately narrowed to exclude international crimes by the Supreme Court in 2015, when it ruled former LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo was ineligible for amnesty. The decision allowed Kwoyelo to be prosecuted by the International Crimes Division of Uganda's High Court, which was established to hear cases related to international crimes committed by either side of the conflict. Kwoyelo's trial is ongoing.
Beyond its domestic prosecution of international crimes, the Ugandan government has also involved the ICC in holding perpetrators to account. In 2003, the Ugandan government referred the situation in the north to The Hague, and in 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants for five top LRA commanders: Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen. In 2015, Dominic Ongwen surrendered to US Special Forces and was transferred to the ICC. Ongwen stood trial for 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including sexual slavery and forced marriage, and was found guilty of 61 of those charges on February 4, 2021. Lukwiya and Odhiambo are confirmed to be deceased, but Kony and Otti remain at large.
The Ongwen case highlighted many of the complications involved with pursuing justice in Uganda, as Ongwen himself was forcibly recruited to the LRA as a child soldier and moved up the ranks of the LRA during his captivity. Ongwen was the first accused person to face trial at the ICC for crimes of which he was also a victim. He was also the first to be tried in an international court for forced marriage as a crime separate from sexual slavery and other sexual violations.
ICTJ has worked since 2005 to support Uganda's efforts to build a stable peace by affirming the dignity of the victims of conflict, particularly women and young people. It has also provided technical advice to ongoing efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.
Following the signing of the Juba agreement, ICTJ has been working in Uganda to support the design and implementation of victim-centered transitional justice processes that combat impunity for human rights violations, pursue truth, provide reparations to victims, and build trustworthy institutions. ICTJ has significantly contributed to enhancing the capacity, knowledge, and skills of civil society, victims' groups, members of the media, and policymakers to conceptualize, influence, monitor, support, and participate in transitional justice processes.
Our approach has included bringing local government officials, community leaders, and development actors together with victims to bridge the divide between those who are stigmatized for the violations they suffered and those who have the responsibility to provide justice, acknowledgment, and redress. The results of our efforts so far have been diverse commitments to provide access to social services, education, and civil documentation to children born of war. We have been able to adapt to a challenging context in Uganda by identifying alternative paths to address victims' needs, leveraging emerging opportunities, and raising awareness of victims' experiences.
Specific recent interventions and results include the following:
- Strengthening the capacity of victims and civil society. ICTJ has provided technical assistance and capacity building to civil society organizations and victims' groups in Uganda. As a result of these interventions, different civil society groups have been able to engage and mobilize around different transitional justice issues and contribute to the development of the transitional justice process. ICTJ works with victims' organizations to build their capacity to advocate for justice, and creates platforms for victims to interact with and voice their concerns to state actors.
- Empowering women survivors’ groups. We have helped developed the capacity of women survivors’ groups to articulate their demands and engage with decision makers. At a local level, we have provided continuous mentorship to these groups, which has improved their advocacy skills and empowered them to identify and pursue opportunities to address victims' needs. As a result of our work, several of the women survivors now attend district budgeting and planning meetings to ensure victims' priorities are considered. High level dialogues resulted in the Greater North Parliamentary Forum and the Parliamentary Forum on Children, which promised to address identified challenges, such as those that children born of war face in securing birth registration at parliament. As a result of these efforts, we have seen commitments made by non-traditional transitional justice actors, specifically the National Identification and Registration Agency, to help children born of war gain civil registration and address some of the many challenges they face.
- Supporting the International Crimes Division. The International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda (ICD) was established in 2008 to investigate and prosecute international and transnational crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, terrorism, piracy, and human trafficking. ICTJ has offered judicial training and exchanges, and provided expert advice on a range of issues including amnesty, witness protection, victim participation, and public outreach. Most recently, as a member of a special task force formed by the ICD and Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), ICTJ offered technical advice to support the development of the ICD's Rules of Procedure and Evidence. ICTJ in collaboration with ASF has developed a Judicial Bench Book on the practice and procedure for the adjudication of international crimes in domestic court. The book will support the effective investigation of international crimes.
ICTJ continues to bridge the gap between victims and court proceedings at the ICD in Uganda and the ICC through outreach and by creating various platforms for dialogue and exchange, and developing resources to improve the efficiency of ICD's proceedings. These initiatives have raised awareness about the relationship between the ICC and ICD and contributed to a sense of solidarity among victims in the cases. Furthermore, participants in them identified strategies to make the two courts more in tune with victims' expectations.
- Assisting children born of war and their mothers. In 2015, ICTJ conducted an assessment of the situation of children born to women who had been abducted by the LRA and oftentimes forced to marry LRA commanders. When they are able to return from captivity, these women and their children often face social stigma, rejection, and inadequate access to education, health care, and other services. ICTJ's assessment identified the reparative needs of this marginalized population and suggested concrete ways for the national and local governments to take steps to redress the violations. ICTJ continues to work with victims' organizations dedicated to seeking justice for this population. ICTJ produced the film "I Am Not What They Think I Am" exploring the unique challenges the women and their children face. Our previous and ongoing work alongside activists in northern Uganda to help end stigma against children born of wartime rape and their mothers has resulted in a significant shift in attitudes in communities and pledges of support from international donors.
- Advising the Human Rights Documentation Project. In 2015, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) initiated a Human Rights Documentation Project (HRDP), the first official state process to record violations committed between 1986 and 2007. ICTJ is a member of the HRDP’s advisory committee, providing technical and capacity-building assistance to the UHRC and HRDP technical team to ensure that the project reflects victims' priorities and that victims participate meaningfully in it.
- Developing a national transitional justice policy. ICTJ offered extensive technical assistance to JLOS to support the formulation of an effective, integrated, and victim-centered national transitional justice policy framework. Following the approval of the policy, ICTJ has continued to support efforts to implement the policy including the enacting legislation that would provide for the establishment of transitional justice measures under the policy, including a reparations program.
- Promoting development in local communities. ICTJ works with and supports local governments to design and implement local development programs that address the immediate needs of victims affected by conflict-related human rights violations pending the establishment of a reparations program. ICTJ’s interventions have helped improve how local governments target and prioritize vulnerable groups, which in turn has benefited victims’ groups.
- Broadening the scope of transitional justice. Transitional justice is overwhelmingly viewed as a process particular to Northern Uganda, which ignores the history of conflict throughout the country. ICTJ has thus broadened the scope of transitional justice efforts to include the Rwenzori region, which has been excluded from many such initiatives. While the Rwenzori region has experienced multiple cycles of violent conflict since Uganda’s independence, there has been no effort to address conflict-related human rights violations or the root causes in the region. Since little has been written about the cycles of conflict in Rwenzori and their impact, ICTJ conducted an assessment on the subject as a first step toward truth, justice, and accountability for victims in the region.
- Conducting research. ICTJ has conducted studies on a range of topics including reparations, gender justice, truth seeking, complementarity, and the links between development and reparations. These studies are intended to inform the policymaking process at the national level, drawing from comparative experiences from other contexts, as well as victims' perspectives on and priorities for truth seeking and reparations.