Kampala, March 28, 2017 - As Burundi and South Sudan teeter on the verge of renewed conflict, with warnings of possible genocides, a new report from the International Center for Transitional Justice on the African Great Lakes region asserts that there are lessons to be learned from neighboring countries that may be relevant in preventing new conflicts. The report calls for a clear understanding of victims’ needs and demands, a thorough political analysis, identifying realistic opportunities for acknowledgment and accountability, supporting domestic ownership of the process, and facilitating interactions among the state, victims, and civil society.
The report, titled Victims Fighting Impunity: Transitional Justice in the African Great Lakes Region, draws on lessons learned from ICTJ’s more than 11 years of working on justice issues in Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where processes are still underway to deal with painful periods of widespread human rights abuses — and the threat of renewed violence, particularly around elections.
“Given the interconnectedness of violence in the region, each country’s attempt to provide justice for past violations provides lessons for similar processes in others,” said Kasande Sarah Kihika, co-author of the report and ICTJ’s Head of Office in Uganda. “Civil society and government must work together within and across countries to end the cycles of violence that destabilize the region and to materialize victim’s rights to justice, truth, and reparation.”
The report underscores the need to recognize victims’ rights as a necessary element of building sustainable peace. It also emphasizes the value of involving civil society and victims’ groups from the outset in designing effective and practical strategies to deal with the past, including in peace agreements and national laws and policies.
“The reality is that too often the agreements and policies that have helped end conflicts in these countries include very complicated and ambitious commitments regarding justice that are unlikely to be fully implemented — either because the country lacks the capacity or because the political will isn’t there,” said Kihika.
As the report explains, many of the justice commitments agreed to in Uganda, Kenya, and the DRC to end their conflicts over the last decade have only been partially implemented — or even forgotten.
In Uganda, for instance, little progress has been made to fulfill the commitments to victims’ rights set out in the Juba Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation, signed between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2007, to end their brutal 20-year war. But nearly ten years later, the country still has no reparations program or truth commission to uncover the past, and the draft transitional justice policy still awaits Cabinet approval.
“The official processes have also floundered because the agreements and policies often do not reflect a complete understanding of the tenuous political and social situation in the country or incorporate the views of victims, which can vary considerably from victim to victim depending on factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and gender,” explained Kihika. “And they change over time.”
This has left victims’ groups and civil society to try to fill the gaps in responding to victims’ rights and needs, while simultaneously advocating for government to fulfill its obligations under the agreements.
In some cases, groups have supported more limited, sometimes unofficial, processes that may have more realistic chances of success and gaining political support. For example, in northern Uganda, civil society groups have stepped in to respond to victims’ psychosocial, medical and educational needs, in the absence of a national reparations policy.
Several women in Gulu, northern Uganda, who returned from captivity with children only to face stigma and social rejection at home have organized to provide mutual support to victims and pressure government to act. One group, Watye Ki Gen, an ICTJ partner, has documented the plight of children born in captivity who are rejected by their communities. It holds support groups where children and youth can express their concerns and organize for change. Another group and ICTJ partner, WAN, advocates for economic independence for formerly abducted women, while also providing them with the tools they need to advocate for their rights.
“Well-focused, small-scale successes are possible,” said Aileen Thomson, co-author of the report. “The strategy could be to move forward on one front, like reparation, in a way that not only directly advances justice and acknowledgment, but also creates space to pursue other objectives in the future.”
The report also highlights growing cross-border exchanges between local victims’ and human rights groups working in the region. By sharing and learning from each other, some groups are working together, with support from ICTJ and others, to identify common strategies and to push a human rights agenda, which serves to amplify ad hoc regional efforts in support of victims’ rights.
The real challenge, according to the report, is to pay closer attention to the particularities of each context, for policy makers and practitioners to listen to victims about appropriate forms of redress and for civil society to identify strategies that, while small, can respond to victims’ rights and build momentum for further action.
Nearly all of the states that make up the Great Lakes Region have in recent years experienced political strife and armed conflict that have led to severe humanitarian consequences, including gross violations of human rights, mass displacement of populations, and unprecedented levels of sexual violence and gender-based crimes. The challenges in the region continue to be complex and interconnected. Each of the countries affected by conflict, including Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have initiated a series of institutional responses to address the legacy of gross human rights violations and put an end to impunity for mass crimes.
However, for a variety of reasons, the adoption of each of their integrated frameworks and other commitments to ending impunity have not been matched by action on the part of the state to realize the goals of acknowledgment, accountability, and reform. Instead, in each of the three countries, victims, civil society, and some state allies have come together to address the challenges in implementing the integrated frameworks according to the original process envisioned at the national level. By forming often contentious and difficult relationships, these actors have succeeded in moving forward some limited measures of transitional justice while opening the door for more measures in the future.
Kasande Sarah Kihika, ICTJ’s Head of Office in Uganda E-mail: email@example.com Tel: +256 393516523
PHOTO: A local activist from Walikale, North Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at an event on impunity in Kinshasa, July 2016 (ICTJ).