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 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 Milton Obote I (1962–1971) Idi Amin (1971–1979) and Milton Obote II (1980-85). 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 (NRA) gained control of the country in 1986 and made deals with a number of 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 a number of transitional justice measures. However, those policies have yet to come to fruition, and Ugandan activists are currently pressuring the country to hold perpetrators to account and provide redress to victims.
Compounding the fight for justice is the country’s political situation. Musevini has been in power since 1986, and critics questioned the legitimacy of his last two elections—including the 2016 race, during which his opponent, Kizza Besigye, was placed under house arrest shortly before ballots were cast.
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, because 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 signed agreement, the Juba talks did lead to five significant points which the government implemented after 2008. This included the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation (AAR), 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 Transitional Justice Working Group was established by the government 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 on accountability and reconciliation. It has developed successive drafts of a national transitional justice policy which provides for a combination of transitional justice measures to deliver accountability for crimes perpetrated during the conflict, to afford redress to victims and ultimately promote national reconciliation. The draft TJ policy has been pending cabinet approval since 2014, and civil society is currently fighting for those policies to be approved and implemented, as promised.
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.
Uganda has sought some accountability from those most responsible for violence while simultaneously encouraging widespread disarmament of armed groups. In pursuit of these two goals it has invited prosecution from the ICC and charged alleged perpetrators in national courts. It has also passed a law granting amnesty to some insurgents in order to end hostilities.
That law, the Amnesty Act, was passed in 2000. It grants 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 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 now faces trial for 70 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including sexual slavery and forced marriage. Lukwiya and Odhiambo have been confirmed deceased, but Kony and Otti remain at large.
The Ongwen case highlights many of the complications of 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 is the first accused person to face trial at the ICC for crimes of which he was also a victim. He is also the first to be tried in an international court for forced marriage as separate from sexual slavery and other sexual violations.
ICTJ has worked since 2005 to support Uganda’s efforts to build a stable peace by securing 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.
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, healthcare 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, and produced the film “I Am Not What They Think I Am” exploring the unique challenges the women and their children face.
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 Advisory committee of the HRDP, providing technical assistance and capacity support to the UHRC and HRDP technical team. It also facilitates collaboration between the UHRC and civil society to ensure that the project reflects victims’ priorities, and that victims participate meaningfully in it.
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 voice their concerns to state actors.
Support to the International Crimes Division: The International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda was established in 2008 to investigate and prosecute international and transnational crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes genocide, terrorism, piracy and trafficking in persons. ICTJ has offered judicial training and exchanges, and provided expert advice on a range of issues including amnesty, witness protection, victim participation and outreach. Most recently, as a member of a special task force formed by the ICD and from Avocat San Frontiers, ICTJ offered technical advice to support the development of the ICD’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence.
Support to the development of the 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. ICTJ also facilitated the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders in the policy development process.
Research ICTJ has conducted research and studies on a range of topics including reparations, gender justice, truth seeking and complementarity. These studies are aimed at informing policy development processes at the national level, drawing from comparative experiences from other contexts, as well as victims’ perspectives and priorities on truth seeking and reparations.