“The international community appears to be more interested in the infamous Kony and his LRA outfit than in their many victims in CAR and other countries in the region. The LRA threat will hopefully diminish and eventually disappear – with Kony and other LRA leaders brought to justice – but the victims will remain.” – Godfrey Byaruhanga, Amnesty International Central Africa Researcher in a 2012 report.
It is believed that in the coming months the numbers of those leaving the LRA will steadily increase. It is time to look at some of the challenges that come with reintegrating into society.
Recently, Invisible Children sent out an update to its subscribers with the following headline “Top LRA commander killed in combat.” Finding news sources that confirm this was an unexpectedly difficult task. However, not because it is not true, but because in large the media seems to take little interest in this recent development as our television screens focus on efforts to regain control in Mali.
A Ugandan newspaper does report on the death of Binani – according to them “Kony’s chief bodyguard.” While that sounds essentially different from “Top LRA commander”, it is clear that Binani had been at the centre of LRA structure. The source further reports that in the last 6 months, 200 women and children had been freed from the LRA. In addition, the hopes are high that the death of the commander will lead to more people leaving the LRA.
With this in mind, we want to delve a little into some aspects of the process of reintegration into society of those that had been abducted, because the story does not end when they return home…
The 2000 Amnesty Act and “Justice”
While the LRA is now mostly in the Central African Republic (CAR), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it is still worthwhile to look at Ugandan legislation, because many of the rebels have been abducted within Uganda as children.
“Amnesty” means a pardon, forgiveness, exemption or discharge from criminal prosecution or any other form of punishment by the State” – Ugandan Amnesty Act, 2000
In an effort to end the atrocities, the Ugandan government enacted Amnesty in 2000. This basically meant that any LRA rebel would be forgiven by the State, so long as they turned themselves in and renounced rebellion. The idea behind this was that if the rebels knew that they had no punishment to fear, they would return to society. So Amnesty was supposed to bring peace.
And it proved successful. This statement by the Enough Project laments that the Act has not been renewed after it expired in May 2012. Roughly 26,000 rebels from over 25 different armed groups had received the Certificate of Amnesty.
But as things usually go there is a ‘however’… Many Ugandans were not satisfied with the Amnesty Act. Grace Acan, who had talked about this matter at an event in the Liu Institute in UBC Vancouver, has denied the government’s amnesty offer. As a former LRA abductee, she finds that it is not her that needs to be granted forgiveness, but the government, for failing to protect her and many others who were then children.
The UN has also released a report on the impacts of the Amnesty Act. While recognizing a state’s sovereign right to grant amnesty, they are critical of the long-term impacts of such a policy. “Experience has shown that a culture of impunity and a legacy of past crimes that go unaddressed are likely to undermine a lasting peace.”
Reintegration into the military
After having been pardoned by the government, some former LRA members choose to become part of the army and help track down those who used to be their comrades, as the UN organization IRIN reports. This may sound like a good plan from a military perspective, but there are grave concerns with this strategy. The above article points out the negative effect this can have on LRA victims. It specifically mentions a woman that recognizes the man who raped her among those that had been pardoned.
The role of the International Criminal Court
It is not just Ugandan law that has failed to provide the justice that people seek – some regard the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as even more controversial.
The ICC has indicted 5 of the LRA’s top commanders (the first indictments ever of this organization). Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo are all on the list (Raska Lukwiya deceased in 2006). These indictments were a wake-up call to the international community and raised hopes locally that the problem could soon come to an end.
Of course things are more complicated than that…
The ICC decisions made the LRA less willing to have peace talks. It was more difficult to bring the LRA to the negotiation table, since they had little incentive to leave their hiding places. This has attracted critiques, stating that the ICC indictments would interfere with local efforts. Indeed, the ICC contradicts the Amnesty efforts of the Ugandan government. On the other hand, as we saw earlier, that system is also problematic. There is also the argument that the LRA had more than enough time to come to a peace agreement and chose not to.
While institutions struggle to find a way to bring justice, civil society fights for reconciliation.
Regardless of the justice system, those who return from the LRA or other armed groups often face other challenges or strong stigmas upon returning home. Many grassroots and civilian organizations have formed. We would like to highlight one group who we are partnering with.
The Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN)
The WAN is a local grassroots organization composed of several advocacy groups in Uganda. These women support each other in many ways: together they raise the money for their children’s school fees, they approach the government with a unified voice and they support each other with everyday challenges of post-conflict northern Uganda.
Being in a network of others that have had same or similar experiences has helped many of the women to process their time in the LRA. Many of them also face the same daily challenges – such as illiteracy, if they were abducted before receiving an education.
In the end justice remains a vague and difficult concept. The international community and the Ugandan government have been contradictory in their approaches. However, more recent developments show that joint efforts are on their way.
And as the Women’s Advocacy Network initiative (and many others) shows, there is progress. And there is hope.