CSVR | CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF VIOLENCE AND RECONCILIATION
Introduction

Following the 1986 coup by the National Resistance Army (NRA), the group’s leader Yoweri Kaguta Museveni became president of Uganda. Museveni established the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights (CIVHR) as his first action to address 24 years of gross human rights violations inflicted on Ugandan people by past regimes. The Commission of Inquiry Act (Legal Notice No. 5 of 1986) mandated the commission to inquire into the causes and circumstances surrounding mass murder, arbitrary arrests, the role of law enforcement agents and the state security agencies, and discrimination that occurred between 1962 and 1986, specifically looking at the periods under former Presidents Milton Obote II and Idi Amin (MoJ, 1986).

The CIVHR lasted eight years, with delays in 1987 as a result of a lack of resources. The commission held public hearings in 17 Ugandan districts and was granted quasi-subpoena powers that enabled it to summon suspected perpetrators. In 1994, the commission presented a 720-page report to the president that was never made public. Because the final report was never made public, the recommendations were also not made public or therefore adequately implemented. The only recommendation that appears to have been implemented was the establishment of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) in 1996.

Without the report, the extent of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) investigated by the CIVHR is uncertain. It is only known that some of the categories of violations reported by witnesses included rape, brutal abuse and murder (Quinn, 2003).

Conflict and Prevalence of Sexual Violence

After its independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda experienced significant political and social instability from the resulting insecurity from the handover of power, which led to displacement, deaths and suffering (Feyissa, 2021). The first post-independence election of Uganda was held in 1962. The first elected government was led by Edward Muteesa II, with Milton Obote as executive prime minister. Importantly, from 1939 to 1969, Edward Muteesa II was kabaka, or king, of the Kingdom of Buganda.

In 1966, Uganda experienced its first post-independence conflict, the Buganda Crisis, also known as the Mengo Crisis and Kabaka Crisis. This involved a rivalry between Edward Muteesa II and Milton Obote, which resulted in the suspension of the Constitution and removal of the ceremonial president and vice president. In 1967 a new Constitution established Uganda as a republic and abolished all traditional kingdoms, resulting in Obote’s declaration as president of Uganda.

Obote was president from 1967 until 1971, which involved significant political repression and an assassination attempt in 1969. In 1971 Obote was overthrown in a coup led by Military General Officer Idi Amin and exiled in Tanzania. President Amin ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979 through fear, with many accounts of forced disappearance and political repression.

In 1979, Idi Amin was removed from power by a coup led by a Tanzanian military operation in collaboration with exiled Ugandan guerrillas, often referred to as ba-exilo, “returnees” or “exiles” (Kasule, 1998). Following this, Obote was re-elected in 1980 as the president. This resulted in the political dominance of northern Ugandans, particularly ethnic members of the Langi tribe, which Obote belonged (Schulz, 2021, pp. 50-51). The return of exiled Ugandan citizens brought about tension in the country, as returnees were documented to have forcibly removed people, often termed as stayees, from their property with the use of violence (Kasule, 1998).

Obote’s second presidency was marked by a civil war between 1980 to 1986, known as the Ugandan Bush War, Luwero War or Resistance War. It involved many stakeholders, particularly government forces and the Uganda National Liberation Army, against a number of armed rebel groups, including Museveni’s NRA. The Bush War is said to have begun as an insurgency in the West Nile region in 1980, led by Amin loyalists who claimed that the 1980 election was engineered. Following this war, Obote was overthrown in 1985 and replaced by General Tito Okello. However, Okello’s presidency was short-lived as he was overthrown by the coup in 1986.

After many years of guerrilla warfare, with the support of his rebel forces and the NRA, Museveni became president of Uganda in 1986. In his pursuit of a “united Uganda” that emphasised democracy, Museveni established the CIHRV that same year as a mechanism of accountability for human rights violations and to end impunity.

Parallel to this political change, there was much resistance to the NRA among army officials and elites who were forced to retreat to northern Uganda following Obote’s defeat. This resulted in an internal conflict that lasted for two decades, from 1986 to 2006/2008, between the government and rebel groups, particularly the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The conflict involved gross human rights violations, perpetrated by both the government and rebel groups, especially the LRA, including abductions, torture, rape, mutilation and sexual slavery that disproportionately impacted on women and girls. Children were also targets of abduction and slavery. This resulted in widespread sexual and reproductive health complications such as infertility and gynaecological disorders among women and girls, as well as trauma (Schulz, 2021).

Equally, sexual violations were perpetrated against men and boys, including rape, genital mutilation and castration. Men of the Acholi tribe were the most affected, as the sexual violence in Acholiland in the north is reported to have been widespread and part of a wider military operation by members of the NRA (p. 48).

The conflict between the LRA and the government was localised in the north of Uganda and rooted in ethnic tensions between the north and the south. Importantly, because there was an insurgency by many armed groups, no part of Uganda was unaffected by the violence (GSF, 2022). Tensions were related to southwest support for Museveni and the history of Acholi and Langi (north) support for Obote against Museveni.

Thus, while the CIVHR only covered the period up to 1986, the conflict continued beyond this date and much, if not most, of the CRSV occurred after 1986

Contributing Factors around Sexual Violence

Considering the persistent colonial and post-colonial violence in Uganda, local perceptions of masculinity have often been framed by militarised masculinities that define gender along a fixed female-male gender schema (Leopold, 2009). This has manifested in particular forms of violence, particularly sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that has impacted on both women and men. Much of the documented sexual violence in Uganda is focused on northern Uganda and on sexual violence that occurred concurrently with the CIHVR, with shallow reporting of sexual violence from 1962 to 1986.

Sexual violence in northern Uganda was primarily motivated by ethnic tensions between the north and south (Kramer, 2012). After Museveni’s rise to power, soldiers of the NRA led a state military operation in the north that involved rape and other acts of physical violence against the Acholi population. The NRA targeted accused rebel collaborators in retaliation for earlier crimes committed by Acholi soldiers in the Luwero triangle region, prior to Museveni’s presidency. Therefore, violations committed by the NRA are perceived to have been motivated by revenge and as punishment against the Acholi population. Hence, the sexual violence was deliberately devastating, systematic and strategic (Schulz, 2021)

During the war, from 1980 to 1986, in the Luwero triangle region, women were subjected to torture, rape, abduction, sexual slavery, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and other forms of sexual violence (Kasule, 1998; Liebling-Kalifani et al., 2007). According to heteropatriarchal norms that were driven by religious and cultural customs, the male-female schema justified the gendered subordination of woman. For example, Acholi constructions of gender and sexuality encouraged men to seek to actively penetrate women, with women as passive ‘participants’ (Schulz, 2018, p. 1111). Equally, following a rape, male victims/survivors were considered ‘feminine’ or as ‘women,’ which assumes that the act of forced sex and sexual violence is a gendered act that targets women specifically.

Women victims/survivors of sexual violence who reported rape were ostracised from society, as rape implies the loss of honour that is often associated with a woman’s virginity and femininity. They experienced stigma stemming from their inability to marry after the incident of sexual violence and, in cases where women were married, their husbands could demand a divorce. Therefore, it can be assumed that rape and sexual violence were prevalent but greatly underreported because of the consequences of the societal norms that stigmatise victims/survivors of sexual violence (Schulz, 2018).

In the early years of the war in northern Uganda, sexual violence against men was widespread, as it was part of the military strategy used by the NRA battalions, known as ‘gungu-battalions.’ Rape of Acholi men was called the ‘tek-gungu,’ or ‘bend over forcefully,’ tactic locally (p. 1109). This sexual violence included anal rape, sexual torture, genital beatings, castration, sexual humiliation and forcing men to commit rape against each other or female relatives. It was designed to degrade, humiliate and delegitimate the identity of Acholi manhood against the backdrop of patriarchal perceptions of masculinity.

Importantly, in the early years of the conflict between the LRA and the government, sexual violence was primarily inflicted by the government on civilians. The LRA later engaged in campaigns with large-scale abductions, displacement, rape, forced marriages, forced pregnancies, sexual torture and sexual slavery, with the supposed religious and cultural motivations of ‘cleansing’ the Acholi population (Liebling-Kalifani et al., 2007; Schulz, 2018).

Transition and Establishment of the Truth Commission

As part of his presidential campaign, Museveni outlined a 10-point programme framed by the goals of democracy, security, national unity, independence, restoration and rehabilitation of social services, end to corruption and misuse of power, solutions for displaced people, pan-African cooperation, and the pursuit of a mixed economy of the informal and formal sector. Subsequently, he said he wanted to establish the CIVHR to address the crimes committed by his predecessors and to usher in a new era of respect for human rights and democracy in Uganda (Quinn, 2004; Acirokop, 2012).

In 1986, there were up to 200 registered civil society organisations. Many worked towards the promotion of democratic values and legal reform. Under Amin, organisations were forced to hide; however, the Church was significant in fighting against Amin’s authoritarianism and human rights violations. The civil war saw the mushrooming of informal groups known as resistance councils, which mobilised against Obote’s regime and went on to fight against human rights violations. Their focus often did not include SGBV, however, but rather education and health (Mugisha et al., 2020). Most organisations and other locals were sceptical about the commission and its operations, as it was created as part of Museveni’s political agenda (Quinn, 2003, p. 7).

International actors supported the creation of the CIVHR. The Ford Foundation donated $93,000 to the commission, which assisted with the initial public hearings. The Swedish International Development Agency contributed $90,000 to the commission for office supplies. The Danish International Development Agency provided equipment and expertise, including $363,000 that went towards the completion of the work of the commission. Additional donors included Germany, Australia and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. Despite this, the commission struggled for resources, particularly financing, which resulted in the stalling of its operations in 1987 (Hayner, 1994; Pathak, 2017).

Mandate and Scope in Respect of CRSV

The Commission of Inquiry Act stipulated that the commission was to inquire into all aspects of violations of human rights, breaches of the rule of law and excessive abuses of power committed against persons in Uganda by the government between 9 October 1962 and 25 January 1986. It authorised the commission to investigate several wide-ranging categories of violations: mass murder; arbitrary arrest; detention and imprisonment; unfair trials; torture; crimes of law enforcement agents; the displacement, expulsion or disappearance of Ugandans; discriminatory treatment; the denial of any human right; the protection of anyone who perpetrated such crimes; and anything else the commission could claim under a human right violation (Quinn, 2003).

Human rights violations were defined by the provisions of the Constitution of Uganda and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration includes protections against discrimination based on sex, as well as protections of all individuals’ fundamental freedoms and rights. The mandate did not explicitly mention SGBV, let alone the investigation of CRSV. However, while general, some of the criteria of human rights violations included were broad enough to potentially cover CRSV cases:

  • The subjection of any person to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment;
  • The subjection of any person to discriminatory treatment by virtue of race, tribe, place of origin, political opinion, creed or sex, by any person acting under any written law or in the performance of the functions of any public office or public authority; and
  • The denial to any person of any other fundamental freedoms and rights prescribed under Charter III of the Constitution of Uganda or the unlawful interference with the enjoyment by any person in Uganda of the said freedoms and rights
Truth Commission Operations

The CIVHR was established on 13 June 1986. With the commission coming to fruition three months after Museveni was sworn into office, the selection of commissioners was rushed. Six commissioners were appointed, including one woman, Joan Kakwenzire, who became commissioner only after it began. She was chosen as an academic and women’s rights advocate after she petitioned the government for adequate women’s representation in the commission (Quinn, 2003, p. 7). José Zalaquett was brought in as a consultant and international expert to provide technical support to the commission

The commission collected testimonies and held public hearings for willing participants in 17 districts. It was given the authority to subpoena witnesses. Between 11 December 1986 and 17 April 1993, 608 witnesses testified before the commission. The CIVHR presented its 720-page final report to Museveni in June 1994.

Significantly, scepticism about the ‘truth’ plagued the commission. Evidence went missing during the process of the commission, including report files and audio and video recordings (p. 10). This threatened the legitimacy of the commission’s findings as well as its impartiality.

Truth Commission Final Report

Similar to the final report of the 1974 Commission of Inquiry into the Disappearance of Ugandans, the CIVHR final report was never made public. There was very limited distribution of the report. For example, pamphlets containing a summary of the report’s findings and recommendations were printed to be distributed to the general public, but they were left in a storeroom instead. The report documents gross atrocities, such as rape, murder, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and other human rights violations.

Towards the end of the commission’s proceedings, interest in the inquiry had subsided, with the government offering very limited support. The commission’s lack of visibility is due to lack of funding, capacity and time, as well as to weak political will. The Museveni-led government’s support was limited to the commission’s willingness to exclude its involvement in human rights violations and targeting of rebels and the political opposition. Additionally, the government’s agenda was based on appealing to international funders rather than truth-seeking and redress of past human rights violations (Quinn, 2003).

Truth Commission Recommendations

Little is known about the exact recommendations in the final report. The CIVHR did recommend the establishment of a new Constitution to provide protections against human rights violations and the creation of an independent human rights commission. It recommended the ratification of international human rights treaties and reform of the security forces and the Ugandan police service. Additionally, the final report included recommendations for the repeal of laws that allowed for detention without trial; human rights education in schools and training programmes for the army and security forces; constitutional guarantees; and the prosecution of those guilty for human rights violations (Acirokop, 2012).

Implementation of Truth Commission Recommendations

The creation of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) was one of the only recommendations implemented as a direct result of the commission’s proceedings. It is meant to serve as a permanent human rights monitoring body. However, the UHRC was not given the authority to examine any human rights violations prior to its formation in 1996 (Quinn, 2003).

Following the end of the CIVHR in 1994, a new Constitution was created that included a section on human rights. The Ugandan government has ratified many international treaties and the police force was reviewed, although this did not result in any real disciplinary action or accountability system (p. 21).

The CIVHR is considered a failure, both locally and internationally, as it failed to publish its report and to contribute to justice in the transition. The commission experienced a number of challenges, particularly identifying the actors, both victims/survivors and perpetrators, involved in gross human rights violations due to a lack of evidence and the expansive timeframe of 24 years spanning many different regimes (Acirokop, 2012). Given lack of political will and necessary resources, the commission failed to meet the expectations of most Ugandans.

References

Acirokop, P. 2012. “A Truth Commission for Uganda? Opportunities and Challenges.” African Human Rights Law Journal, 12(2): 417-447.

Feyissa, T.K. 2021. “Uganda Conflict Insights.” Africa Portal. https://www.africaportal.org/publications/uganda-conflict-insights/

Hayner, P.B. 1994. “Fifteen Truth Commissions – 1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study.” Human Rights Quarterly, 16(4): 597-655.

Kasule, S. 1998. “Popular Performance and the Construction of Social Reality in Post-Amin Uganda.” Journal of Popular Culture, 32(2): 39-58.

Kramer, S. 2012. “Forced Marriage and the Absence of Gang Rape: Explaining Sexual Violence by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.” Journal of Politics and Society, 23(1): 11-49

Leopold, M. 2009. “Sex, Violence and History in the Lives of Idi Amin: Postcolonial Masculinity as Masquerade.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 45(3): 321-330.

Liebling-Kalifani, H., Marshell, A., Ojiambo-Ochieng, R., & Kakenbo, N.M. 2007. “Experiences of Women War-Torture Survivors in Uganda: Implications for Health and Human Rights.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 8(4): 1-17.

Mugisha, M., Kiranda, Y., & Mbate, M. 2020. “Reality Check: Civil Society in Uganda,” 11th ed. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Centre for Development Alternatives.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ). 1986. Uganda: Legal Notice Creating the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/resources/collections/commissions/Uganda86-Charter.pdf

Pathak, B. 2019. “Generations of Transitional Justice in the World.” Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 6(7): 18-83

Quinn, J.R. 2003. The Politics of Acknowledgement: An Analysis of Uganda’s Truth Commission. McMaster University.

Quinn, J.R. 2004. “Constraints: The Un-Doing of the Ugandan Truth Commission.” Human Rights Quarterly, 26(1): 401-427.

Schulz, P. 2018. “Displacement from Gendered Personhood: Sexual Violence and Masculinities in Northern Uganda.” International Affairs, 94(5): 1101-1119.

Schulz, P. 2021. Male Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence: Perspectives from Northern Uganda. University of California Press.


Lesego Sekhu
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Lesego Sekhu is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.