Since achieving its independence from Britain on 9 October 1962, Uganda has had a tempestuous political history marked by civil wars, dictatorship, electoral authoritarianism, ethnic tension and military incursion. Arguably, it was the British colonial administration that provided fertile ground for political instability in Uganda through its divide and rule policy, a weak state apparatus and elite polarisation, among other factors. The British mostly favoured ethnic groups in the south of the country, such as the Baganda, while side-lining those in the north, such as the Acholi. Southerners were favoured in the civil service while northerners were recruited into the army, which created inequality of opportunity between regions in Uganda and led to friction.
Upon independence, Milton Obote became prime minister and Edward Fredrick Mutesa II, the king of the Buganda kingdom at the time, became the ceremonial president. Obote took an aggressive approach to the dominance of the Baganda and used the military to strengthen his grip on power. His political opponents were detained without trial and he mostly favoured people from northern Uganda. His regime was characterised by riots, mutiny and armed attacks against the opposition as a way of governing the country. Obote was overthrown in 1971 by a military coup launched by Idi Amin.
When Idi Amin came to power, he freed all political prisoners and tried to forge national unity through the inclusion of many ethnicities in government posts. Despite that, Idi Amin soon turned to authoritarianism, outlawing parliament and banning all political parties. Many Ugandans were assassinated by the regime and many others went into exile, while disappearances became commonplace. Idi Amin’s rule from 1972 to 1979 was marked by systematic killings and torture of those suspected of opposing the government or supporting Obote. The exact number of people killed during this period is unknown, but it is estimated to be between 100,000 and 300,000. Idi Amin also expelled more than 80,000 Asian non-citizens in August 1972, which led to many having their property confiscated, being physically assaulted by the army and being killed.
Idi Amin was removed from power through a Tanzanian military operation conducted in collaboration with Ugandans in exile. Subsequently, Uganda experienced short-lived governments, including those of Milton Obote and Tito Okello. In 1986, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), under the leadership of Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, seized power through a coup. This incident led to the retreat of army officers, who were mostly Acholi, to northern Uganda and successive rebellions against the NRM government. Northern Uganda experienced a devastating internal conflict that lasted for two decades, from 1986 to 2006. The formation of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) protracted the conflict.
Northern Ugandans were subjected to serious human rights violations by government and rebel forces, including murder, torture and sexual violence. The LRA committed serious atrocities such as rape, mutilation and burning of schools, homes and villages. The group abducted more than 25,000 boys and forced them to become soldiers, while subjecting many women and girls to sexual slavery. Those who returned to their communities and families often faced rejection.
Since the 1970s, Uganda has undergone a number of transitional justice processes to address the legacies of violence.
Transitional Justice Mechanisms
Uganda’s first transitional justice mechanism was the Commission of Inquiry into the Disappearances of People in Uganda. It was established by Idi Amin in 1974 in response to a public outcry. The commission investigated around 308 cases of disappearance with the mission of discovering who had disappeared and who was responsible. It heard 529 testimonies, mostly from women, collected evidence for about a year, and produced a report of more than 800 pages. The report pointed to the culpability of the government, but the commissioners ended up attributing the violence to the “logical and natural events of the military takeover of the government in January 1971.”
While the commission did not have the power to indict or prosecute, it suggested more than 26 cases to the director of public prosecution and noted that 23 separate persons had enough evidence for prosecution. Along with these cases, the final report contained recommendations for police and security reforms, including law enforcement training on human rights. The report criticised the security forces and recommended major administrative reorganisation of the military and the police, as well as new regulations on arrests, detentions and prosecutions.
The recommendations showed some independence on the part of the commissioners, despite Idi Amin’s constant interference in their work. Nonetheless, the commission faced criticism. First, it was not successful in bringing either justice or answers to the victims or the families of the disappeared. Second, it did not consider cases that would have implicated Idi Amin or his supporters. Third, its work was kept secret throughout the process. In the end, the commission’s findings were not made public and its recommendations were ignored. Moreover, people who worked on the commission ended up experiencing discrimination and some were forced into exile or disappeared.
The commission did not name Idi Amin as culpable in the disappearances, instead blaming security forces and the manner in which they enforced the 1971 Decree, which gave them the power to search and arrest people without a warrant. The commission stated there was “no evidence where there was even the remotest suggestion that Your Excellency had directed the disappearance of any person of the annihilation of any ethnic group of persons.”
After Museveni came to power, he established the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights (CIVHR) on 16 May 1986. The commission was madated to “inquire into the cause and circumstance surrounding mass murder, arbitrary arrest, and the role of the law of enforcement agents and security forces which had occurred between 1962 to 1986.” It was originally meant to last for three years, but ended up taking eight years to complete its report. During this time, the commission collected testimony from 608 witnesses and administered questionnaires on particular incidents to thousands more. The commission held public hearings in 17 districts in Uganda during its investigations. In addition to its basic investigatory powers, the CIVHR was granted quasi-subpoena powers, which allowed it to summon suspected perpetrators. It was also supposed to have support from the Criminal Investigations Division and the director of public prosecutions, although this support never materialised.
The commission’s final report was 720 pages long and included testimony, analysis, recommendations and the names of victims. Despite this extensive work, the results were never made public. The only recommendation of the commission to be implemented was the creation of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, which began its work in 1996. The CIVHR faced a number of challenges. Its mandate to look at all violations committed over 24 years was seen as unmanageable. It was hampered by a lack of political will and support from government agencies that were meant to assist, as well as insufficient funding. Finally, the conflict with the LRA began during its tenure, leaving staff unable to travel to northern Uganda.
In its findings, the commission found evidence of widespread detention without trial. It offered recommendations such as repealing laws that permit detention without trial and human rights training for the security forces.
In 2000, the government passed the Amnesty Act to address the ongoing conflict in northern Uganda, following a sustained civil society campaign. The Amnesty Act is intended to promote peace and reconciliation by ending the conflict and providing a way to deal with the children who had been abducted and forced into combat. It grants amnesty to any person who participated in combat, collaborated with members of the rebellion, committed any crime in furtherance of the war, or assisted the prosecution of the rebellion from 26 January 1986. Reconciliation and restorative justice are presented as the main purpose of the Amnesty Act, as indicated in its preamble, which notes the “desire of the people of Uganda to end armed hostilities, reconcile with those who have caused suffering and rebuild their communities.”
The Amnesty Act created the Amnesty Commission, which is responsible for informing the public about the amnesty law, promoting dialogue and reconciliation, demobilising combatants, processing amnesty applications, and providing re-insertion support with resettlement packages and longer-term reintegration support. The resettlement packages include a lump sum of $150 and a mattress, blanket, hoe and seeds. The process has been slow, and the provision of resettlement packages even slower. It has faced challenges such as lack of information concerning amnesty, trust issues between the government and rebels, and issues of geographical distance. In line with shifts in amnesty norms, the Act was amended in 2006 to require the minister of interior to seek approval from parliament in granting an amnesty. The process received support from international organisations and donors in the form of funding and capacity building.
Domestic prosecutions in Uganda have focused on suspected perpetrators of serious violations of international law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the northern Uganda conflict. This has been effected through domestic laws such as the Ugandan Penal Code, International Criminal Court Act of 2010 and the Geneva Convention Act. In 2008, the War Crimes Division was created within the High Court in line with the Juba Peace Agreement, which provided for accountability for crimes in the northern Uganda conflict. The division was later renamed the International Crime Division (ICD) of the High Court of Uganda.
This new division was given jurisdiction to try crimes such as war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, human trafficking and piracy. It consists of a panel of five judges. Since its establishment, there have been only two cases relating to war crimes before the ICD, against Jamil Makulu and Thomas Kwoyelo. To date, the court has not issued a single decision in these cases. Critics argue that the court’s establishment was hurried, that it faces financial constraints and that it lacks a consistent bench due to turnover among the judges. They note that it has avoided prosecuting serious conflict-related crimes and as such is unnecessary and a waste of state resources. They also point out that the court does not have the power to provide reparations of victims. Proponents of the ICD argue that the division is necessary to complement the work of the International Criminal Court.
In the early 2000s, Museveni requested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate war crimes in Uganda, focusing mainly on crimes committed by Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the LRA. In 2010, Uganda passed the International Criminal Court Act, giving effect to the Rome Statute in domestic courts and allowing them to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The ICC issued five arrest warrants for the LRA leaders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Dominic Ongwen, Okot Odhiambo and Raska Lukwiya.
On 4 February 2021, the ICC issued a new decision in the case of Dominic Ongwen v Prosecutor, finding Ogwen guilty of war crimes, a crime against humanity including attacks against the civilian population, murder, attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, torture and enslavement, among other crimes. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that the ICC judgment was “a significant milestone in accountability and step forward in an effort to bring justice to the victims of LRA crimes.” However, the conviction was not welcomed in Corom village in northern Uganda, where Ongwen was born and which suffered the most because of atrocities committed by the LRA. Locals predominantly view the ICC system of accountability as foreign and, since Ongwen was forced to join the LRA, argue that the decision does not take into account Ongwen’s role as both victim and perpetrator.
Following ongoing criticism that it is overly removed from affected communities and insufficiently victim centred, the ICC expanded its outreach activities and tried to provide financial assistance and psychosocial rehabilitation through the Trust Fund for Victims. The Trust Fund suffers from a lack of thorough empirical assessment for existing and other reparations programming. It also faces negative perceptions of the ICC in northern Uganda, based on its prosecutorial measures hampering the Trust Fund’s ability to work, as well as a shortage of resources.
Traditional Justice Mechanisms
Many customary practices have been used in Uganda to resolve conflict and maintain social order. These practices vary across ethnic groups, but all share principles such as the voluntary aspect of the process, truth-seeking, acknowledgement of wrongdoing and compensation to victims.
Mato oput, or drinking the bitter root, is an Acholi traditional reconciliation process aimed at restoring the relationship and peace between a victim and a perpetrator. The process is inclusive, with every member of the community participating. It ritualises remorse as a way of dealing with past wrongs through drinking a concoction of a special bitter root and enables social pardon. Mato oput is a way of bringing offenders back into the community on the condition that the offender acknowledges and takes responsibility for his or her actions. As one commentator notes, “Mato oput is one of the best justice systems in the world because it forgives, and restores broken relationships and creates the process of healing in the hearts of those who have been wounded by violence and death.” While mato oput helps address many types of offenses, questions have been raised regarding its applicability to the serious violations perpetrated in northern Uganda.
Through court settlements, a few groups of victims in Acholi, West Nile and elsewhere have received some form of compensation for the right abuses they suffered. For instance, through associations such as the Acholi War Debt Claimants’ Association, 14,000 claimants were able to secure 2 billion Ugandan shillings from the government to compensate for livestock and agricultural losses during armed conflict. Memorials have been built as symbolic reparation, for instance the Lukodi Memorial, the National Memory and the Peace Documentation Center. However, the Ugandan government has been criticised for conflating development projects that are part of post-conflict assistance programmes—such as the Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) and National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS)—with collecative reparations in northern Uganda.
Shortcomings in reparations for victims in Uganda are a historical reality. For example, the Commission of Inquiry into Disappearance of People of 1974 recommended compensation for illegally detained prisoners, restitution of property and social services for victims’ families, but it was ignored. The Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights of 1986 also recommended reparations, without success. Decades of conflict and rights violations have left many in need of redress. Resentment among victims has been compounded by the resettlement packages provided to former combatants under the Amnesty Act. Moreover, the development of reparations programmes has been hampered by stigma regarding victimhood (especially for children born in war and women survivors of sexual violence), ongoing trials, lack of resources and mistrust of the government.
Local Truth Telling
There has been much discussion on the need for a truth commission to address the legacies of the conflict in northern Uganda, but no such commission has been established. Nevertheless, nongovernmental organisations and other stakeholders, including religious and traditional leaders, have initiated some local truth telling in the region. For example, Acholi leaders led an effort to document the testimonies of victims for archival purposes and releasing them to the public. The National Memory and Peace Documentation Center similarly documented victims’ testimonies and serves as a repository for conflict-related information.
Uganda National Transitional Justice Policy
The 2007 Juba Agreement between the government and the LRA provided for a special war crimes court, legislation to try war crimes domestically, cooperation with the ICC, a body of inquiry into the conflict, a special fund for reparations, and measures ti address the needs of women and children. Aside from International Criminal Court Act and the ICD, little has been done.
The Draft National Reconciliation Bill of 2009 was an attempt to create a National Reconciliation Forum with the mandate of investigating rights violations, granting reparations to victims, holding perpetrators accountable, recommending reforms to prevent futures abuses, and implementing national reconciliation activities. The bill was never discussed in parliament.
Finally, the government issued a National Transitional Justice Policy in 2019, which includes provisions for several transitional justice mechanisms, such as criminal prosecutions, protection for witnesses, traditional justice, truth telling and reconciliation, reparations and amnesty. Uganda is the first country in Africa to adopt a transitional justice policy following the adoption of the African Union Transitional Justice Policy. Uganda’s approach is stated to be guided by principles such as victim-centredness, vulnerability, gender equality, the best interests of the child, transparency, accountability, public participation, inclusiveness, complementarity, confidentiality, neutrality and integrity. It is still unclear what effect this policy will have on transitional justice efforts in the country going forward.
During the conflict in northern Uganda, women and girls were subjected to mutilation, including having their lips and breasts cut off, and to abduction, rape and murder by members of the LRA. The risk of abduction was particularly high for girls, some as young as 10, who were subjected to sexual slavery. This violence resulted in widespread health complications, including trauma. Many girls and women who were subjected to abduction and sexual violence face stigmatisation and marginalisation from their community and family, which has exacerbated their trauma and had lasting effects.
Women and girls also suffered at the hands of government soldiers. This threat was particularly high in the internally displaced persons camps the government set up during the conflict, where soldiers who were meant to be protecting civilians engaged in rape. Little official action has been taken to address the particular needs of women and girls following the conflict.
Children and Youth
During the northern Uganda conflict, one of the most notorious acts committed by the LRA was to abduct children. There have been significant problems with the children’s rehabilitation and reintegration into communities, as they are stigmatised. Children born in the war face similar challenges. Both groups are seen by many as proxy members of the LRA, and as symbols of misfortune and violence. In schools, the children are often segregated from others and mistreated by their teachers.
One of the most direct international actors in Uganda has been the ICC, which has conducted investigations and issued an arrest warrants in the country. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also been involved in providing funding and experts to help develop transitional justice mechanisms. The African Union Commission has been involved in a monitoring role by requesting periodic reports.
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