The coming weeks present an opportunity to neutralize the Lord’s Resistance Army and prevent the looming escalation of atrocities in Central Africa. The key question is whether Americans have the resolve to see it through.
In 2005, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, issued arrest warrants for five leaders of the LRA. Five years later, three remain at large and two have died without facing justice. The task of halting the LRA has fallen to a combination of national forces that has been ineffective at best and has at worst inflicted new atrocities on victims. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been multiple reports of Congolese soldiers raping the very LRA victims they were sent to protect. None of the United Nations missions in the area (Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic) are equipped to combat the LRA, and India’s recent decision to withdraw its helicopters from Congo leaves the U.N. at an even greater disadvantage.
American politics and opposition to the ICC have long prevented the U.S. from providing vital leadership in the effort to bring LRA leaders to justice. For instance, a recent bill outlawing crimes against humanity under American, rather than international law, is at pains to state that it shall not “be construed as support for ratification of, or participation by the United States in, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.” Although the United States supported diplomatic and military efforts to disarm the LRA in 2007 and 2008, our failure to fully commit to the operation allowed Kony to evade capture. This continuing leadership vacuum has proven deadly.
Since 2008, the LRA has killed at least 255 people and abducted more than 600 in the Central African Republic and Congo, according to estimates by Human Rights Watch.
In a report in August, the group noted that “nearly one-third of those kidnapped are children and many of them are forced to serve as soldiers or are used as sex slaves by the armed group’s fighters.” Some former abductees indicate that the rise in kidnappings signals that the LRA, which often forces child soldiers to slaughter their own families, is preparing to launch a fresh incursion into northern Uganda. Another scenario, recently blogged about by Enough researcher Ledio Cakaj, is that the LRA has become a survival vehicle for its leader Joseph Kony, who is now at pains to show his fighters that the LRA has a greater purpose. A lack of resources and resolve for fighting the roving militia, precisely when it is becoming more emboldened, threatens to unleash a new wave of suffering and brutality, and to further challenge the international community’s ability to prevent atrocities and end impunity.
The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which President Obama signed on May 24, has been hailed as “the most widely supported Africa-specific legislation in recent Congressional history.” It calls for the administration to propose “multilateral efforts to mitigate and eliminate the threat to civilians and regional stability posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army” within 180 days of the law’s enactment. This falls on November 20, two and a half weeks after the midterm elections, and right at the end of one of the most polarized and paralyzed Congresses in living memory.
The president must therefore submit the strategy either before the November 2 election, or during the lame duck session that will begin on November 15. In this sharply partisan atmosphere, members of Congress will seek to turn any development to their political advantage. Yet, the electoral timeline cannot be allowed to influence or weaken the policy. Having passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support, our leaders must once again put humanity before party politics. They will only do so if activists, humanitarians, and citizens of all political stripes pressure the administration to craft a robust American commitment to help disarm the LRA and bring its leaders to justice. We must demand that our entire government, regardless of party, seize the opportunity to end the purpose-less slaughter and torture of civilians in central Africa. Call the White House switchboard today at 202-456-1414.
James Bair is a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, MA. He helped establish the Victims Unit at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and has published on the rights of victims under international criminal law.