KAMPALA, Uganda — Enacted in 2000, Uganda’s Amnesty Act has been a helpful tools over the past decade in cutting down the size of the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. It offered exemption from criminal prosecution for returning rebels, who abandoned the rebellion and handed over their arms. To date more than 26,000 rebels have received a Certificate of Amnesty, enabling them to defect without fear of prosecution and resettle in their communities with government assistance. As of this week, this is no longer an option.
The act lapsed on May 25, 2012 and was renewed for a period of 12 months, but the crucial Part II of the act—the Declaration of Amnesty—was removed, in effect limiting the function of the act to providing a mandate and funding for the Amnesty Commission to work on long term reintegration of rebels who have already been granted amnesty.
This raises serious questions about the status of rebels who are captured or lay down their arms voluntarily in the future. They will no longer be protected from prosecution and, in practice, any individual or organization—the Ugandan government included—who has been exposed to war crimes can raise a complaint and bring a rebel to court for the crimes that he or she committed during the rebellion. Part II of the act provided amnesty for any rebel that has participated in fighting against the Ugandan government. At least 23 different rebel groups are known to have fought the current government since it took power in 1986.
The removal of amnesty presents a particular delicate dilemma in relation to the LRA conflict.
Horrible crimes of rape, mutilation, and mass killings were and continue to be committed by LRA rebels. The International Criminal Court, or ICC, therefore indicted five top LRA commanders in 2005, those most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. For lower ranking LRA, amnesty has provided an important incentive to defect and helped bleed out the ranks of the LRA. Allowing amnesty for LRA rebels is a very difficult decision, since some of them are indeed responsible for crimes. But the LRA conflict is characterized by a crucial fact that bears considering when addressing accountability: the majority of LRA fighters were abducted, many at young age, and forced to commit these crimes. The distinction between victim and perpetrator is, in many cases, not clear-cut, which fundamentally challenges a strictly legal process.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Richard Butera, is reported to have said that “he would not prosecute returning rebels who were abducted, those in the low ranks and therefore they should not fear to return because of the absence of amnesty.” Whereas the Ugandan government may not intend to prosecute the abducted and low ranks—though opinions within the government on this matter certainly vary—that does not prevent others from doing so.
The Amnesty Act also established a standardized reintegration process that returnees passed through before returning to their home villages. The future of this process remains unclear.
Ex-LRA rebels who went through the amnesty process were taken to official transit centers where they remained for a few days. Then the Amnesty Commission would formally register the demobilized soldier and issue a Certificate of Amnesty, which protected the holder from prosecution and entitled him or her to resettlement support. From here the returnee was referred to one of the reception centers—like GUSCO and World Vision in northern Uganda—that would provide immediate psychosocial support and assistance to help the returnee resettle. The Amnesty Commission would also give the returnee a small resettlement package with basic household utensils, a mattress, farming tools, beans and maize seeds, and 260,000 Ugandan Shillings in cash—all with the purpose of creating a durable resettlement process.
Moses Draku, the spokesman for the Amnesty Commission, told the Enough Project: “I do not expect that we are going to register any new returnees, and we do not expect to give any resettlement packages or facilitate any contact to the reception centers. Rebels who return from the LRA will now have to go back on their own.”
Further, he explained that the future work of the commission would focus on those who have already returned, by helping them with long-term reintegration through vocational skills training in carpentry, tailoring, and bicycle repair for example. But even those projects won’t come easily, Draku admitted. “We need additional funding to scale up these types of activities. We have provided training to approximately 5,000 returnees, so we still have a long way to go. This is not something we can do within 12 months,” he said.
The Transitional Justice Working Group, established in 2008 by the Ugandan government, is doing a review of the Amnesty Act and published an issue paper last month that argued the act has “outlived its purpose” and that “amnesty in its current form cannot be sustained because it does not cater for accountability of crimes committed, either through formal or informal processes.”
The working group is currently developing a policy on transitional justice for Uganda and stated,
“Amnesty will be coupled with other mechanisms that seek to promote justice, accountability and reconciliation that is context-relevant and responsive to victims’ rights and interests.”
There’s no disputing that the Amnesty Act is insufficient by itself to heal the deep wounds caused by years of conflict. But simply removing the ‘Declaration of Amnesty’ and the return process is premature when an alternative process has not been developed. The Transitional Justice Working Group is tasked with proposing a revision of the amnesty process, including provisions for a national transitional justice mechanism. But this is likely to be a prolonged process, and there are no guarantees that the government will implement the recommendations.
The Obama administration should strongly urge Uganda to reverse policy on the Amnesty Act. With the deployment of the U.S. advisors and the African Union’s recent engagement, now is the time for the main tool to increase defections—the offer of amnesty—to be used to bolster the ‘come back home’ message to LRA fighters not indicted by the ICC.
Photo: Amnesty Act (Enough / Kasper Agger)