As the landmark legislation, the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 (S.1067/HR 2478) waits to be signed into law by President Obama, the debate about on how to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, has intensified. The question at the heart of this argument is whether peace talks with the LRA can end the violence. Research on the ground suggests, at least for the moment, that the answer is no.
The LRA has been actively waging a campaign of violence against civilians for the last two decades. Since 2006 most LRA groups have moved away from northern Uganda – the LRA’s birth place – and relocated to South Sudan and northern Democratic Republic of the Congo. After an offensive against LRA bases in the Congo, led by the Ugandan army with support from the United States, LRA groups have also moved to the Central African Republic, or CAR, where they continue to kill and abduct.
Calls for peace talks with the LRA as the solution to the ongoing conflict ignore past lessons and the reality on the ground. Considerable effort and resources were already squandered during a nearly two year-long peace process that started in 2006 and ended when the leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, repeatedly refused to sign the Juba peace accords. If there ever was a chance for peace talks to succeed, the Juba process was it. It is highly unlikely that the Ugandan government, a key player in any potential agreement, will consider more negotiations given what happened in Juba. The other key player, Kony, has not made any overtures toward talks, as far as we know. Those calling for peace talks need to explain how the talks can occur when the relevant actors are unwilling to negotiate.
It is easy to call for peace talks as the solution to conflict. But in the case of the LRA, past negotiations have actually fuelled violence. The Juba talks allowed Kony to stall just long enough to replete the ranks of the LRA with newly abducted people. While paying lip service to the talks, Kony sent raiding parties to South Sudan, CAR, and Congo. In February 2008, in the midst of negotiations, 130 people from CAR – more than half were under 18 years old – were kidnapped and brought to Kony’s camps to be used as forced laborers and sex slaves. After December 2008, all of the abductees were forced to fight for the LRA, mostly killing Congolese civilians.
As the abduction of civilians and looting of food went on, international organizations continued to send food to the LRA as an incentive not to steal from the local population. This policy did not work. Food delivered by humanitarian and religious organizations was transported by abducted children to LRA camps where it was stored for later use. While all of the actors in Juba continued to talk peace, Kony prepared for war.
To those familiar with the LRA, it is not difficult to understand why peace talks might not yield the desired results. Kony and his men have fought for more than 20 years with little interest in the sort of material gains that peace talks can offer, something other commanders know only too well. In 2007, Kony executed his right hand man, Vincent Otti, when it emerged that Otti planned to leave the LRA and settle in northern Uganda with generous support from the Ugandan government.
Arguments for peace talks also omit the issue of the International Criminal Court, which charged Kony and two other LRA commanders with crimes against humanity. The most contentious clause during the Juba peace talks, accountability for crimes committed by the LRA, will always block a peaceful solution to the conflict. Kony refused to sign this clause, not wanting to be sent to The Hague. Even a compromise alternative – for Kony to be tried in a special division of the Ugandan courts – was also rejected by the LRA commander. Supporters of peace negotiations that might have a chance at success, should be under no illusions that impunity for LRA crimes must be part of the package offered to Kony – an issue of justice that is non-negotiable for many, not least the LRA’s most recent victims in Congo, CAR, and Sudan.
For those of us working in the field, a peaceful negotiated settlement to this conflict will always be desirable. But for the moment, talks do not offer a viable solution to the LRA menace. The bill in front of President Obama is cognizant of the difficulties in finding a viable solution, which is why it seeks to address the LRA phenomenon as a whole. The bill asks for a multilateral strategy with military, political, diplomatic, and humanitarian components in an effort to eliminate the LRA threat. Peace talks could be an option for the future – contingent on changes to the current situation on the ground – but the best strategy to ending this deadly rebel group now is found in the bill we have today.
Photo: LRA fighter (AP)