Beyond political indifference – dealing with past wrongs in Uganda

All of Uganda needs to acknowledge their duty and responsibilities to advocate for the plight of war affected victims and advance their agenda in the national to international arena.

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By Otim Denis Barnabas

Since independence Uganda has experienced a number of violent conflicts. These conflicts have been characterized by crimes against humanity – rape, torture, disappearances and others – and human rights abuses, most notably those committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. However, Uganda has not made any deliberate attempt to respond to the wrongs and crimes of the past committed against ordinary citizens. This has created a vicious circle of impunity and atrocities not only in northern Uganda, but throughout the country.

Taking the responsibility to acknowledge that past wrongs and crimes have been committed has been one the greatest obstacles successive governments have faced. Yet historically little has been done. However, a shift is being registered in Uganda as a number of transitional justice discourses begin to emerge.

On the 26th January 2014, the President of Ugandan made an unprecedented public statement stating that the government will institute an investigation into the crimes committed by the National Resistance Army – now the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces – soldiers  in Acholi and Teso sub region, and perpetrators will be brought to justice. Some have questioned how genuine this statement is, coming 20 years after the events, but it at least provides a political space for debating and advancing the transitional justice discourse in this country.

Following the January 26th 2014 Presidential statement, a number of development projects have been initiated. No matter the methodology and the conceptualization of these development projects, they all aim at rebuilding the lives of the people affected by violent conflict in post-conflict northern Uganda. The jeopardy is that these development projects it is unclear as to if these are specific state-sponsored development projects or regular state duties and responsibilities.

The most recent project is the 20 billion Uganda shillings earmarked by the Office of the Prime Minister for cattle restocking in Northern Uganda. The restocking program has been received with a much criticism for being centrally imposed and not taking a participatory approach. To some critics it seems to be business as usual for the Office of the Prime Minister to use such projects to collect money meant for development programs. These perceptions are drawn from previous corruption scandals and the mismanagement of the Peace Recovery and Development Program fund meant for the recovery of northern Uganda.

If the Uganda National Transitional Justice Policy was in place to guide these policies, this confusion, misconception, and suspicion, may have been avoided. However the creation of this policy has been long delayed. Without this guide in place the practice and implementation of transitional justice in this country is likely to drag for some time.

Characterized by doubts, the transitional justice debate has begun to make progress in Ugandan Parliament. A recent motion put forward by Hon. Reagan Okumu on the plight of persons affected by LRA rebellion drew collective support in parliament across political divides. This was a significant move that restored hope of many affected victims. The motion recommended collective reparation, such as infrastructure development, improved access to health care, and skills training. Though this sounds interesting, much work remains to be done to get the motion through the executive and legislative parts of the Ugandan government. Buying the political will is imperative as other stakeholders focuses on the technicality and the contextualization of the matter at hand.

There is a need for a critical analysis to provide targeted responses to victim needs. Some of these targeted responses could be:

  • the need to a clear distinction between development projects and regular state responsibilities, and specific reparation programs;
  • a concerted effort to promote a bottom up approach while also taking into consideration the gender analysis of the impact of the atrocities on the victims;
  • the need for psychosocial support; and
  • provision of financial support to improve livelihoods, and physical rehabilitation of the victims.

Most importantly, all of Uganda needs to acknowledge their duty and responsibilities to advocate for the plight of war affected victims and advance their agenda in the national to international arena.

Otim Denis Barnabas works for the Refugee Law Project, a Ugandan peacebuilding organisation.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.

If you are interested to contributing to the debate on conflict and conflict transformation in Uganda, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.

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