Uganda’s amnesty, central Africa’s hope
In the past few weeks there has been unprecedented attention around the world on the need to arrest Joseph Kony and end LRA atrocities in central Africa. However, in the coming months, one of the most important tools needed to achieve this goal – Uganda’s Amnesty Act – could be lost. The Act is set to expire in May, and prospects for its renewal are uncertain at best.
Enacted in 2000, the Amnesty Act provides amnesty from prosecution for individuals who take up arms against the Ugandan government but decide to surrender peacefully. The Act also established the Amnesty Commission, which provides small packages of reintegration support – including cash and basic farming tools – to many LRA returnees and others who accept amnesty, helping them rebuild lives disrupted by war. Over the years, the Act has received overwhelming support from civil society leaders in northern Uganda, as most LRA combatants were abducted against their will and military operations alone have never been adequate to stop the group’s attacks.
Through the use of persistent “come home” radio programming and direct outreach to LRA fighters encouraging them to surrender and accept amnesty, over 10,000 LRA members – a number 30 times the group’s current strength – defected and received amnesty between 2000 and 2008. Since 2008, hundreds more Ugandan members of the LRA have taken advantage of amnesty, helping to deplete LRA ranks and diminish their ability to attack communities in their current area of operations in Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. These defectors also provide regional governments with valuable information about where LRA groups are located, helping them anticipate what communities may be most at risk of attack.
As a UN official in Dungu recently explained to me, ongoing initiatives to encourage the defection of the Ugandan fighters and commanders that make up the core of the LRA are wholly dependent on the existence of the Amnesty Act. Without it, many LRA fighters and abductees will fear prosecution if they surrender or are caught, driving them to stay within the rebel ranks and continue attacking civilians.
However, with the LRA no longer active in Uganda, some there are questioning whether the legislation is still relevant and appropriate. Many point out that the Act grants amnesty and provides reintegration support to LRA commanders accused of terrible crimes, while victims of LRA violence often receive little or no assistance or reparations. The Ugandan government also sees the Act as an impediment to their desire to prosecute some LRA commanders accused of war crimes (including Thomas Kwoyelo and has raised the concern that the Act brings Ugandan law out of alignment with international human rights law. Some within the Ugandan government are now discussing whether the Act can be renewed with amendments that allow for the prosecution of the most senior LRA commanders, but many think it should be allowed to simply expire.
That would be a mistake. Allowing the Amnesty Act to expire would cause great concern in northern Uganda and other war-affected areas of the country, and make people who have already received amnesty uneasy about their futures. It would leave dozens of Ugandans who have escaped the LRA or other Ugandan rebel groups over the past six months in legal limbo, as dysfunction within the Amnesty Commission has prevented them from receiving their official amnesty certificates.
But most importantly, and often unrecognized in the current debates within Uganda, the end of the Amnesty Act would severely undermine current efforts to encourage Ugandan LRA fighters and commanders to peacefully surrender. The UN and others are now working to expand ongoing programs that use FM radio broadcasts and aerial leafleting to encourage fighters and abductees in LRA ranks to defect. These programs have already shown success, and hold even greater future promise with their expansion. If the Act expires, these efforts will be back at square one.
As a result, many opportunities to help LRA abductees escape and reduce the group’s capacity to attack civilians would be lost. Civilians in LRA-affected areas of central Africa would bear the worst of the consequences.