Uganda’s amnesty allowed to expire
In a troubling move, the Ugandan government opted last week not to renew the long-standing policy of providing amnesty to former rebels, creating uncertainty around the legal status for LRA fighters and abductees who surrender or are captured in combat. Debate about the Amnesty Act was recently reignited after Caesar Achellam, a former LRA commander, was taken into custody by the Ugandan army, with many calling for his prosecution given his long history and high rank within the LRA.
Uganda’s Amnesty Act was enacted in 2000 with widespread support from civil society organizations in northern Uganda, many of whom advocated for the use of alternative traditional justice processes to address crimes committed during the war. The Act granted legal pardon to all former insurgents who renounce rebellion. Over the years, it has been a critical tool in helping convince LRA fighters and abductees to escape from the group and return home, reducing the LRA’s capacity to perpetrate atrocities against civilians and helping many who were abducted by the LRA to reunite with their families and reintegrate with their communities peacefully. The Amnesty Commission, created by the Act, has issued amnesty certificates and reintegration assistance to some 13,000 former LRA rebels, including a number of high-ranking commanders.
However, in recent years, the Amnesty Act has been under review by the Ugandan government. With the LRA no longer operating in Uganda, some think the Act is no longer relevant. There are also concerns about the constitutionality of the law, as well as whether it conflicts with established international law relating to the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity and other Ugandan domestic laws. The Ugandan government’s intentions regarding the Act were further complicated by the case of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former LRA commander captured by the Ugandan military in 2009. The government has argued that Kwoyelo should not receive amnesty due to his command role in the LRA and his alleged responsibility for the killing of a number of Ugandan soldiers just before he was captured. Although Ugandan courts ruled that Kwoyelo should receive amnesty in accordance with the Amnesty Act, he remains in prison and his future, along with that of other recent defectors, remains uncertain.
While there is legitimate discussion about how to replace the Amnesty Act with laws that would allow for individuals most guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity to face justice, the Ugandan government’s last-minute decision not to renew the amnesty provision, without a great deal of consultation with local civil society groups, nonetheless complicates matters enormously. There is now no clarity regarding which members of the LRA the government would choose to prosecute if given the opportunity. This ambiguity will deter LRA abductees and fighters from escaping the group and returning home. Without a clear legal framework in place, there is also increased risk that the application of justice will be selective and biased by the political interests of the Ugandan government.
The implications of this decision are grave for those in areas of Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic currently suffering LRA violence. The impact is already beginning to show. Plans were in the works to capitalize on Caesar Achellam’s departure from the LRA by using aerial leaflet distributions and radio broadcast campaigns featuring Achellam to encourage fighters to come out of the bush. Some of those plans – which used the Amnesty Act to show that LRA who escape have nothing to fear – have now been disrupted, and with the amnesty no longer in effect, even lower-level fighters will be deterred from heeding these messages and attempting escape for fear of prosecution on their return.
This could mean a major missed opportunity to diminish the LRA’s fighting strength, and the continuation of the threat of LRA violence against communities across Central Africa. The government should reinstate the Act until an updated legal framework is prepared and in place to ensure that the majority of LRA fighters and abductees know that if they escape, they will be free to go home.
Photo credit: Marc Ellison, The Vancouver Sun