EMPOWERING VICTIMS

STRENGTHENING VICTIM PARTICIPATION IN UGANDA

Between 1987 and 2006, an armed conflict waged between government forces under President Museveni and rebel forces opposing the government, which tremendously affected the civilian population in the greater North region of Uganda. Mass atrocities were committed by both sides. Hundreds of thousands of persons were displaced, others killed, raped, maimed, abducted and conscripted by rebel forces.

The main rebel force of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) under Joseph Kony abducted young girls and boys to serve as wives for soldiers and combatants on a massive scale. UNICEF estimates that between 2002 and 2005, more than 12,000 children were abducted. Many of them spent many years in captivity, losing their opportunity to formal education and their connection to their families and communities. Most of the abducted girls were given to soldiers as their “wives” at a young age, many of them as young as 12 years.

In their roles as wives, they were regularly raped by their “husbands” and forced to perform household chores. Many of them gave birth to children while in captivity. Upon escape or return to their communities, these girls, now young adults, found themselves in a desolate situation. Often their parents had been killed or had died while they were in captivity; they had to support young children as single mothers; they had no means of generating income and no education to find employment; they faced stigmatization by their families and communities because they were seen as “rebels” and because they have children without a father. The overall poverty experienced by these victims contribute to their vulnerability. Children born of sexual violence also suffer from stigmatization, poverty and lack of opportunities for advancement and integration in their communities.

VICTIMS’ NEEDS

The Uganda Government has not sufficiently responded to the needs of victims. While considerable resources have been expended on humanitarian, recovery, and development programs in conflict-affected areas, the crimes committed during past conflicts by both rebels and state actors have not been accompanied by any significant measure of accountability, truth seeking, or acknowledgement by the State. The majority of victims continue to live with the effects of the war with no targeted initiatives to provide redress or specific support for victims apart from funds for development and reconstructions plans for war-affected communities in the North, and the limited reinsertion and reintegration support to those formerly associated with the LRA and other rebel groups, who reported to the Amnesty Commission.

This has contributed to poison the atmosphere in some communities with recrimination, resentment and, and stigmatization, a problem which has particularly affected children born of conflict-related sexual violence and their mothers.

The dire situation of mothers and their children born of sexual violence is one of the most pressing issues identified by the more than 320 victims and representatives of community-based organisations that attended victims’ forums organised by ESA, Redress and UVF in the Acholi, Lango and Teso sub-regions between May 2018 and May 2019. Largely, these mothers and their children have been unable to access the limited government support available for war-affected children. The few mothers who were able to access reintegration assistance through Uganda’s Amnesty Commission received the same inadequate reinsertion package as male returnees and females who returned without children. 

Some have received an amnesty under a national amnesty program without having been involved in fighting which brands them as rebels. This has fueled the perception that they are responsible for the crimes committed by the LRA. Many women are therefore not able to reintegrate into their communities. Another layer of discrimination results from their status as single mothers which Ugandan traditional society deems unacceptable. This limits their ability to find a new husband and provider for their children born in captivity. The poverty they are living in as a result of their abduction reinforces their vulnerability. The stigma extends to these children who without a father have no clan they belong to. A significant number of children suffer from a lack of identify as they are not registered and are unable to benefit from some of the basic rights to which Ugandan children are entitled. Many women raised their wish to be treated as any other Ugandan.

Without redress, the consequences of motherhood as a result of conflict-related sexual violence are amplified with time, engendering new violations, including ongoing violations of the rights of children born of sexual violence and the rights of their mothers.

Consultations with victims in northern Uganda have shown that their priorities for remedy focus primarily on truth-recovery and reparations for the harms suffered. A Transitional Justice Policy (TJP) drafted by the Justice Law and Order Sector of the government (JLOS) was released in 2013, but   stalled in debates for six years until it was approved by the Cabinet of Uganda on 17 June 2019, 13 years after the end of the war. For victims, this protracted process has only compounded their suffering.

The new TJP aims to address the gaps in the formal justice system for post-conflict situations and to formalize the use of traditional justice mechanisms in post-conflict situations. It also aims to address the gaps in the current amnesty process by facilitating reparation processes and programmes and to facilitate reconciliation and National Building.

The draft policy envisages the establishment and implementation of a reparations programme for victims affected by conflict. It also draws largely upon the provisions of the Juba Peace Agreement signed between the LRAand the Uganda Government which lays out key principles to determine the parameters and modalities to address the various forms of harm to victims of the conflict. Prompt implementation of the TJP is now of outmost priority.

CRIMINAL ACCOUNTABILITY

Progress with criminal accountability has been slow, but there have been new openings in recent years, particularly for the prosecution of LRA crimes (much less so for Ugandan army crimes). The International Criminal Court prosecution against former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly perpetrated in IDP camps has commenced in The Hague and more than 2,000 victims have been admitted so far to participate in the proceedings.  In Uganda, an International Crimes Division (ICD), a division of the High Court mandated to try persons accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes (among other crimes), opened its first trial against former LRA Thomas Kwoyelo. On 23 September 2016, the ICD issued a ruling on victim participation, allowing victims to participate in the proceedings. This is a novel process for Uganda, which does not recognize victim participation in regular criminal trials.

The Rules of Procedure of the ICD afford victims in proceedings before the ICD a wider range of rights than in criminal proceedings before ordinary courts. The opportunity for victims to participate in the ICC and ICD cases is an important opening for Ugandans to achieve a modicum of justice and to be empowered by the process. However, the large numbers of applicants and cumbersome procedures may make the process unwieldy and diminish the impact for victims. It is therefore important for victims to advocate for meaningful processes that suit their needs, and for civil society groups to assist victims to make the most of the procedures already on offer.  Already, advocacy from victims’ groups has succeeding in putting pressure on both the ICC Prosecutor and the ICD to amend indictments to incorporate sexual violence charges, which had previously not featured in the prosecution strategy. 

VICTIM PARTICIPATION IN THE TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE PROCESS IN UGANDA

Victims as well as those supporting them in Uganda have had too limited access and influence over the design and implementation of accountability measures and transitional justice process that are expected nonetheless to uphold their rights and address their needs. This has been due to:

  • Limited capacity among victims for policy analysis and advocacy
  • Lack of technical expertise among those supporting them including lawyers and advocates.
  • Lack of political will to include victims and/or limited technical knowledge on how to do it among national and international policymakers involved in the design and implementation of TJ policies and processes.

OBJECTIVES

Overall Objective of the Project

Effectiveness, legitimacy and impact of justice and accountability measures are seriously affected by the exclusion of victims from their design and proceedings. The overall goal of the joint REDRESS/ESA project is to reduce impunity for international crimes by strengthening the position of victims in justice and accountability processes in Uganda and enabling their meaningful participation in the design and implementation of transitional justice measures. The project aims to support victims of international crimes and local organizations assisting them.

SPECIFIC OBJECTIVES

Specific Objectives of the Project

  • Victims and their organisations are better informed, equipped and organised to participate meaningfully in local, national and international processes of transitional justice: Victims, victims’ organisations and community-based organisations are better positioned to defend victims’ and affected communities’ interests, work in creating and managing networks, develop and implement common advocacy strategies on victims’ rights and demands, and engage with national and international policymakers on their behalf to ensure that TJ policies and processes are based on their needs and priorities.
  • Lawyers and advocates representing victims are better skilled at advocating for their clients’ interests: Lawyers and other advocates acquire the necessary skills and technical expertise to represent and defend victims before relevant national and international courts and other TJ mechanisms, leading to better reflection of victims’ perspectives in the decisions and policies of such bodies and greater access to justice for victims and affected communities.
  • National and International policymakers and courts grant victims and affected communities the necessary space to participate meaningfully in TJ processes: Officials at the local, national and international levels have the political will to allow, enhance or oversee participation, and are trained and equipped with knowledge and information on the merits, impact and pitfalls of participation which they use in the design and implementation of TJ policies and interventions.