Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

March 16, 1999

Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone


Breaking the circle: protecting human rights in the northern war zone

1. Introduction

The war in northern Uganda is in its thirteenth year. The districts of Gulu and Kitgum, home of the Acholi ethnic group, have been ravaged. Approximately 400,000 people, around 50% of the population, are internally displaced. The rural economy is catastrophically reduced.

In September 1997 Amnesty International published a report on human rights abuses against children by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), one of the parties to this war. Through the testimony of former child soldiers, it described the journey through hell experienced by abducted children. It detailed the violence they are forced to visit on each other and on villagers by an armed group that attacks civilians as a standard method of operation. As that report made clear, the LRA has abducted thousands of children and adults, has unlawfully killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians, has raped thousands of women and beaten thousands of men, women and children. If it did not forcibly abduct children, the LRA would have few soldiers [1].

However, human rights abuses against children by the LRA are only part of the dynamic of war in northern Uganda. The control of the civilian population is a strategic issue for the government's Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF) as well as for the LRA [ 2]. This puts civilians of all ages at the heart of the conflict, rendering them especially vulnerable to human rights abuse by both sides.

Largely obscured by the scale of LRA violence is a pattern of human rights violations involving UPDF soldiers. Since 1996 Amnesty International has documented scores of killings, dozens of rapes and hundreds of beatings. There is a general problem of impunity for soldiers who have committed serious crimes against civilians. While many have been arrested and charged, few have been tried. The reasons for this lie in a complex series of institutional failures in the administration of justice. Amnesty International believes that the fact these have been allowed to continue is the result of failure by the political authorities at the highest level, including President Yoweri Museveni himself, to give questions of justice in northern Uganda sufficient priority.

One of the most contentious issues in northern Uganda is that of forced displacement. From the perspective of local people, being displaced from their homes is one of the most important facts in their current struggle for survival. Since 1996 the number of displaced persons has quadrupled. According to the World Food Program, at the most recent peak of displacement, in June 1998, over 320,000 persons were displaced in Gulu District, the majority in 20 official camps, one containing over 30,000 people. There are at least seven other camps in Kitgum District, where by June 1998 nearly 80,000 people had fled their homes [3]. Displaced people have also sought refuge in Gulu and Kitgum towns and other parts of Uganda.

Many people have moved to camps "spontaneously", fleeing from the LRA. Others feel that the authorities gave them no choice about leaving their farms and livelihoods. Yet others were physically forced by government soldiers. Few people are happy to be in camps, which appear to have become semi-permanent, regarding them as punitive. However, the extreme violence of the LRA poses a real dilemma. Returning to the countryside may provide more opportunities (for example, for cultivation) but may increase the risk of being killed, either by the LRA or by patrolling government soldiers.