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

International law allows that people should be moved for their own safety or for imperative military reasons. However, this does not mean that either government or opposition forces have a free hand. The rights that people have and the protection they should receive are defined in international treaties of humanitarian law such as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts. The treaties of international human rights law that apply include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

In the context of gross human rights abuses by the LRA against unarmed civilians, Amnesty International does not believe that the creation of camps for internally displaced people, or a policy of moving people into camps by the authorities, is intrinsically a violation of international human rights or humanitarian law by the Uganda Government. However, the organization is concerned at the manner in which human rights abuses, in some areas by government forces as well as the LRA, have been a key factor in forcing people out of their homes.

Displaced people have the right to expect protection, in terms of their physical conditions of life (such as, at minimum, shelter, nutrition, sanitation and clean water), their safety and their human rights. The authorities have only partially lived up to their obligations under international humanitarian law to provide for basic physical needs. Food security in camps remains poor. Since camps were first created local people have consistently complained that the army has failed to protect them from assault by the LRA seeking to abduct children and loot food. Further, in many cases cited in this report UPDF soldiers have themselves been directly responsible for human rights violations against people in camps.

Faced by poor conditions and unimpressed by the degree of safety afforded by camps, some villagers have returned to their homes to cultivate or to forage for food. Human rights violations by government forces have taken place during military operations in the countryside, both in areas supposedly cleared of civilians and areas where villagers have remained in their homes. There have been many incidents in which unarmed civilians caught in the countryside by UPDF soldiers have been extrajudicially executed or beaten. Amnesty International believes that incidents of rape by soldiers are significantly under-reported and that this form of violation is widespread. The aim of some military activity appears to have been to force people back into camps. In some areas villagers have been indiscriminately shelled.

These are human rights violations in any situation. Further, in addition to the continuing failure to guarantee food security and safety from violence, the authorities have not demonstrated that they are taking steps to minimize displacement in Gulu District or effective steps to bring about an end to the situation that has led to displacement in the first place. This raises serious questions about whether action by the authorities to compel people to leave the countryside remains consistent with Uganda's obligations under international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, the LRA continues to raid villages to abduct children and loot food in areas where people have not moved. This includes extending operations against civilians into the neighbouring districts of Lira, Apac, Soroti (May 1998) and Kotido (December 1998).

The dynamic of human rights abuse in northern Uganda is therefore complex. This report focuses on four main sets of issues. The first, described in chapter 2, is the responsibility of both sides for internal displacement in Gulu District and the role that violence has played.