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

The second set of issues is the protection of civilians from human rights abuses since the creation of camps. This is discussed in Chapter 3, which starts by briefly discussing physical conditions in camps. The main focus of the chapter, however, is the violation of human rights by government forces in the countryside and in camps [4]. It closes by describing attacks by the LRA on unarmed villagers in camps and villages in neighbouring districts where people have remained in their homes. One of the consequences of camps in Gulu District has been the increased vulnerability of people in other areas to abuse by the LRA.

The third issue is the treatment of alleged LRA collaborators, described in chapter 4. Although many fewer persons are currently detained without charge or trial than in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the practice still exists. Over the past three years Amnesty International has found cases of torture and ill-treatment. Furthermore, in some instances serious criminal charges have been laid on persons against whom it appears there is little or no evidence. Such charges are assumed by the authorities and the judiciary to preclude the granting of bail for set periods. This raises concern that criminal charges may be being abused as a way of temporarily detaining people.

In some of the incidents cited in these sections, the authorities have taken action to arrest soldiers alleged to have been responsible for human rights violations. The fourth set of issues is therefore the way in which the state has addressed the issue of human rights violations by UPDF soldiers. This is discussed in chapter 5. The chapter includes an analysis of the wider administration of justice in Gulu District. It identifies the avenues open to the public to bring reports of human rights violations to the attention of the authorities. It considers the ways reports are investigated and what happens once an alleged perpetrator or other alleged criminal has been arrested. Currently the system is locked in a circle of institutional failure that allows soldiers from high rank to low rank to commit human rights violations with impunity.

Since 1992 there appears to have been a general improvement in military discipline on the part of the NRA/UPDF. However, as this report demonstrates, there are still serious problems to be tackled. Few are new. Many also exist in other parts of Uganda. In the context of war in northern Uganda, however, these human rights issues come together in a concentrated and integrated manner with significant political as well as human rights consequences for ordinary people -- and for those in authority interested to improve relations between government and the people of the north.

Indeed, the war as whole has created a vicious circle of violence with human rights abuses against the civilians at its heart. Human rights abuses by each side play a role in perpetuating the conflict. This report challenges both the Uganda Government and the Lord's Resistance Army to break that circle.

1.1 Aims and methods

It is easy and perhaps inevitable for allegations and counter-allegations about which side has done what to whom to become part of the propaganda of war. Each incident is used as evidence of the evil of the enemy. The fact that the LRA has carried out many more unlawful killings than the UPDF is used by some government supporters to exonerate the state. On the other hand, some LRA supporters, especially those in exile thousands of miles from northern Uganda, claim that it is the UPDF that abducts children [5].

The aim of reporting human rights abuses is not to argue over which side has the moral high ground but to identify what is happening in order that appropriate measures to improve the situation can be introduced. Whatever the level of abuses by the LRA, under international law the government has the main legal responsibility to ensure the protection of human rights.

The main emphasis of this report, therefore, is on human rights violations by government forces. Although at present in northern Uganda the LRA is subjecting unarmed civilians to gross human rights abuses, this does not exonerate the government from addressing human rights violations by its own forces and from taking action where its duty to protect civilians has not been fully discharged.