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

Furthermore, many northerners believe that central government is hostile to them [6]. There may be a general rejection by northerners of the methods of the LRA, but there is little trust for the government [7]. Most civilians that Amnesty International has spoken to doubt that either party is much concerned about the impact of war on rural people. Caught at the heart of the military strategies of both sides, villagers have little confidence that they live in a society where there is justice, either in the narrow sense of whether the mechanisms of justice work or in the wider sense of whether they live in a just society.

Increasingly the agenda of civil society in northern Uganda is to find a way forward towards peace. The churches and several non-governmental organizations are exploring different initiatives aimed at the peaceful resolution of conflict. The central government appears less whole-heartedly committed to this. In public, at least, it emphasizes that it is seeking a military solution to the war. In 1997 it sought to discredit prominent church voices for peace by accusing seven priests in the north of being "rebel collaborators". Northern members of parliament opposed to the government periodically face the same accusation.

Trying to move forward towards peace or respect for human rights requires looking back and taking into account the events of the past. If human rights abuses or their perpetrators remain hidden and unacknowledged, justice can appear forgotten and deep-seated problems can go unresolved. However, arguing over the past can itself become an obstacle to moving forward. The use of the past by government and its opponents to indulge in a round of self-justification and accusation does little to help the people of the north. One of the challenges facing Ugandans is to find a framework within which the past can be addressed as a way of opening up the future.

Finding agreement on what might constitute justice is therefore one of the hardest tasks for both the authorities and the people of northern Uganda. This is a matter for dialogue between government and the people of the north, among northerners themselves, and between northerners and wider Ugandan society.

This report is intended as a contribution to that dialogue. It is an attempt to look forward by analysing the human rights situation in the recent past with the aim of identifying issues and procedural problems that all parties seeking to resolve war need to address. In Amnesty International's view securing protection for human rights is not just a requirement in itself but also a key step towards creating the conditions for peace. In other words, the protection of human rights is not something to be left to a future period of post-war reconstruction but is an intrinsic part of securing the end of conflict.

The report deals with the period since 1996 because it is since then that the current massive dislocation of people from the countryside has taken place. However, it should be noted that there are many unresolved human rights issues from before that date that many Ugandans continue to regard as important. Some of these are described in the contextual history of the war given at the end of this introductory chapter. Amnesty International has reported on many of these incidents in previous reports.

The report is largely based on three field missions to Uganda by Amnesty International. Two teams of researchers visited Gulu and Apac in May and July 1997. In May 1998 another team visited Gulu to follow up issues explored the previous year. During each visit the organization also met organizations and individuals in Kampala. Over 200 interviews were conducted with a wide range of persons from different walks of life. In July 1998 the organization was invited to attend the Kacoke Madit, a gathering of Acholi of diverse political opinions from around the world which was held in London. This provided a further opportunity to hear diverse views about the way forward for northern Uganda and to meet both officials and exiles. Amnesty International would like to acknowledge the cooperation that it has received from many institutions and individuals of extremely varying views both inside and outside northern Uganda in researching and writing this report.

1.2 Obligations under international law