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 first reason for impunity is the difficulty faced by those who wish to report allegations of human rights abuse. Several avenues theoretically exist. However, many can be inaccessible to victims in remote areas and some involve persons who are vulnerable to intimidation by soldiers. There is no official or community leader who is really accountable for following up reports of human rights abuse.

Although senior military and civilian officials state clearly that human rights violations by soldiers will not be tolerated, in practice many cases do not get reported and many others receive only limited follow up and investigation.

Especially in rural areas and camps villagers have severely limited options open to them when it comes to reporting human rights abuse. LRA assaults on the police mean that law enforcement officers only visit camps intermittently. It can therefore be difficult to bring a case of abuse to the attention of the police.

When the alleged violators are soldiers, the problem of who to complain to is especially acute. A local UPDF detach has very real power. Villagers, like the family of Otto who died after being tortured in February 1997 or the husband of K.A. who was raped in November 1996, may have a justifiable fear of exposing themselves to retaliation (which could include anything from physical assault to allegations that the complainants are LRA collaborators). In addition, they rely on the detach to protect them from the LRA. If an officer wants to ignore complaints against his soldiers (or if he himself is involved) there may be little that people feel they can do.

Many persons wanting to report allegations of human rights violation take the matter to their local councillor (LC), a respected elder or their parish or sub-county chief [53]. LCs, chiefs and elders (usually lLCs) may intervene directly with the commander of a local UPDF detach. Alternatively, they may report an alleged incident to the RDC, the President's representative in the district, who, depending on the nature of the allegation, is likely to take up the matter with the army. Another route is forLCs to contact the commander of the 4th Division in Gulu directly. The official way of doing this is through the UPDF's Public Relations Office (PRO).

Contacting the RDC or the PRO is, of course, dependent on being able to reach Gulu. This is not always possible, especially for people in the most isolated areas. In the town a direct approach to the police is also a way forward. Villagers and LCs who reach Gulu municipality sometimes approach NGOs working on human rights issues. In 1996, three Gulu-based NGOs were taking forward cases on behalf of alleged victims of human rights abuses as a priority activity. The Legal Aid Project, which helps villagers bring cases to court, became less active in 1996 when its leading activist was elected to parliament. Organizational difficulties within the Uganda Human Rights Activists led to their closure in 1997. At the start of 1999 this left Human Rights Focus the most active NGO. The organization writes to the authorities on behalf of victims of alleged human rights violations calling for their intervention. Some members of parliament also raise cases with the authorities on behalf of their constituents.

In the situation in northern Uganda, where stated government policy is to promote respect for human rights, making it widely known that a complaint has been made is seen by many activists and LCs as a safety measure reducing the risk of retaliation by particular units or individual soldiers. Often, therefore, LCs and elders copy complaints to as many officials as they can. This also ensures that no single official can claim that they did not receive information about an alleged incident.

However, like other civilians LCs are themselves vulnerable to abuse by soldiers. This may intimidate them from taking a case forward -- especially in remoter areas or camps where it is difficult to get word out to Gulu or Kitgum. LCs, like everyone else, rely on the detach for their protection from the LRA. In these situations the power of the soldiers is nearly absolute. Additionally, the targeting of LCs by the LRA has caused many of the former to flee to Gulu, and so they may not be accessible to people who wish to take forward complaints.